And now the bad news. After the joy of Labour regaining Bethnal Green & Bow from Respect and holding the 3-way marginal of Poplar & Limehouse, Tower Hamlets Labour has had a ghastly few months. In many ways it is similar to the situation in Hackney in 1996 when a poisonous factional fight only ended when the bad guys expelled themselves by walking out of the Labour Group after NEC intervention. In Hackney this externalised the internal poison and whilst in the short term we lost the 1998 election, long term it enabled Labour to renew itself and come back as a healthier party. I expect the same long term relief in Tower Hamlets. Better out than in!
You can read the full saga of the Labour selection for elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets here on the blog of Ted Jeory, former editor of the East London Advertiser:
Put simply, Labour regional and national figures running the panel process repeatedly judged former Council Leader Lutfur Rahman as not fit to be considered for selection for Mayor. There were numerous allegations all of which have been catalogued by Mr Jeory and journalist Andrew Gilligan. The one they don't focus on was the show stopper though, which was that Lutfur, it is alleged, didn't endorse Labour's parliamentary candidates in the borough (MPs Jim Fitzpatrick and Rushanara Ali) in the General Election. However, repeated legal challenges eventually led to Lutfur getting on the panel and going forward to selection.
The selection went ahead and Lutfur won.
The irony is that there was no requirement for the regional party to have allowed a democratic selection in Tower Hamlets. We (I'm on the Regional Board) decided to do so perhaps naively. Tower Hamlets Labour Party is under "special measures" and has been for years because of repeated impropriety in internal party selections and what the Aussies call "branch stacking" - Bengali community leaders from two rival factions literally trying to buy Labour selections (and historically Lib Dem ones as well) by mass recruitment of their followers. When this was investigated in the past it turned out large numbers of the inflated membership in the borough (over 3,000 members at one point but down to 1,200 since the national party clamped down on recruitment malpractice) had no idea they had joined Labour, had not paid their own subs, and were just cannon fodder to be wheeled out at selection time by communal leaders. Because of this the regional party had chosen all the recent council candidates, trying to ensure balance between the rival Bengali factions rather than a winner-takes-all-wipeout and some representation for the other communities which make up 70% of Tower Hamlets' population but are not prone to communalist interventions in local political parties.
Post-selection some of the defeated candidates complained to the NEC that there had been electoral fraud in the selection ballot, particularly that very large numbers of people not resident in the borough had voted. This and the allegations about Lutfur's conduct persuaded the NEC to suspend him as candidate and impose the then Council Leader, Helal Abbas. Lutfur decided to run as an independent, thereby expelling himself from the Labour Party, and was endorsed by Respect and George Galloway.
National political alignments appear not to apply in Tower Hamlets internal politics. Despite having publicly supported David Miliband for Labour Leader, Lutfur has been hailed as a socialist martyr by the far left Labour Left Briefing faction and their Labour NEC member Christine Shawcroft, and by the former International Marxist Group entryists in Socialist Action.
This week Ken Livingstone piled in on Lutfur's behalf, doing a walkabout with him and a TV crew in Brick Lane during which he made pejorative remarks about the Labour candidate. This would have led to his automatic expulsion from the party if he had not issued a statement claiming that he was only asking for a second preference vote for Lutfur and for a first preference vote for Abbas. However, Lutfur's Get Out the Vote leaflets all featured him pictured with Ken.
In the event, Lutfur won convincingly:
Rahman, Lutfur Independent 23283
Abbas, Helal Uddin The Labour Party 11254
King, Neil Anthony Conservative Party 5348
Griffiths, John David Macleod Liberal Democrat 2800
Duffell, Alan Green Party 2300
The turnout was a dismal 25.6% with the Bengali vote coming out and splitting 2-1 in Lutfur's favour, and most other voters staying home, confused by this bizarre factional story.
Tower Hamlets Labour campaigners who have been working for a Labour victory are understandably incandescent about Ken's intervention. Abbas' reaction was:
“This is a sad night for those of us who want to build a better future and a united Tower Hamlets.
“Lutfur Rahman has won tonight but not as he wanted, as the Labour candidate.
“Thankfully, Labour’s ruling National Executive had the backbone to stop him from being the Labour candidate.
“We may have lost tonight, but at least the Labour Party has clean hands.
“I am proud that we fought a clean, decent campaign and refused to get in the gutter with the candidate backed by George Galloway and the so-called Respect Party."
Some questions for people to comment on:
- How does Labour (or any of the other parties) stop itself being used as a playground for rehearsing communal faction fights that are nothing to do with Labour politics, or as a vehicle for well-organised ethnic or faith communities to take over and seize control of local authorities and their resources?
- How do we tackle communalism - the unhealthy and undemocratic practice of people voting along ethnic or faith lines rather than judging parties and candidates on their policies and merits?
- How do we give democratic selection rights to genuine party members in a local context where organised groups are "branch-stacking" and trying to buy their way to victory?
- What action can we take to ensure Ken sticks to the same rules and basics of behaviour that every other Labour member has to? (It's our fault - we readmitted him - which I argued against at the time - knowing he was Labour only when it suited him)
- Given London Labour members have picked Ken as Mayoral candidate so he's the only one we've got, how do we rebuild his relationship with a loyalist activist base in Tower Hamlets and the wider London Party who will now feel extremely reluctant to go out and work to get him elected?
I'm keen to know what people think as this will be a big issue at the next NEC meeting on 30 November.
I am sad rather than angry about Ken's intervention. The London Labour Party in 2008 was very united for the Mayoral campaign and that involved those of us who had been passionate stop-Keners in 2000 moving on and putting the past behind us. I want another united campaign in 2012 but Ken is going to have a lot of fence-mending to do to make that happen. I will be giving Ken as Mayoral candidate the loyal and very active support from now until 2012 he singularly failed to give to Helal Abbas.