The lessons from Tower Hamlets, by Jessica Asato

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.

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21 Responses to “The lessons from Tower Hamlets, by Jessica Asato”

  1. oldpolitics says:

    Good point, well made. The depressing thing is how little of all this is new. Involving minorities has for too long been synonymous with involving self-appointed community leaders, with little regard for either how representative they are of their communities in the first place, or for how compatible their world view is with a pluralist centre-left party. On the plus side (for those of us who don’t live there) at least Labour won’t be primarily responsible for the Doncaster Mark 2 that is coming E14’s way.

  2. Betapolitics says:

    I used to live in Tower Hamlets and what is written here is depressingly true. It’s politics, but not as we know it. Gerrymandering is so blatant that you are considered a fool if you don’t engage in it. At elections you always came across stories of people turning up to vote but only to be told that they had already voted by post, two bedroom houses that contained 8 people on the electoral register and tower blocks that all voted for the same candidate. Ken Livingston picked the winner and will probably now get a high percentage of the borough’s mayoral vote. The TH based parties are not interested the wider political debate, just internal factional power battles. As you say, it’s up to the national parties to deal with this difficult situatio but so far they havn’t wanted to get involved.

    What is also depressing is that the turnout was below 30%.

  3. Rob says:

    Did they have 50 Cal machine guns on the top of the cars, or rocket propelled grenades, the way it’s going it will not be long.

    kidding….. or not

  4. Thom says:

    Actually, I think Rahman’s supporters were well aware of the rules on campaigning at polling stations. I specifically spoke to one of them outside my polling station about this very issue.
    You say that Rahman’s supporters, “quite happily flouted electoral rules by crowding round the entrance to polling stations with leaflets”. If them ‘crowding around’ constituted harrassment of voters, or indeed blocked their entrance, than that would be breaking the law and you should have called the police. If in fact, they were simply present at the entrance, this is not breaking any electoral rules. You should probably check this, or confirm either way, as you’re making a very serious allegation.

  5. Stuart Madewell says:

    I suppose we should thank Jessica for her brief fleeting visit to Tower Hamlets, how very different from the wine bars of Upper Street. So it is natural that she nows declares herself an expert on all things Tower Hamlets!

    She claims to have spoken to Labour councillors who think Lutfur will siphon taxpayers money off to his pet projects and ignore the rest of the borough. Its precisely because he opposed the siphoning off of taxpayers money for pet projects like the Rich Mix centre which has badly managed for years and has failed to pay back loans to the council gave to it that he is popular.

    Had she spent more time in the borough she might have noticed something rather odd. That the vast majority of young educated muslim women support Lutfur and not Abbas. She might havwe noticed that Abbas support comes from the traditional male only Brick Lane Mosque while the East London Mosque has more facilities for women.

    What matters now is how the East End unites against the cuts imposed by the coalition government. In that respect Labour shold be prepared to work with Lutfur Rahman on an agreed basis of common policy for the benefit of the people of the borough.

    The idea that the Labour Party should refuse to work with Mayor Rahman is frankly ridiculous. Mayor Rahman wants to work with talented councillors for the good of the people of the borough.

    Burying your head in oppositionalism is futile and will do Labour nothing but harm.

  6. Ayse Veli says:

    100% agree with you Jessica. A refreshingly honest & damn right brilliant blog.

  7. Wonder where you were knocking up because aside from Lutfur’s people outside polling stations we didn’t really see any out knocking up etc. The damage had been done in the weeks prior.

    There was also a pretty strong presence from across London Labour, Hackney, Camden, Haringey, H&F, Lambeth, Barnet, Hounslow and more all sent people in varying numbers. Obviously could’ve done with more but I didn’t feel outnumbered at any point in the day.

    Agree the party NEC & London region need to be much more proactive to help the local party.

  8. Stepney Watcher says:

    “Jessica Asato is an Islington councillor and social media consultant.”

    Great. Just the sort of luvvie dahling to be commenting on the factionalised politics of Tower Hamlets.

    The issue is that in Tower Hamlets, and in areas of high immigration up and down the country, Labour has been playing with fire for decades. On Thursday night the Tower Hamlets party got its fingers burnt, and it deserved to. The people who will suffer are not those in Labour, but the taxpaying residents who will have their pounds spent as your source suggests.

