Were you out campaigning in Tower Hamlets yesterday?
I thought not. You’re not alone; lots of Labour campaign stalwarts stayed away. They took one look at the situation and thought that their precious holiday could be saved for a more deserving campaign.
Even without knowing the complex saga of Tower Hamlets politics, trying to elect an imposed candidate who came third in a party selection seemed like electoral suicide. It was. Despite a valiant ground campaign which I witnessed yesterday, our candidate Helal Abbas was beaten solidly by Lutfur Rahman on 51% of first preferences. I can’t remember the last election day in which I felt so outnumbered by the sheer presence of opposition campaigners. Rahman’s supporters drove round in cars plastered with his literature and quite happily flouted electoral rules by crowding round the entrance to polling stations with leaflets. The few of us who did make it there were stretched thin. It won’t count as one of my happier campaigning experiences.
But I was reminded of why Labour needed to be out there when I was sent off to get out the vote with a young third generation Bengali girl. I learned how she had been sent to a pupil referral unit, but had sorted herself out and now had ambitions to go to college or university. With her beehive hair, long nails, fags and attitude, she was like many teenage girls. As we turned onto a new street suddenly she called in alarm and explained that she couldn’t be seen walking along there smoking a cigarette. “They’re traditionalist round here”, she explained taking lots of puffs and stubbing it on the pavement. “Women like me shouldn’t be smoking”. The traditionalists, she said, “take one look at me with my clothes and my hair and don’t think I’m proper Bengali”. I felt like I’d been transported back to the 1960s and my feminist blood boiled.
Later on I listened to a call she made to a friend. “I’m with two whites, and I’m sick of the dirts I’m getting from all the Asian men”, she said. I self-consciously enquired why it was a problem for her to be seen with white people and she said it just wasn’t the done thing. As I looked around I noticed it was true. Everywhere we walked she got daggers and I was overcome with second wavism.
So did Lutfur Rahman represent the traditionalist view in this election, I asked? She nodded and said that was why she was campaigning for Labour. It certainly gave me extra reason to keep marching up those last few staircases of the knock-up.
It would be easy to dismiss the result yesterday as the Labour party’s fault. With hindsight, it would have made much more sense to impose our mayoral candidate, as happened in the selection of councillors last year. London regional Labour party has known about the risk of gerrymandering and infiltration in these elections for ages and should have had a better grip.
Or we could always blame Ken. This leaflet which was blanketed across the borough yesterday was pretty soul-destroying. But while Ken’s actions were extremely damaging, he wasn’t the sole cause of the loss.
I blame our own propensity as a party to turn a blind eye to the difficult issues of factionalism within Muslim communities in Britain. As I write this, I can tell why many Labour people do. It is the fear of misunderstanding the delicate interplay between religion, ethnicity and cultural identity. It is a fear of being thought ignorant, or worse, mistaken for a racist.
But we cannot just leave Tower Hamlets to fight out its own inter-Islamic battles. Tower Hamlets residents are at the sharp end of the Tory-Lib Dem government’s cuts. It is the poorest who will suffer, according to one Tower Hamlets councillor I spoke to this morning. “Taxpayers’ money will be siphoned off into Lutfur’s pet projects and friends, while my residents get poorer and their services get worse”.
Furthermore, Jules Pipe and Robin Wales have refused to work with Lutfur which means that Tower Hamlets will be left behind in the arrangements between the Olympic boroughs leading up to 2012. This is not the end of Labour’s troubles either – Lutfur, Respect and the Islamic forum of Europe will use their victory to unseat Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick at the next election.
If Labour in Tower Hamlets is going to survive we must give our colleagues more support. The party centrally should use some of the funds it is raising for Operation Gameplan to fully fund an organiser and rebuild branch Labour party activism. In particular, there must be a strategy to re-engage with the majority of white working class residents in the borough who stayed away in droves yesterday. Their interests must be represented in a party which stands for equality across all races, religions and classes.
Finally, it is easy for white middle class women to campaign for greater representation in Parliament and more seats around the boardroom table. We are less good at championing the right of Bengali women to get an education, work, fraternise with whom they like and wear what they want. For my young campaigning friend, we have a duty to do more. Otherwise, what is the point of being Labour?
Jessica Asato is an Islington councillor and social media consultant.