Voters in Tower Hamlets are gearing up to the go to the polls on June 11. It will be the second time in two months they have put a cross on a ballot paper, the second time in two years that the vote has been for a new executive mayor.
The shadow of the previous holder of the post, Lutfur Rahman, looms over this election. It was his campaign that brought the man and his party into disrepute and saw him kicked out of office with a judge’s damning words ringing in his ears.
His party, formed to keep him in office, was disbanded after the ruling of “illegal and corrupt practices” but it figures still, not least in the form of the candidate who carries the Rahman banner.
Cllr Rabina Khan – labelled as an Independent – has run a dual campaign of appropriating the Rahman image for the benefit of his core support while quoting the “fresh face, fresh start” mantra to those fed up with the sort of insular politics that made the borough something of a basketcase.
If Cllr Khan loses – she is currently second favourite – she will have plenty to reflect on in a campaign that, on paper, had plenty going for it despite the Rahman deadweight. If she genuinely wanted to “be her own woman” then that in itself was a strategy that could have pulled in the curious do-not-knows.
She is a very presentable, competent Bangladeshi-born mother-of-three (for which read “human”) who handles the media well and could have signalled a new chapter in Tower Hamlets politics if she were taken with the cause.
However, her debt to her mentor has extended to adopting some of his more infuriating habits that suggests (in The Who’s refrain) – “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.
Despite insisting that she would be an open and accessible mayor Cllr Khan’s campaign has been characterised by her failure to show up at numerous hustings. The image of the Empty Seat could be her albatross.
People I have spoken to are genuinely intrigued. They want to know who she is and what’s she about but she has denied them exposure that would give her a strong personal mandate (rather than the claims of lame proxy that would dog her leadership).
It is for Labour’s to lose, at least according to the bookies, who have the party odds-on. You will not hear such words from the campaign though. They are smarting from bold predictions before the general election and Tower Hamlets remains terrain soaked in blood.
The Labour candidate, John Biggs, presents himself as a competent manager of a spectacularly dysfunctional council but he knows that getting the bins emptied on time will never be enough in this riven borough.
Labour sees this as the beginning of its fightback (built on the confident knowledge that London was a Labour stalwart in the general election) but is nervous of another bodyblow. The big guns have been brought in to press the flesh – Andy Burnham, Chuka Umunna, Tessa Jowell – as well as a full complement of Bengali MPs, including Bethnal Green and Bow’s Rushanara Ali.
Mr Biggs has named his three deputy mayoral running mates as Cllr Rachael Saunders, Cllr Shiria Khatun and Cllr Sirajul Islam to reflect the broad reach of a campaign in which ethnic credentials are part of the entrance fee.
He has had to bat away the usual allegations that he is planning to close down mosques etc but at least can call on a legal ruling that he is not racist, as was claimed by his rivals in 2014.
The Conservative candidate is the much-respected Cllr Peter Golds who has been praised widely for his tenacity in exposing Mr Rahman’s wrong-doings over the years despite the despicable abuse that has come his way as a result.
His platform is built on more openness and transparency as well as a much-needed rethink about planning on the overcrowded Isle of Dogs.
He deserves a vote of thanks for his sterling efforts but even the bluest of die-hards doubt a Tory sensation.
Whoever takes the Town Hall the first order of business is to sweep away the choking Rahman cobwebs and reflect the aspirations of a borough that is singularly challenging but still in an excellent position to become a model of combative but progressive politics.
Other candidates on the ballot are:
- Elaine Bagshaw, Liberal Democrats
- Andy Erlam, Red Flag – Anti-Corruption
- John Foster, Green Party
- Vanessa Helen Hudson, Animal Welfare Party
- Hafiz Abdul Kadir, Independent
- Rabina Khan, Independent
- Nicholas McQueen, UKIP
- Md Motiur Rahman Nanu, Independent