Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.
On May 5th, Lutfur Rahman was convincingly elected as Mayor of Tower Hamlets. There were two counts and on the second count the result was:
Lutfur Rahman (Aspire) 40,804
John Biggs (Lab) 33,487
Between the first and second counts, Rahman gained 1,271 additional votes, whilst Biggs picked up 5,593. Some 15,000 votes had been cast for the Liberal Democrat, Conservative, and Independent candidates – and just under 2,000 for two far left candidates.
For the council, Rahman’s Aspire Party won 24 council seats, a gain of 24 from Labour councillors elected in 2018, although two seats had been lost by Labour at by-elections since 2018. The opposition is formed from 19 Labour, I Conservative, and 1 Green councillor. It was an extraordinary defeat for Labour, just four years after they took 42 out of 45 council seats and won the mayoralty with 65 per cent of the vote.
Despite years of controversy, Rahman staged a comeback, unique in UK electoral history, and now has a mandate as executive mayor until 2026. I have waited to bring together, the events leading up to this return to office, the conduct of the election, and subsequent management of the council before commenting.
This election was Labour’s to lose. Their mayoral candidate and outgoing mayor, John Biggs is a mainstream, traditional Labour figure who knows local government backwards and followed Labour policy in London. He had to manage an occasionally fractious group but ultimately this should be seen in the context of Labour colleagues managing groups with large majorities. He ran a tight ship and despite political differences, had a genuine love of the borough.
He presided over two major policy errors which impacted voters. Firstly, bringing the refuse contract “in house” resulted in a marked deterioration of service from early 2019, well before Covid. The second, was the Liveable Streets programme of road closures which are deeply unpopular across much of the borough, alienating many of Labour’s core voters. A huge warning was given to Labour in August 2021, when they lost the Weavers ward by-election to Aspire in an election fought almost exclusively on ‘liveable streets’ in Bethnal Green. There were also signs in May 2021, which they either ignored, or did not notice as to why and how Shaun Bailey polled rather well in some areas of the borough. We identified evidence of this being Uber drivers and their families casting a vote against Sadiq Khan.
Tower Hamlets was the beneficiary of extraordinary levels of relief funding from the Government during Covid. In March this year, in the run up to polling, there was £8.3million of unused covid relief funding available to the council.
Another “assist” to the Rahman candidature came from all of the mainstream parties who in 2020 combined to support a referendum on the abolition of the executive mayoral system. This hampered cross-party co-operation in the referendum as the activists priority was the London Assembly election held on the same day.
With Rahman’s Aspire party not involved in the London Assembly election, he and his colleagues campaigned full time to retain the mayoral system. They were able to paint the other parties; Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats, and Greens, as losers who were opposing the will of the people. If it sounds familiar, it is, I suspect, the likely future template for controversial referendums. Unsurprisingly, voters of all parties broke ranks and voted to retain the mayoral system by 63,000 to 17,000 votes in a poll of 41.7 per cent.
This left Rahman able to campaign for a position to which he had previously been elected and, in his words, unfairly removed from, by opponents who, having campaigned against the position of executive mayor, were now seeking to win it.
As the campaign developed, Rahman and his team maintained that he had been forced from office, not by a court, but by a tribunal. An appalling press release from a senior officer of the Metropolitan Police in which he described the 2015 High Court Judgement as a “report” helped their side enormously and this press release, along with letters from senior police officers past and present, which were seen to exonerate Rahman were recycled continuously within his social and community media campaign. Appeals were made to the Met to explain the infamous press release, but as so often with electoral matters, they were ignored.
Labour, as the majority party, faced problems on their candidates’ selection process, which did not go well. Rahman, as leader of his own party, simply announced the names of candidates. He fielded 44 candidates for 45 seats. All his candidates were of Bangladeshi origin and 41 of the 44 were male. The three women nominated were contesting the seats least likely to deliver an Aspire win. For the three member Whitechapel ward, just two Aspire candidates were nominated. A former Respect/Labour/Tower Hamlets First councillor, Shahid Ali, who had been imprisoned for housing fraud, stood under his own party on a platform, in local government terms, that mirrored Aspire. This was too much for the Whitechapel electorate who returned two Aspire and one Labour councillor.
During the campaign, Rahman and his team campaigned almost exclusively within their own community. He spent a great deal of time with interviews on Bangladeshi TV stations and declined to attend any hustings. However, his literature was smart, well printed, well written, and a 26 page manifesto was published, equally well written and printed, which was widely delivered. His team also undertook a very extensive canvassing programme.
The Greens did not contest the mayoral election, wishing for a united front against Aspire. The other parties campaigned traditionally with considerable effort put into hustings events, which were almost meaningless in the absence of Rahman.
What about electoral malpractice? It was far less in evidence than in 2014. Aspire were unable to use Town Hall facilities as Tower Hamlets First had done in 2014. In fact, it was Labour who ended up being criticised for publishing leaflets with town hall contacts and phone numbers.
