In the end, the Tower Hamlets mayoral election wasn’t as close as we’d all expected. Labour was beaten – and beaten badly. Lutfur Rahman, who ran as an independent after he was removed as the party’s candidate, won on first preferences with 51.76 per cent of the vote (23,283 votes) on a turnout of just 25.6 per cent. Labour’s Helal Abbas finished a poor second with just 25.01 per cent of the vote (11,254 votes).
The Respect-backed Rahman becomes the first-ever elected mayor of the East End borough and wins control of its billion-pound budget. It seems as if anger over his deselection, rather than any mass enthusiasm for his candidacy, played the decisive role.
As I’ve explained before, Rahman was removed by Labour’s National Executive Committee after criticism of his alleged links to fundamentalist Islam and concerns over the “eligibility of participating voters”. He was replaced with Helal Abbas (who submitted a dossier on Rahman to the NEC), a controversial choice not least because he finished third, not second, in the original contest. Christine Shawcross, a member of Labour’s NEC, suggested that they “put forward Abbas so as not to leave themselves open to the charge of deselecting a Bangladeshi and replacing him with a white man”.
In the event, it made little difference. The Bangladeshi community, which makes up a third of the borough’s population, swung behind Rahman from the start and was angered by the NEC’s manipulation. Meanwhile, Ken Livingstone and others from the left of the party flirted with expulsion by openly campaigning for Rahman.
For Labour, the result is a major reversal of fortune. The party performed well in the East End at the general election, with Rushanara Ali winning Bethnal Green and Bow back from Respect, Jim Fitzpatrick seeing George Galloway off in Poplar, and Respect losing all but one of its councillors.
Labour’s London MPs and party grandees, including Harriet Harman and Neil Kinnock, threw their weight behind Abbas and all have lost face as a result of his resounding defeat.
Rahman, as the Guardian’s London blogger Dave Hill notes, won “despite being accused of being incompetent, corrupt and beholden to local businessmen and shadowy Muslim extremists”. But after one of the most divisive and vicious election contests London has ever experienced, there’s already talk of Rahman eventually returning to the Labour fold. One imagines he will be seeking advice from his friend Ken Livingstone on that front.