    Still, Jessica and others shouldn’t worry; in a year’s time, when media interest is nil again, Lutfur Rahman and his motley crew of councillors will be let quietly back into Labour and re-selected for 2014. It won’t matter to inner London Labour who they let into the party so long as power and preference flow their way.

    Labour don’t deserve power in this part of the world for what they’ve done, and Lutfur Rahman’s barmy army don’t either. The borough could be ruled better by Whitehall mandarins than it ever has done at “Mulberry Palace”.

  9. Jared Gaites says:

    This is not a random comment by some troll, I have have recently joined the Labour Party since Ed took the helm, but after reading this I have to say that you still don’t get it do you?

  10. Stepney Watcher says:

    @Thom 3.41pm

    Rahman’s supporters were well aware of the rules, and also well aware that flouting them has no consequence. Any wicked opponents querying 15 people in rosettes stood at the entrance a polling station can be smeared as racists. Police hoping to preserve order can be dismissed by protests that “that’s how our community do things” or, in extremis, threatening the possibility of a riot if racism (there’s that smear again) tries to impede the normal working of Tower Hamlets politics.

    The police see it all as the normal political handbags, and stay well away from the blown-up charges bandied about, but they shouldn’t.

  11. Rosanna says:

    Here’s an extract from a Rahman interview with Dave Hill earlier this month.

    “I put to Rahman a complaint that some women had felt uncomfortable during his stewardship of the Council. There are stories of women being excluded from decision-making processes and feeling informally policed by his lieutentants, both in terms of their activities and their appearance. Such a culture would not be consistent with Labour Party values, I suggested.

    “What I say to you is this,” Rahman replied. “I grew up in this country. My upbringing has been quite libertarian. My family is quite left wing. I have liberal values instilled in me: values of fairness, values of equality, values of respect. I have never – never – either marginalised or dismissed any member of the Labour Group. I have never marginalised or dismissed or disrespected my female colleagues. I refute it unequivocally.” He added that no complaints were made at the time.

    Does he consider himself to the left or the right of Helal Abbas?


    So is he lying?

    Or should we have more evidence than the views of a Labour teenage girl before denouncing him as a anti-woman traditionalist?

    OK, I’m exaggerating. But I am a feminist, and I have been looking out for evidence of gender discrimination from Rahman because I was aware of Mumtaz Samad’s resignation back in 2004 and I didn’t feel his response was adequate. But I am also concerned about anti-Muslim stereotyping. I’m no Rahman champion, but I can’t find evidence that Rahman does represent the traditionalist view in Muslim politics. Your readiness to accept this interpretation from a Labour teenage girl and your obvious concern feels a little too Gilligan for comfort. Still, maybe you agree with Gilligan’s allegations about Rahman too.

    This wasn’t meant to come across quite so troll-esque, just to offer another perspective. It’s always great to hear from young women speaking their mind about politics, and if anyone can point me in the direction of solid evidence for his traditionalism, please do.

  12. Mark Krantz says:

    So why did the Labour candidate lose? You have not explained this.

    After anti democratic, centralised imposition of the Labour candidate using un contestable and unsubstantiated smears natural Labour voters supported the spurred Laboured candidate standing as a =n Independent.

    It is a re run of when Ken was rejected as the Labour candidate for London Major.

  13. I don’t know Tower Hamlets and from all appearances I’m glad I don’t. But I do know it was badly mismanaged.

    It wasn’t that a candidate should have been imposed – that wouldn’t have stopped Rahman and in any case you can’t ignore members forever. It’s that Labour officials hemmed and hawed and let Rahman play the victim. If they didn’t want him to get the nod, they should have refused to put him on the shortlist. Backing down to his threats, then turning round and throwing him out on decidedly unconvincing grounds was just stupid. It made it clear that the fix was in and that the views of members were being ignored.

    Tower Hamlets has been under special measures for more than a decade. If they still haven’t cleared out the entryists sufficient that you can trust a ballot of members which required the production of photo ID and proof of address, that’s a mark of massive incompetence. So either London Labour are useless because Tower Hamlets Labour Party has a lot of members who shouldn’t be, or they’re useless because they denied the will of legitimate members and did it in the most cack-handed fashion possible.

  14. paul barker says:

    The new Mayor seems to have elected, overwhelmingly, with support from the British-Asian community; with the other 2/3s mostly staying home.In an area of traditional Faschist support, going back 80 years – that is a bit of a worry.
    BTW, a couple of the comments had a go at Ms Asato on the basis of her perceived class. Why is this sort of comment OK when similar attacks on the basis of gender, ethnicity or religion arent ?

