Racially polarised election victory for Labour

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


  1. What’s your evidence that non Bangladeshi voters thought Rabina Khan was the ‘Muslim’ candidate? And that they are just simpletons duped by the mainstream media?

    No doubt some Biggs voters were Torys or racists. But actually many Bangladeshis didn’t vote for Rabina (including some who told pollsters they would – the so-called shy Biggsers).

    Bangladeshis didn’t vote for her for a variety of reasons: some within her party never supported her (Abjol Miah’s lot), some wanted to return to the Labour party (the part of the much loved Rushanara Ali), some objected to her stance on the Joiners, and so forth.

    So, more better analysis needed!

    It was indeed great to have all that anti-austerity talk though, for those brief few weeks.

    • It’s a fair comment though made in a rather unnecessarily polemical way as the bulk of the analysis in the article is very sound.
      As it happens, the evidence from voting figures doesn’t really support the argument that there was a massive shift in tactical voting:
      – In both the 2014 and 2015 mayoral elections, candidates outside the top two got about the same proportion of the vote, 22.2% and 23.8% respectively;
      – transfers counted from the eliminated candidate were about the same – 37% in 2014 against 40% in 2015 (ie 60% of those voting for the other candidates didn’t express a preference between the two leading candidates)
      – the proportion of transfers going to Biggs was about the same – 88.4% in 2014 to 89.9% in 2015.

      What did change sufficiently to affect the result was the base voting, with Biggs going from 32.8% to 40.0% and Rahman’s vote of 43.4% closely offsetting that by reducing to 37.4% for Khan.

      This may have been due to a series of factors, but one key issue in my view is that in between the mayoral elections there was the general election, where supporters of Rahman and Khan did not express a preference and where there was a big Labour vote from their supporters to support a Labour government (with only a small amount going to Left Unity/TUSC candidates).
      I’ve seen this before – there is a tendency for people to stick with what they know in terms of national parties such as Labour, and given the lack of party identity for Rahman/Khan, a lot of people who voted for Rahman in 2014 also voted Labour in 2015 and stuck with them for the mayoral election 6 weeks later. It takes time to build up voter loyalty – Respect didn’t pull it off and Rahman’s grouping hasn’t either. Rahman’s support was also weakened by there being no significant alternative in the European elections in London, with Labour taking over 54% of the vote in Tower Hamlets at the same time as they took 32.8% in the Mayoral (admittedly with the Greens on 11% in the Euros).
      Building a political alternative to Labour is a long term project and needs a party recognisable on the ground and standing regularly in elections to build support. Left Unity is learning that lesson – TUSC is not. It remains to be seen what will happen to those around THF.

      Of course, while it would have been much better for Khan to have won rather than Biggs, an Executive Mayor is a fundamentally undemocratic way to run local services – Respect were wrong to have campaigned and won the referendum and it’s time to have a balance sheet of that and a move back to the left opposing these Mayors in principle.

  2. Ok, sorry for the polemical tone. I just get frustrated with the party line that everyone who doesn’t support your candidate must be a racist. The reality is more complicated. But this article doesn’t stress that anyway, a positive change from the Respect years.

    I agree with the last paragraph. And I do know socialists who voted Green because their platform called for the abolition of the elected mayors post.

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