Andy Stowe draws some positive conclusions from Rabina Khan’s result in the Tower Hamlets mayoral election.
It was tactical voting from Tories, UKIP, Lib Dems and the marginal candidates that secured victory for Labour’s John Biggs in the Tower Hamlets mayoral election. That’s certainly the view of the Tory election agent who said “It seems clear that area by area voters have gone for Labour tactically—the number of voters in good areas for us only a month ago at the General Election who voted Conservative seem to have lent John Biggs their vote to keep Khan out.”
The election had been forced after an odd and opaque coalition had taken legal action to have the former incumbent, Lutfur Rahman, unseated by means of a judicial coup which cited ill-defined “corruption” but had a strong racist overtone. Certainly compared to the bankers whose offices border Tower Hamlets he was a model of personal and financial probity.
Biggs polled 27,255 first preference votes against Rabina Khan’s 25,763, while the left leaning independent got 621 second preferences the ultimate Labour machine man clinched the result with 5,499. It’s hardly surprising. Mainstream media coverage had been relentlessly hostile to Khan’s campaign, essentially portraying her as a potentially corrupt communalist. This had the effect of racially polarising the election with many non-Bangladeshi voters who hadn’t closely followed Khan’s campaign seeing her as the “Muslim candidate”. She’s unapologetically Muslim but has absolutely no problem declaring her public support for a well known LGBTI pub which is threatened with closure.
The reality was that Rabina Khan’s electoral programme was what used to be thought of as old-fashioned Labour politics. She had pledged to build 5500 affordable homes; register the swarm of exploitative private landlords in the borough; bring back street parties and increase childcare. She didn’t promise to organise mass action against the Tories, but she was the only candidate to say she’s against austerity. Biggs made no similar statement.
When we consider the pitiful election results that left of Labour organisations received in the general election, Rabina Khan’s success is incredible. She had no time to build an organisation, had no party backing and was on the receiving end of a nasty smear campaign. To get more than 25 000 votes is a real achievement.
Newham, the borough adjacent to Tower Hamlets has a Labour mayor. Robin Wales is at the cutting edge of Labour’s embrace of neo-liberalism. John Biggs’ public utterances don’t really contribute to an understanding of what he thinks about anything, but even the mild resistance that Lutfur Rahman put up against austerity is likely to be a step too far for his successor.
Rahman had announced that Rabina Khan would stand for mayor at a large and angry public meeting. In a sense she is the heir to his political legacy and hasn’t really transcended its limitations. His “party”, which has since been proscribed, set out the extent of its ambitions in its name, Tower Hamlets First. The people in that network haven’t really made an effort to link up with the wider left or to break Labour supporters away on the basis of clearly defined ideas. Their main contact with left activists was from the very narrow milieu of small revolutionary groups. This was positive but insufficient.
Rabina Khan’s vote, like that of Lutfur Rahman previously, showed that in at least one part of London it is possible to have real electoral success by challenging the neo-liberal conventional wisdom of Labour and the Tories. Biggs has three years in office as mayor. That is ample time to capitalise on those 27,255 votes and build a political organisation which is as anti-austerity as it is anti-racist and reaches out to people with similar views beyond the borders of Tower Hamlets