Lutfur Rahman, the extremist-linked mayor of Tower Hamlets, narrowly won re-election last night – by 52 per cent to 48 after second preferences – with the help of a repertoire of tactics for which the borough has become notorious.
Promises of a police presence at every polling station were not kept, at least for the whole of the day, and even where police were present they were often ineffectual. Large and intimidating groups of Rahman supporters picketed the entrances to many polling stations, remonstrating with some voters who refused to take Rahman leaflets. Other non-Rahman voters may well have decided not to run the gauntlet.
Some polling stations were moved to new, unfamiliar, and harder-to-reach locations. One, in the not very pro-Rahman territory of Canary Wharf, was placed on a traffic island, at the bottom of a ramp, in the middle of a busy four-lane road!
Some dramatic and highly unexpected changes in vote share took place in wards which Rahman’s Labour opponents had thought completely safe for them. I will be looking more closely at some of these numbers in the days ahead.
Above all, of course, Rahman has been working for literally years to buy votes with council money. Including his personal weekly newspaper, East End Life, and countless items of direct mail, he has sent out millions of copies of what is essentially campaign literature at public expense. He paid tens of thousands in council funds to the Bengali media, which in return gives him fawning coverage. He has passed gigantic sums to his political and religious allies for often ill-defined projects, while cutting grants to many established, secular and non-Muslim organisations. Power gave him formidable advantages. (For a summary of the case against Rahman, see here.)
But the fact that Labour did come pretty close – within 3,250 votes on the final tally – shows that, despite all that, this was an election they could probably have won. Instead, they chose to lose it.
Just as the national party failed to take the fight to Ukip, so Labour in Tower Hamlets failed to take the fight to Rahman’s equally chauvinistic, populist and cynical Bangladeshi version. They fought the election almost entirely on conventional local-government issues. When they talked about “cleaning up Tower Hamlets” they meant collecting more rubbish bags from the streets.
But Tower Hamlets’ refuse collection is no different than that of many other councils (except, of course, for the large pictures of Mayor Rahman carried on the sides of the dustcarts). Council services are not what is wrong with the borough and were never going to be a strong enough issue to defeat Rahman’s vast bloc vote.
As with Ukip, the only attack that could have worked was the direct one – on Rahman’s nastiness, on his indulgent car, office and taxi expenses, on his troubling links with extremists and bigots and on his blatant and unashamed favouritism towards only one of Tower Hamlets’ diverse skin colours. This is a man who has evidenced little more than token interest in anyone who is not Bangladeshi. This is a man whose council is under two separate investigations for corruption and misuse of funds.
Yet we heard scarcely a word about that gigantic open goal from Labour’s candidate, John Biggs – he seemed scared to mention it. Rahman, like Ukip, talked directly to his core voters in language they understood – though he had literally nothing to say to anyone else. Biggs, like Ed Miliband, talked in cautious, over-calculated political-speak that didn’t really get the point across.
Biggs’s devastating rapier thrust on the grants investigation was: “The council should be about providing services to people without favour. I think [Rahman’s] got a case to answer.” He even tried to make friends with the IFE, Rahman’s extremist ally, pooh-poohing its absolutely clear Islamist agenda and soft-soaping it as “a forum where people can share ideas and understand the relationship between their faith and their role in society.”
But as the result last night shows, the forces supporting Rahman chose their side long ago and were never going to be won over by clumsy appeals of this sort. They could, however, have been outnumbered and out-organised. Only 32 per cent of Tower Hamlets is Bangladeshi. Not all Bangladeshis, and hardly any non-Bangladeshis, support Rahman. Labour knew that the key to victory was getting the 68 per cent, plus the non-Rahman Bangladeshis, to turn out in numbers approaching the Rahman crowd. The party did raise turnout, greatly. But it didn’t have a strong enough message to raise it by enough.
Labour may have calculated – or over-calculated – that direct attacks on Rahman would have allowed him to play the victim and race cards. But he did that anyway, and always was going to. The fact is that Labour, too, had a race card to play. It is a party which represents and draws support from all races. Rahman, by contrast, is a perpetrator, not a victim, of racial favouritism.
One of the most disturbing aspects of last night was that, in the council elections happening alongside the mayoralty, the Rahman camp appears to have organised heavily against white Labour councillors but not against (most) Bangladeshi Labour councillors. People who have seen the councillor ballot papers say there is an unusual amount of split-ticket voting, with Bangladeshi councillors of both Labour and Rahman’s Tower Hamlets First party doing far better in several wards than white Labour councillors (and the handful of white Tower Hamlets First candidates) in the same wards.
It seems likely, when the council results are announced today, that the council will become even more Bangladeshi-dominated than it already is. As we have noted, only 32 per cent of the population of Tower Hamlets is Bangladeshi. But even in the old council, 60 per cent of councillors were. That could rise even further, to 70 or 75 per cent, today.
Round One, the election, has been won by Rahman. Now comes Round Two, the Government investigation, due to report by the end of next month. The narrowness of Rahman’s victory helps here, making it less difficult for ministers, if sufficient evidence is found, to remove him. But it would have been far better if it had been done last night.
PS: The Guardian’s London blogger, Dave Hill, polished his reputation as the capital’s sharpest political brain when he tweeted, within about ten minutes of the polls closing: “Think it’s true and now OK for me to say that Labour confident of Mayoral triumph in Tower Hamlets, possibly by a good margin.” Dave has annoyed plenty of people in Labour with his credulous coverage of Rahman – I do hope no one was trying to make him look silly.