Behind Aspire’s Tower Hamlets triumph

The stand-out development in the May elections was Lutfur Rahman’s victory as an Aspire party candidate in Tower Hamlets’ mayoral contest, unseating the right-wing Labour incumbent. Aspire also won a council majority, with 24 seats to Labour’s 19.
In April 2015 Lutfur Rahman was unjustly removed as mayor by an election court hearing – and debarred from standing for office for five years – as the establishment parties ganged up against him. Council spending had fallen by £172 million during Lutfur Rahman’s 2010-2015 administration as it faced a central government squeeze, but Rahman, and his then Tower Hamlets First party, were still not trusted to uncomplainingly deliver by the Con-Dem coalition or New Labour.
Seven years later the same establishment parties still rule in Westminster and they won’t give Lutfur Rahman, or the new council, an easy ride now. What role Aspire can play in the fight for a new, mass national vehicle for working class political representation is a discussion that the Socialist Party will fully engage with in the period ahead.
Here we reprint as background analysis an article by HUGO PIERRE, first published in the June 2015 edition of Socialism Today, No.189, which examines the lessons of Lutfur Rahman’s previous mayoralty and the campaign against him.

The removal from office of the elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, by an election court and the imposition of commissioners to run some council functions, is an indication of how high the stakes are now for the British ruling class in pushing through their anti-working class austerity agenda. It is a warning of how far they will go to defend their system even against a weak opposition. The establishment used the media in the form of the BBC, government-appointed commissioners, and finally the election court, in a three-pronged attack to unseat a mayor who they could not be certain would represent the interests of capitalism in an area that contains the extremely important financial district of Canary Wharf.

Nothing reveals the real hypocrisy of the situation more clearly than the role of the allegedly ‘independent auditors’, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). They were appointed by the then Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, to investigate allegations of corruption against Rahman made in a BBC Panorama programme in 2014. Meanwhile, another arm of the same company was promoting tax arrangements which, according to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee chair, Margaret Hodge, had “all the characteristics of a mass-marketed tax avoidance scheme”. (Guardian, 6 February 2015)

The immediate concern was not a fear of Lutfur Rahman personally but the possibility of how, as a mayor who had won his position in conflict with the establishment parties, he could be pressured to act in the interests of the working class and poor in the borough. Rahman himself, as he repeated in the election court on many occasions, had hopes that he would be readmitted into the Labour Party, from which he was expelled in 2010. This extended to vetoing any potential candidate standing for Tower Hamlets First [then the mayor’s registered political party] in the 2015 general election and giving his support to Jim Fitzpatrick, the sitting Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse. Even after his removal from office, although some Tower Hamlets First councillors actively supported the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidates in the borough’s two parliamentary constituencies, Rahman never publicly changed his position.

Many on the left have given unconditional support to Lutfur Rahman and Tower Hamlets First, believing them to be a ‘left of Labour’ formation. But Rahman, despite at one stage saying that George Lansbury, a rebel Poplar Labour councillor from the 1920s, was one of his favourite politicians, made clear in a Guardian interview that “I support mobility and capitalism. But it must be managed capitalism, a managed market economy that benefits local people”. (3 May, 2014)

The lefts’ uncritical cheerleading extended to condemning TUSC for standing in the 2014 council elections and calling for TUSC not to stand in the general election should Tower Hamlets First stand candidates – something the Socialist Party argued against. Instead, through the TUSC national steering committee, the Socialist Party attempted to open discussions with Tower Hamlets First to see if it would become a genuine partner in the battle against austerity.

Nevertheless, Lutfur Rahman was not a safe pair of hands for the establishment, in a borough with a rich history of workers’ struggle and which is still among the five poorest in the country. A glimpse of how he could respond to pressure was demonstrated when, just before his removal from office, he backed down in the face of a vigorous campaign by local parents and service users against the closure of four nurseries and some mental health services for older people.

Racism in Tower Hamlets

It is against this background that the election court, egged on by all the establishment parties but especially Labour, delivered its guilty verdict. The court judge, Richard Mawrey QC, drew conclusions in an entirely empirical manner, taking as gospel evidence from PwC and the BBC. He also relied on third-hand (hearsay) evidence, on certain issues of electoral malpractice for example.