I had discussions with the police regarding intimidation at polling stations and so called “family voting” about which I have written. These meetings were not helpful as the police, acting on guidance from the electoral commission, remain confused as to the Law relating to the secret ballot. I am delighted that this matter has been taken up and a Private Member’s Bill received unanimous support in the House of Lords to codify the legality of the secret ballot.
Intimidation at polling stations was generally ignored by the police, who continue to claim they have no legal right to stop crowding of polling stations. It remains a matter of concern with the public and, as we will see, election observers.
On the day, it was Labour who ended up being most criticised for crowding polling stations. Aspire were concentrated on mounting a very effective GOTV campaign, under the noses of the Labour Party. In my ward, the unsuccessful Labour candidate parked a people carrier on double yellow lines on a main road close to a polling station. It was filled with refreshments for the mob of helpers he had bought along who ended up annoying people who were simply going about their business, whether it was voting, walking, or just waiting at a bus stop. Residents asked me why he was permitted to put his vehicle on double yellow lines and get away with it, to which I had no answer.
Democracy Volunteers, the Independent election monitors, produced two reports, one on Tower Hamlets and one covering polling stations nationally. They record in their report on Tower Hamlets:
“As well as general concerns about large, and sometimes intimidating crowds outside polling stations, our teams also identified extremely high levels of attempted family voting which was frequently, but not always, prevented by the polling staff. Those subjected to family voting (i.e. not having a secret ballot) were invariably women (85 per cent) from the Asian community and those causing family voting were generally men (61 per cent). We observed family voting in 32 per cent of polling stations – this would have been more if it were not for the actions of the elections staff, and to some extent the police.”
Note how the reference to “some extent” by the police, which suggests the confusion the police have regarding protecting the secrecy of the ballot.
Democracy Volunteers also attended 1,732 polling stations across the UK on May 5th, where they found incidents of “family voting” in 453 polling stations across the country. They write
“Family voting often stops women from casting a vote of their own choice. She is under a strong cultural expectation to obey her husband or father and vote for the candidate of the party that she has been instructed to vote for.”
They continue, “observers saw family voting across all parts of the UK, and it was not limited to any one ethnic group or another.”
This proves there is a serious problem which needs to be dealt with.
They are also concerned about potential personation which is covered in the special Tower Hamlets report:
“We were also concerned about the use of polling cards being displayed on an elector’s mobile phone and some voters being apparently unaware of their name and address which might have indicated some degree of personation in the voting process. We also observed some voters pointing out their names on the electoral register.”
Having previously and repeatedly provided the police with evidence regarding personation, only for it to be ignored, this is again disturbing.
Turning back to the election result, as well as winning the mayoral election, Aspire secured a majority of councillors. Amongst the Tower Hamlets 45 councillors, there are just eleven women members and after the election Rahman wrote a letter inviting them to join his administration. The response from the Labour’s local deputy leader was extremely terse, saying that he should have nominated and supported women candidates from his own party.
What is the new council like? With a majority of councillors, Aspire control and chair every committee including Overview and Scrutiny. Since May, Rahman has attended more O&S meetings than he did between 2010-15. The significance is that in this council his party chairs and has a majority on the committee. That aside, he has been present and answered questions. He has also continued permitting opposition members to submit questions to Cabinet, which was introduced by Biggs, as well as answering questions at council meeting. The atmosphere is different to that which prevailed after 2010.
When he was elected in 2010, his office was filled with former advisors to Ken Livingstone who had hoped to be back in City Hall in 2012. This did not happen and some stayed on until 2015. This time he has recruited two former members of Jeremy Corbyn’s staff who came from Unite and a one time councillor from Harrow who is advisor to the Aspire Group. The most important appointment is that of his former fixer from 2010-15, Alibor Choudhury, who was also disqualified by the election court, and is now employed in the mayoral office and is overseeing policy across the board.
Rahman has announced his intention of centralising all council services at the town hall and in view of past experience it will be interesting to see how that develops. His media campaign is in full operation. For example, the government’s covid relief to council taxpayers was rebranded as a Rahman initiative and treated as such by his supporters on social media.
With 16 years of opposition experience in Tower Hamlets, I have some idea of how to hold an administration to account and I will continue to do this over this council term.
I have been asked numerous times how a person disqualified from office can stand again. Quite simply, he served his five years disqualification and because of the failure by the Metropolitan Police to fully investigate the 2014 election and the administration of Tower Hamlets between 2010-15, he was legally entitled to stand. I hope (but can only hope) that the recent special measures announced with regard to the Metropolitan Police will result in action being taken to prevent the policing failures that took place in Tower Hamlets with regard to investigation of the council and electoral malpractice.
Recently The Times, in an editorial, called for a Royal Commission on policing. I thought that this was an excellent idea. This was followed by correspondence on the letters page. The first letter, treated as a priority by The Times, was from the ennobled former MET commissioner, Ian Blair. Were there to be a Royal Commission on policing I would be writing in to ensure that Ian Blair’s failures at the Metropolitan Police, along with those of his three successors, be an integral part of any Commission of inquiry to improve policing in London.