  15. Tony Dean says:


    Three of the London Boroughs are going to merge.

    We wonder what happened to the Greater London Council who were supposed to be responsible for the running of Greater London?

    Why the duplication across Greater London?

    This costs more money, more unnecessary jobs?


    I suggest we merge ALL London Boroughs saving a considerable sum of money in duplication and therefore waste.

    Consider too – the situation of polarisation of ‘ethnic minorities’ (such as Tower Hamlets?) who could do untold damage to certain London Boroughs and would effectively be ‘neutralised’ by merging all boroughs under one ‘umbrella’ authority.

    Why do we need dozens of Mayors, civic dignitaries, hangers on, in every borough?

    The cost to the taxpayers of ballots for Mayors would be a thing of the past saving a huge amount of money.

    Posted on:

  16. It does seem rather patronising to say that London Region should never have let the members choose for themselves at all.

    TH Labour has been in Special Measures for a long time now. They’ve been effectively run by London Region Labour party. They ran the selection process, so if there were any irregularities in the system, it is Region who are to blame for not sorting this out.

  17. oldpolitics says:

    Edward: “Labour officials hemmed and hawed and let Rahman play the victim. If they didn’t want him to get the nod, they should have refused to put him on the shortlist.”

    They did. He took the party to court to get the shortlist overturned. Twice.

  18. Charli Langford says:

    Sarah Hayward says: “There was also a pretty strong presence from across London Labour, Hackney, Camden, Haringey, H&F, Lambeth, Barnet, Hounslow and more all sent people in varying numbers.”

    I wonder if all those Labour stalwarts wondered why so few of us Labour Party members in Tower Hamlets were to be seen. After all, 880 of us managed to pass the London Region ID test in order to vote in the candidate selection. Could it perhaps be we felt it completely undemocratic that our selected candidate should be removed? I knew very little about both Helal and Lutfur before all this; I studied their records as Labour coulcil leaders before our selection and I decided on that basis that Lutfur was the better candidate by far. I was also somewhat influenced by the Gilligan / Fitzpatrick allegations against Lutfur on the now-notorious dispatches program – I felt that whatever the Tory politico Gilligan and the Labour whip and Fire Brigades Union betrayer Fitzpatrick said, I would believe the opposite. After all, neither of them has been a supporter of the working class.

    Sorry for using the forbidden words. For those under 40, and in very simplistic terms, working-class is the political term for people who have to get jobs – or these days struggle on benefits – to get their money. As opposed to bankers, directors, politicians, people who live off “investments”, and their assorted hangers-on. We don’t talk about class much these days since Thatcher/Blair have made it deeply unfashionable, nobody wants to admit to being working class any more. Which is a big problem because understanding class is the basic reason for seeing a difference between the (Old) Labour Party and the Tory and New Labour Parties.

  19. Yes, oldpolitics, and Labour folded like a cheap deckchair. Internal party machinery has a relatively free hand provided it’s not blatantly discriminatory, as Lutfur’s failure to get himself reinstated after the NEC removed him showed.

    Widening the net the first time was silly and unnecessary. Widening it a second time just shows that London Labour is incapable of organising the stitch-up they were clearly trying for.

    I’m not sure whether to be cheered or dismayed by that.

  20. Londoner says:

    “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”.

    What a load of crap. If this is true (and I really don’t think it is) then Jules Pipe and Robin Wales should bloody grow up!

  21. Michael says:

    Please, Please, Labour, Lib-Dems, Cons, unite and get rid of this USELESS MAYOR LUTFUR RAHMAN, he is creating a system to keep himself in power by focusing council support on his constituency. It is unjust and ruining the borough.
    There is no master plan for Tower Hamlets, while the surrounding areas pull ahead- the City, Canary Wharf, Olympic area and Hackney- Tower Hamlets is left in the middle with no vision, no plan, and no effort to improve. There is no effort to support: real youth issues, business development, improve sports facilities, rehab historic buildings, reach out to women in the community suffering domestic oppression (not able to speak the language and forced to wear nikab), public sanitation (stop all the littering), safer streets due to dangerous driving, reduced street crime (drug dealing), and real multi-culturalism. Instead there is a seeming string of hand-outs to various interests with no overall plan. A large number of people working and paying council tax, and obtaining almost no services, and another group claiming all the free support they can get. It is not only unjust it is creating a troubled area. Get Him Out.

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