When considering the charge against Lutfur Rahman that he made ‘false statements’ in order to portray his Labour opponent in the 2014 mayoral election, John Biggs, as a racist, Mawrey cynically roots through the history of 1990s Tower Hamlets to back up his assertions. Referring to the period from 1993-94, when the far-right British National Party (BNP) had a councillor (Derek Beackon) in the borough, Mawrey states that, because Biggs was the leader of the council Labour group at the time, “he was entitled to the credit for mustering the electoral forces to unseat Beackon [in May 1994] and to keep the far-right off the council from that day to this. In view of later attempts to brand Mr Biggs a racist, it is significant that back in 1994 he was seen as the spearhead of the anti-racist movement in the borough”. (Paragraph 192 of the court judgment) This is a fanciful depiction of events.

The Labour Party had already started its transformation into an openly capitalist party at that stage. In fact, the seeds of Beackon’s by-election victory in 1993 had been set in the early 1990s, particularly with the expulsion of Militant supporters from the Labour Party for building a mass anti-poll tax movement in the borough (see Looking Back at the BNP’s Isle of Dogs Breakthrough, by Clive Heemskerk, in Socialism Today No.171, September 2013). It was in this transformation of Labour into New Labour that Biggs was a ‘spearhead’, not in the mass movement that erupted against Beackon’s victory and which led to the subsequent defeat of the BNP.

The judge goes on to dismiss the attempts of workers in Tower Hamlets to mobilise against the threat of the far-right racist thugs of the English Defence League (EDL) (paras 259-262). He summarises: “Truly, in Tower Hamlets, if the EDL did not exist, like Voltaire’s God, it would be necessary to invent it”! Mawrey appears to recognise ‘racism’ only when it accords to the definition of overt racism given in the Oxford English Dictionary (which he quotes in para 380). He chooses not to understand the subtle use of language and the social and political processes that can convey a racist message.

Mawrey rules that Rahman’s campaign leading up to the 2014 mayoral election had broken the electoral law preventing a candidate from knowingly making false statements about another candidate’s conduct or character. Yet even he has to acknowledge that it was the Labour Party that started the episode, with a press release entitled ‘Mayor Targets Decent Homes Funding to his Supporters’ (para 385). He also cannot ignore Biggs’ statement to the BBC Sunday Politics programme in 2013 that “all his [Rahman’s] councillors are from the Bangladeshi community and the primary focus of his policy making has been on the Bangladeshi community” (para 394).

Rather than drawing the conclusion that – unable to offer a fighting alternative to all sections of the working class in the borough – Biggs was seeking to build a political base by playing one group off against another, Mawrey agrees with Biggs’ statement. He particularly bases his conclusion on this point on the fact that PwC had declared that a tiny fraction of the Tower Hamlets budget, the mainstream grants budget to third sector organisations – not the Decent Homes programme – had been spent mainly on ‘Bangladeshi’ organisations (para 395).

Whether Biggs is a racist or not was never properly tested by the judge. There have been many politicians in Tower Hamlets prior to Biggs who have played the divide-and-rule card. This goes back to the right-wing Labour-turned-Liberal Focus councillors, such as John Snooks in the late 1970s and 1980s, and certainly the Liberal-controlled council of 1986-1994. There was never a ‘smoking gun’ but even the national Liberal Democrats had to suspend and disqualify members of their Tower Hamlets group for using divisive policies focused around race. The common usage was always ‘they are getting more than us’, whether it was housing, employment or any other resources that were in scarce supply.

The aim of Biggs’ statement was to try and draw behind the Labour Party all those non-Bangladeshi working-class tenants who face overcrowding or poor housing conditions. The Labour Party was deliberately using the old language that ‘they are getting more than us’. However, although the judgment admits that, if anything, it was political not racial favouritism that was involved – “even within the Bangladeshi community grants were targeted at the wards where support for Mr Rahman and his candidates were strongest while wards where their chances of success were slim lost out” (para 484) – Mawrey goes along with Biggs’ attack. And however cuts are administered they are divisive so, unfortunately, Lutfur Rahman left himself open to such an attack.

