Around Britain, Labour Party

The remarkable comeback of Lutfur Rahman

A Tower Hamlets activist reports on an extraordinary election result.

Barely a year ago Tower Hamlets residents voted to keep the role of a directly elected mayor in a governance referendum held on Thursday 6th May 2021. Labour campaigned for abolition of the executive mayor but the electorate voted for the current system of governance at Tower Hamlets Council by 63,029 votes to 17,951. The turnout was 41.79%. The local Labour hierarchy were shocked at the result. The scene was set for Lutfur Rahman to challenge the Labour incumbent John Biggs.

Lutfur Rahman, who had been banned from standing for public office for five years following a notorious electoral court decision in 2015, announced his bid for election in February and had already established a new political party, Aspire, to help achieve this aim.

The election campaign was fierce, but at street level Aspire were numerically superior and better organised than Labour. In addition many Labour councillors had decided not to stand or were not selected as candidates, there were no left candidates. As is usual in Tower Hamlets Labour, stories of selection stitch ups and dirty dealing began to circulate. Labour’s campaign was lacklustre. John Biggs, the incumbent mayor who wanted to abolish the position of executive mayor suddenly rediscovered his love of the position – hypocrisy is never a good look. Neither did it help that Mayor Biggs had overseen a regime of cuts with youth clubs, nurseries and community groups defunded. Biggs even resorted to a fire and rehire policy against staff during the pandemic.

On polling day it was clear that Aspire had the activist base to damage Labour. Aspire scoured the estates to get out the vote. With such a significant activist base it was clear that turnout would be key. Turnout was a respectable 41.92%. The first round results put Lutfur Rahman on 39,533 votes to 27,894 for John Biggs, a margin of 11,639, just short of a round one majority. Following the distribution of second preference votes, Lutfur Rahman’s total reached 40,804 to John Biggs’ 33,487. Whatever way you look at it, it is a remarkable comeback for Lutfur Rahman and a shock defeat for Labour. Labour tried to make the election all about the past, it was a fatal error but also totally unsurprising.

But before the shock result could fully sink in it was time to count the ward votes. Would Labour be able to hold on to its council chamber majority, after all they held 40 of the 45 seats? Well, the shocking answer was no. Labour lost 21 councillors, ending up with just 19. Rabina Khan, erstwhile colleague of Lutfur Rahman but standing for the Liberal Democrats, lost her seat (and came a distant third in the race to be mayor). A Tory, who was standing as an independent also lost their seat with Aspire winning 24 seats (and coming a close second in many others), an overall majority meaning that Aspire now have complete control of the Council. The election also saw the Greens win their first ever council seat in the borough while the Tories narrowly retained their only seat. Following the count Lutfur Rahman said: “The people of the borough gave a verdict today. I was in the court of the people. And they said in a loud voice, they wanted Lutfur Rahman and his team to serve them for the next four years and that’s what I want to do.”

Undoubtedly, Labour are in deep shock and desperately trying to comprehend the magnitude of their Tower Hamlets defeat. Now that John Biggs is retiring from political office there will be a vacuum in Labour politics and as is usual in Tower Hamlets Labour any realignment will be messy, vicious and unlikely to be concluded soon.

As Keir and the Stammeroids review the local election results, progress in London doesn’t look so good now as it did at first. Yes, Labour won Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster, but it lost Croydon, Harrow and Tower Hamlets. Well, at least it takes his mind off Beergate.

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