It’s over a decade now since the last time Labour members in Tower Hamlets were last allowed to properly select their council candidates so we should not be surprised at another stitch-up. However, the latest shenanigans takes it all to a higher, more dangerous level. For the selection of the candidate for Mayor of Tower Hamlets, the shortlist imposed on local members includes only three names: two from the local Bangla community, seemingly chosen to minimise the chances of selecting a Bangla candidate, and one white. Both the current Leader of the Council and his predecessor, both from the Bangla community, were both excluded.
In the last round of council “selections”, local party members had no role: the panel was chosen by regional party appointees, and then allocated to wards by the Regional Director. Councillors were often allocated to wards other than the ones in which they lived or represented, and in some cases only shortly before the close of nominations. Normally regional interference in council selections is designed to remove any voices critical of the council leadership but in this case, the whole exercise was designed to topple the then Leader of the Council, Lutfur Rahman, who was the runner up in the parliamentary selection in Bethnal Green and Bow.
Lutfur stood accused of being a little too closely associated with the East London Mosque, which is, amongst other things, the headquarters of the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) which, alleges local MP Jim Fitzpatrick, is a fundamentalist group committed to the creation of an islamic state that “has been infiltrating and “corrupting” Labour like Militant did in the 1980s.” For good measure, the IFE is alleged to have helped George Galloway and Respect too. Andrew Gilligan has outlined various allegations against the IFE in the Daily Telegraph and a highly cntroversial and unconvincing Chanel 4 Dispatches, although Ken Livingstone,dismisses them out of hand:
This furore smacks of racism and Islamophobia. Of course Tower Hamlets council is not infiltrated by Islamists. Just because some people are Muslim and go to the mosque is not argument enough that they are Islamists.
Although Tower Hamlets is not without membership and voting irregularities, allegations have been made (but not necessarily substantiated) in many directions – including against Shiria Khatun who is one of the lucky shortlisted candidates for Mayor. Lutfur Rahman, a university-educated partner in a respected local law firm who had been happy to describe himself as “New Labour”, has been accused (publicly at least) of nothing more than associating with people who have themselves been accused of no crime. The first beneficiary of the selection shenanigans was Councillor Helal Abbas who duly became Leader after Labour’s spectacular council victory (the best result since the landslide of 1994 at the height of the then Tory Government’s unpopularity).
Meanwhile, the borough had voted to have a directly-elected Mayor. Labour’s policy (decided by the regional/national party without consultation locally) had been to oppose but, in Respect’s one victory of the night, the vote had gone in favour. Cllr Abbas would have been a strong candidate to be the candidate (indeed reports suggest that he has been announcing himself as such to community groups for some weeks) as would Cllr Rahman. The party bureacracy was clearly intent on stopping both. That decision is a disgrace.
In a borough in which only 42% of the population is white British and where Banglas are the clear majority of the rest, many people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds feel that Labour should be standing a Bangla candidate – especially when Labour’s support among Banglas is so fragile and in the face of the continuing presence of Respect in spite of their recent defeat. To impose a shortlist of only three and deprive party members of the chance to select either of the two most prominent Bangla candidates is a clear attempt to prevent the selection of any Bangla candidate. No-one is fooled by the inclusion of two lesser known and less experienced Bangla candidates, Shiria Khatun and Sirajul Islam. At best, it is manipulative and intensely patronising of the Bangla community; at worst, it is simply racist. Former Council Leader and current London Assembly member, John Biggs, who is the third person on the shortlist is not implicated and will almost certainly win the selection ballot to be held on 17 July. The circumstances of the selection, unfortunately, will not help him win the election.