A clear anti-cuts stand needed

In reality, the blame for the whole saga lies at the door of New Labour and its pro-capitalist policies, clamping down on internal democracy and abandoning the working class as the vehicle for change. It was also a consequence of the US-style ‘executive mayor’ model of local government pushed by the Blair and Brown governments. The Socialist Party did not support the campaign for an executive mayor to run Tower Hamlets and opposed it in the May 2010 referendum that established the position. Lutfur Rahman as mayor – in 2010 in a party of one – held the decision-making powers in his hands. But even the PwC report concedes that he did no more than reserve “to himself substantially all of the decision making powers which it is legally possible for an executive mayor to exercise” (para 247). However, having won the mayoral election in October 2010, Rahman could have placed himself squarely on the side of the working class and the poor in Tower Hamlets.

But how could such a movement have been built when Rahman was surrounded by hostile councillors? Initially, eight councillors were expelled from the Labour Party along with Rahman. That would still have placed him in a minority administration. But Rahman could have made an open appeal to the local trade unions, especially the local government unions such as Unison and the National Union of Teachers (NUT), to call a borough-wide conference of workers and community organisations, especially tenants and youth organisations, and to the wider trade union movement nationally, to support an anti-cuts stand.

When he took office in October 2010 the first Con-Dem emergency budget had already been introduced and the council was facing the opening salvo in the battle against £90 million cuts. Trade unions across the country were gearing up for a struggle to defend jobs, services and workers’ pay and conditions. Locally, an anti-cuts campaign was launched – Tower Hamlets Hands Off Our Public Services (Tower Hamlets HOOPS).

At any stage, Rahman could have become a focal point against austerity. Unfortunately, the trade unions leaders, including the main organisers of Tower Hamlets HOOPS, chose to ‘enter a dialogue’ with the mayor rather than placing demands on him to play a leading role against austerity. There was mass support for action, revealed by the student movement that erupted at the end of that year. The March 2011 TUC demonstration of 750,000 against austerity was followed in May by joint action against redundancies by Tower Hamlets NUT and Unison branches. However, after a well-supported one-day strike, they settled for no compulsory redundancies rather than a fight for every job.

A class appeal

There was a mood among the leadership of the local campaign that a national movement, or at the very least a regional movement, was required to beat the cuts. That was undoubtedly true. But at that stage even one council making a defiant stand could have had an enormous impact on the anti-cuts movement. Crucially for Rahman, he would have widened his appeal across the borough. The election court judgment is based on the PwC case that Rahman made decisions to concentrate funding to voluntary organisations mainly serving the Bangladeshi community. It was this that the judge found to be ‘bribery’.

Based purely on ethnicity, the Bangladeshi and Somali populations are the poorest in the borough. Mawrey is forced to admit that ‘the beneficiaries’ of the disputed council-funded lunch clubs, for example, “tended to be older and less well-off members of the Bangladeshi community” (para 492). However, there are many wards in the borough, particularly in Poplar and some of the council estates on the Isle of Dogs, with similar poverty levels. These are more ethnically mixed areas and PwC were able to paint a picture of grant funding not reaching these areas. In reality, grant funding is less than 2% of the total council spend of £1.2 billion.

What was worse for Rahman was that Labour opportunistically used the cuts to council services to portray itself as the anti-cuts party. It visibly opposed the cuts to the Rushmead One-Stop Shop and the Tower Hamlets Law Centre. Yet it never claimed it would not make cuts but, instead, that there were ‘back-office savings’ that should be made first. The trade union leaders rightly supported anti-cuts protests but never criticised the local Labour Party for promising Labour cuts instead!

Had Rahman developed a clear political strategy he would not have been pushed into this position. His mistaken strategy of expecting Labour to woo him back – just as his supporter, Ken Livingstone, had been reinstated into Labour by Tony Blair after the 2000 London mayoral race – forced him to make decisions outside of the formal council process. Instead, a bold anti-cuts strategy would have laid bare the posturing of the establishment parties. He could also confidently have made decisions in the open, forcing the pro-cuts politicians to oppose him in front of a borough-wide anti-austerity movement.

