Tower Hamlets Election: Lib Dems plot return to the top

By Rob Virtue on May 15, 2014 10:03 AM |

Reetendra Banerji.jpg

Twenty years ago Tower Hamlets was Liberal Democrats' territory. But on the back of the BNP's brief emergence, during which time Derek Beackon served for a few months in the Millwall ward, the Lib Dems crumbled amid accusations they had fanned racism with poorly-worded leaflets.

The party lost power and has never fully recovered. Its mayoral candidate for this month's election Reetendra Banerji admitted it was a difficult time.

"Liberal Democrats did internally take a big hit, particularly with the accusations of being racist," he said.

"We were unable to engage with the population on those charges.

"But we should remember when Lib Dems were in power in Tower Hamlets we had the most number of schools opening and the redevelopment of Tower Hamlets was praised up and down the country because of the way we engaged with the population.

"We also had primary schools with zero carbon footprint - just look at Swanlea primary school."

These days the Lib Dems' plans for the borough have three key platforms - a change in corporate culture, borrowing to fund more social housing and a fresh strategy for jobs.

The culture side is a thinly-veiled attack on what Mr Banerji calls the "two Labour groups" in the borough - an assertion that riled Labour Party member John Biggs during a recent election hustings.

However, there's some basis for the jibe as current mayor and ex-Labour member Lutfur Rahman continues to claim the support of key party figures such as Ken Livingstone.

Mr Banerji said: "We've seen how the two parts of the Labour Party bicker with themselves.

"The reason the mayor is the mayor is because he was once the Labour candidate.

"There's something fundamentally wrong with the Labour Party which doesn't understand that. That's why [Rahman's party] Tower Hamlets First was formed.

"They come from the same place, they're brother and sister and Tower Hamlets First is being stocked with former Labour councillors.

"Philosophically and emotionally they are the same party. The Lib Dems offer a change of culture."

Mr Banerji admits the council faces a crisis, due to what he fears is overspending by Mayor Rahman and further cuts from Government.

But despite the financial difficulties, we desperately need more housing says Mr Banerji, who unsuccessfully stood for election in 2006 in Hounslow.

His answer is to fight against a cap on council borrowing and take advantage of "record low interest rates".

Reetendra Banerji2.jpg

But would Tower Hamlets residents want more debt?

"I understand the question but it really isn't brought up by many people," said the 40-year-old.

"We should be borrowing more. But Labour are financially incompetent and wouldn't get a good deal.

"The Conservatives idea is to sell land to the highest bidding property developer with no connection to affordable and social homes.

"The Liberal Democrats have the best chance of getting a good deal when borrowing more to fund housing for the people."

Mr Banerji spent five years in the United States advising startups in Silicon Valley after completing an MBA at North Carolina.

He returned to England, where he has been assistant headmaster at Westminster Academy.

But he's never lost those Tech City roots and wants the east London digital sector to play a greater role in the jobs market.

"We don't see apprenticeships as dead weight, we want to keep them.

"We want to see the mayor's office as a one-stop shop not just for apprentices but employers.

"And I see Tech City and Canary Wharf understanding that, when the imagination of young people is channelled correctly into the corporate environment, it produces greater economic benefit."

The Tower Hamlets mayoral, local and European elections takes place next Thursday, May 22.