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18 October 2010

Ed Miliband’s first big electoral test

Labour risks losing the key Tower Hamlets mayoral election.

By George Eaton

The race to become Tower Hamlets’s first-ever directly-elected mayor ends this Thursday and poses Labour’s biggest electoral test since Ed Miliband became leader. As the Guardian’s London blogger Dave Hill points out, the chance to win control of the “Olympics borough” and its billion-pound plus budget makes this contest more significant than most by-elections.

Labour, which took Bethnal Green and Bow back from Respect at the general election, is under threat from independent candidate Lutfur Rahman, who was removed as the party’s candidate amid criticism of his links to the Islamic Forum of Europe and concerns over the “eligibility of participating voters”.

With the support of local MP Rushanara Ali (who I interviewed earlier this year), Labour’s Helal Abbas (who replaced Rahman as the party’s candidate) submitted a dossier to the National Executive Committee attacking Rahamn’s record as leader of Tower Hamlets council and claiming that he had been “brainwashed by extremists”.

He wrote:

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In my opinion, Luthfur Rahman has been brainwashed by fundamentalists in IFE and they are using him for the purposes of entry into the Labour party.

And added:

The whole environment in Tower Hamlets changed after Luthfur Rahman’s leadership. There was intimidation of those who do not go to prayers.

Rahman was suspended from the party pending an investigation into alleged irregularities, but his decision to run as an independent meant he was automatically expelled. He has since won the backing of Respect and his campaign is funded by millionaire “curry king” Shiraj Haque. Labour has warned that the contest is “extremely close” and that the result will likely depend on turnout. Abbas’s selection was controversial, not least because he finished third, not second, in the original contest. Christine Shawcross, a member of Labour’s NEC, suggested: “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.”

Ahead of Thursday’s election, Ali said that the stakes were high:

We do not want the people of Tower Hamlets, and especially the Bangladeshi community which I am so proud to be a part of, to be known to this country for the wrong reasons.

Thanks to a strong Labour campaign, Respect and its proxies were defeated across the East End at the general election. But future success could be thrown into doubt if Rahman wins this influential position.