The Socialist Party has supported some of the stands made by the mayor, such as his opposition to charges for elderly care and resisting the abolition of education maintenance allowances for 16-18 year-olds – a local replacement was introduced – the maintenance of council tax benefit, and his refusal to evict those unable to pay the bedroom tax. Tower Hamlets has also blocked the use of contractors who blacklisted trade unionists. But the working class faces enormous pressures. As in most of London, a key question is housing. There are over 20,000 on the housing list, of which 8,000 are in urgent need of rehousing. Rahman’s record on this issue is illustrative of the limitations of his approach.

Instead of a council house-building programme Rahman relied on the private sector to build ‘affordable housing’ through redevelopment schemes. His council allowed areas of the borough, including those owned by housing associations, to decant council tenants so that private developments could be built. This fuelled the demand for private housing and the sky-high rents commanded by profit-hungry landlords. Rather than adopting a bold socialist programme to inspire workers and youth in the borough, Rahman has fallen foul of trying to ‘manage’ the capitalist market, with all the consequences for him that have ensued.

Tower Hamlets First and TUSC

The courts do not act in an even-handed manner when they smell the potential for revolt, unless they are forced to make concessions to head off that revolt. The Poplar councillors in the 1920s, who fought under the slogan of ‘Better to Break the Law than Break the Poor’, were jailed for their refusal to levy a rate that would break the working class in a period of recession. They were finally released because of the mass campaign in Poplar and those developing in neighbouring boroughs and across London.

The Liverpool councilors of 1983-86 were eventually removed from office and surcharged by the unelected district auditor. But their successful programme of fighting the Tories for millions of pounds worth of stolen funding, which enabled them to build council homes, sports centres and nurseries, developed a mass campaign. In their place fighters won elections for socialist policies.

Tower Hamlets First spokespeople claimed to be ‘shocked’ by the election court decision while still having “full faith in the British justice system”, in the words of deputy mayor Oliur Rahman (Guardian, 24 April). But the judgment made it clear that even the name and existence of the party were at risk and it is no longer registered as a political party that can contest elections. Some of the councillors wanted to fight publicly, not just legally, against the courts by standing in the general election.

TUSC made a bold electoral challenge in Tower Hamlets in last year’s mayoral and council elections and stood two candidates in this year’s general election. Now, with the return of a majority Tory government and a new ‘emergency budget’ planned for July to make further cuts to local authority funding, TUSC’s local elections platform is more relevant than ever. No remaining Tower Hamlets First councillor should vote for cuts to council jobs, services, pay and conditions.

They should refuse to co-operate with the unelected commissioners who have been sent into the borough. They should appeal to the unions and community organisations in Tower Hamlets to help prepare a no-cuts ‘people’s budget’ to meet the needs of the local community, and organise a campaign to demand government funding to make up the shortfall. They should take up the initial condemnation of the election court ruling made by the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey – even though it was later hedged by union backing for Labour in the mayoral election re-run – to demand support for such a bold anti-austerity struggle.

And the Tower Hamlets First councillors should also take their place within TUSC to help build a national electoral alternative to the establishment parties that collaborated to unseat Lutfur Rahman. The rise of Tower Hamlets First was another step in the process of predominantly Asian Muslim workers moving away from their traditional support for Labour, triggered by Blair’s war in Iraq and including, in Tower Hamlets, George Galloway’s election victory in 2005. But that was ten years ago and Galloway’s party, Respect, failed to provide a bridge for Muslim workers to other sections of the working class. In May, Respect was able to stand in just four constituencies and six council seats across Britain and, excepting Galloway himself standing in Bradford West, polled no better than the TUSC candidates in the local and general elections, showing that there is no basis for it to remain outside TUSC, too. Tower Hamlets First should not make the same mistake.

The developments in Tower Hamlets are a sign of the future. The move away from the traditional parties will pass through different stages depending on local features but the capitalists’ austerity agenda will not go away. It will test all formations and push them to see the vital role of the working class and its collective organisations, both politically and industrially, and the need to adopt a genuine socialist programme as the best way to fight in the coming period.