Thursday night, the night Labour lost Tower Hamlets, felt like a bit of a flashback. The venue was different, York Hall instead of Canary Wharf’s Winter Gardens, but Oliur Rahman and Rania Khan were doing V for Victory signs, hard working Labour activists were miserable and Ken Clark (London Labour’s regional director) was at the front of the room looking grumpy. One difference though – in 2006 I went up to a couple of Labour councillors and gave them a piece of my mind for working as a part of a group of Labour councillors who were making deals with Respect and others to save their own skins and knife councillors they disliked. This time Lutfur Rahman was victorious, but no longer in the Labour Party, at last openly supported by Respect and by others who travel through political parties as it suits them.
This election result came after a messy summer, where two separate panels made up of NEC and regional board members decided not to shortlist Lutfur Rahman, but he got on the shortlist through an appeal. Having previously declined to shortlist him, NEC members chose not to accept his nomination by the local party, and voted instead to impose the sitting council leader Helal Abbas.
Abbas is a decent man with an impressive personal story. From his leadership of the local squatters movement in the 1980s, standing up for Bengali families in desperate need who were excluded from social housing, to his record as the first Bangladeshi council leader, Abbas was the best candidate to steer us through the difficult times ahead. Why did he lose?
It will take a bit longer than a day to articulate what went on in the Bangladeshi community over the past few weeks and months. It is important to be clear that our greatest campaign leaders and activists were Bangladeshi, and that Lutfur presented himself as “Real Labour”, exactly like Respect before him – the bonds that tie our party to the east end of London remain strong, and our opponents only win by impersonating us.
I think our loss has two root causes. One, despite London region intending to run a short selection process and leave us a long summer to campaign, the cock ups and conspiracies meant we must have appeared to our electorate to spend the entire summer warring amongst ourselves. Combined with the London mayoral selection and leadership elections that many of us were involved in, we can’t blame our electorate for feeling like we lost our focus on what should really matter. We did continue to run campaign sessions several times a week, but not everyone will have seen us. This will have contributed to the very low turnout.
Secondly, Lutfur’s narrative was up and running before our story had its boots on. Lutfur presented himself as a victim of the evil Labour Party machine. He had much of the Bengali media behind him, and the intervention of Ken Livingstone, who turned up a few days before polling day and did a walkabout with Lutfur that the BBC were available to film, meant that Labour Party process was all anyone could talk about. Added to this was a smear campaign more filthy than I could have imagined – and I’ve seen a few nasty ones since Respect came into town.
Make no mistake though, there is no difference between the coalition of people that came within one councillor of toppling us in 2006 and the people who managed it on Thursday. Previously Ken Livingstone came to Tower Hamlets to slate Jim Fitzpatrick MP and give Galloway a hug, this time he slated Abbas and hugged Lutfur. Siraj of Clifton restaurant was a supporter of Galloway then and he’s a supporter of Lutfur now. Oliur Rahman, the first Respect councillor and opponent of Jim Fitzpatrick in 2005, who has been a member of four political groups in as many years (SWP/Respect, Left List, Labour, Lutfur), was crowing at the Labour defeat.
The selection process was a mess, but the NEC were absolutely right to stop Lutfur being the Labour candidate.
We defeated Respect convincingly in May 2010, and we’ll do it again. We’ll do it in exactly the same way. Again, we have a wave of new activists who are disgusted at what they have seen and want to defeat it. Again, we have excellent local organisation and hard working talented activists and councillors. We’re stronger than before, with two excellent Labour MPs. We’ll win back the hearts and minds of the people of Tower Hamlets through demonstrating that we understand their concerns, and that only Labour can represent the whole of our community.
This time we’ll have to stand up for them in opposition at the Town Hall. If you oppose the politics of hatred and division that Galloway stood for in Tower Hamlets – before we drummed him out – then stand with us.