It is the question that absolutely everyone under the sun has been asking at the moment: what will happen in Tower Hamlets at the 2018 Local Elections?
Well perhaps not everyone.
But, it is guaranteed to prove a very fascinating aspect of the electoral terrain in the Capital when residents in the borough go to the polls next month.
The reason it is so interesting is because it is currently among an increasingly diminishing minority of boroughs in London where multi-party politics is well and truly alive.
Though Havering is also a strong candidate, for me it is Tower Hamlets that wins the prize for political dynamism and ideological eclecticism in the Capital.
This truly wonderful area – the heart of London’s East End – is presently blessed with the likes of Labour, Conservative, Independent, Liberal Democrat, Aspire, and even People’s Alliance of Tower Hamlets (PATH) councillors!
Current Tower Hamlets councillors by party
One may ask, how did we get to this point and why are so many parties represented there?
People in political circles often forget the fact that from the point of the Council being established in 1964 up to the turn of the millennium, Tower Hamlets Council was, for the most part, only represented by Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors.
In fact, those two parties had pretty much dominated the political map in the borough between then and 1978 (before then and the Council’s establishment in 1964, Labour were in almost total, uninterrupted, control of the Council, with a microscopic hint of Communist Party and Cubitt Town Residents Association representation for good measure).
Multi-party politics in the borough is still a relatively new phenomenon, only having its impetus at the 2006 Local Elections, when the Conservatives first won representation in the borough after more than 40 years since the local authority was established, and the now defunct Respect party won 12 councillors.
While there was a slight setback for multi-party politics in the borough at the 2010 local elections, with the Liberal Democrats and Respect only winning one councillor each, the events in the borough from that point onwards, in particular the years between 2010 and 2014, have very much led to where we are now, and they can largely be put down to two words; Luftur Rahman.
The now disgraced politician was elected as Mayor of the borough in 2010, in the inaugural Mayoral elections that ran alongside the councillor elections in the borough, standing on an Independent platform, and winning his first term in the position.
Acting as the figurehead of the borough for 4 years and developing somewhat of a personality cult around him, Rahman then went on to win a second term as Mayor in 2014, under a Tower Hamlets First platform, and, at the simultaneous council elections that year, while Labour were still the largest party on the Council, we saw a whopping 18 councillors from his new party get elected and a council with no overall control in the borough.
Rahman, however, did not last long after this, and has since been found guilty of electoral fraud and barred from standing for elected office until 2021. Naturally, there was a re-run of the 2014 Mayoral contest in 2015 once Rahman was forced to stand down and we now have Labour’s John Biggs as Mayor of the borough. We also have a Labour administration that leads the Council, though on a knife edge.
Even with Rahman out of office, his legacy is well and truly alive, and it is undoubtedly one of the foremost reasons why the borough is now so politically diverse; his former party, Tower Hamlets First, and the councillors who represented it, have split following his demise into two groups on the Council; the Tower Hamlets Independent Group and the People’s Alliance of Tower Hamlets.
Both have now been registered as political parties ahead of this year’s Local Elections, with the former now officially known as Aspire. They will both also have a Mayoral candidate next month, with Aspire putting forward Councillor Ohid Ahmed and PATH putting up Councillor Rabina Khan – who contested the 2015 Mayoral By-Election.
The question now, as I pose in the title of this blog, is what we can expect to see happen there next month at the Local Elections, given this background.
The reason I have sought to emphasise the multi-party politics in the borough we have seen the rise of over the past few years, is because I sense we are moving towards a return to the old days in Tower Hamlets, where things were less multi-dimensional and, politically speaking, more Labour.
At the Council level, whilst the strength of Aspire and the People’s Alliance of Tower Hamlets should still not be understated, particularly among the borough’s large Bangladeshi community, Labour are undoubtedly in a strong position in the borough and have an opportunity to recover from 2014 which saw them lose overall control of the Council. The party had a very good showing in the borough’s two parliamentary constituencies at the General Election last year under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn in Bethnal Green & Bow and Poplar & Limehouse, with Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick respectively re-elected with increased majorities of more than 13% compared to the 2015 General Election.
There was a swing away from the Conservatives in both constituencies within the borough and the party will most likely lose at least a couple of their 5 council seats to Labour next month – though they do have some popular councillors among locals including Councillor Andrew Wood in Canary Wharf and Councillor Peter Golds in Island Gardens. This strong General Election performance, with the increasingly diminishing influence of Luftur Rahman, indicates that we should see a good performance for Labour in the borough at the Council level. Some sources even think there could be a clean sweep for Labour.
When it comes to the Mayoral race, it appears to be more clear cut – ‘appears’ being the key word here, as things rarely are as they seem in the borough. My view is that John Biggs is almost certain to be re-elected. I struggle to see how this won’t happen. This is because the main opposition vote to the incumbent Mayor – made up of Rahman’s former followers in Aspire and PATH – is split. At the last Mayoral Election in 2015 when Biggs was elected he won 55% of the vote in the second round compared to Rabina Khan who won 45%, with the latter standing as an Independent – unifying this formerly coherent political faction. In the absence of a unified opposition this time around, John Biggs is almost certain to win the Mayoralty for another term and he will most likely get over the line without problem.
So what is my overall conclusion? Well, we have seen the rise of multi-party politics in the borough over the past few years, and next month, we are likely to see it return to its more Labour-dominated history. The next question will be, to what extent?