One of the reasons given for the disastrous move to a directly elected mayoral system of governance in Tower Hamlets in 2010 was it would end the inherent instability of the ‘leader and cabinet’ model.
The latter entailed the ruling party group, ie Labour councillors, voting each April for their leader. This led to endless faction fights that eventually resulted in the rise of Lutfur Rahman.
It turns out these were the halcyon days of Tower Hamlets politics. As I write, the party is again at war with itself in a tragic case of history repeating.
In most councils, I think I’m right in saying that what most people care about is the efficient running of frontline services: bins, schools, street lights, housing etc etc. In Tower Hamlets, the discussions among many politicos at least (but more widely as well) centre more on race and Islamophobia….and when will there be another Bengali mayor. Of course, these are then wrapped up as one.
So the smear tactics that eventually led to the ousting by a court of Lutfur Rahman are once again being deployed against Mayor John Biggs. On a Bengali TV political chat show tonight (‘Straight Dialogue’), the topics due for discussion were “police brutality, harassment, racism, hate crime, Islamophobia and any other issues of concern”.
Panel members due to appear included former Labour and Respect councillor Gulam Mortuza, ex-Labour councillor Abdal Ullah and, lo and behold, Shiraj Haque, who everyone knows as ‘Curry King’ and who used to boast he was Lutfur’s main financial backer until people started to realise that accolade actually resided with the taxpayer’s grants pot.
Mr Haque is a Labour member although for how long is another question. He is currently in league with former (Labour) council leader Helal Abbas and a number of others to “stand up for democracy” and ensure there is no stitch up over who is chosen as the party’s mayoral candidate in 2018.
One of the consequences of the Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum show at Westminster has been a significant increase in party membership in Tower Hamlets. [I am also told that influential activists have been busy buying up party memberships for people. One informed source told me this “has long been the custom in Tower Hamlets” so that you have people who can turn up to branch meetings and vote as puppets. Some convince themselves this is democracy in action but the reality is that it is fraud and if anyone has any information on this please do get in touch – confidentiality guaranteed.]
Possibly because the “wrong” kind of members may have joined (legitimately and otherwise), Labour has decided to very quickly settle the important issue of who will be its candidate for 2018.
A series of trigger ballots among all the borough party’s wards and affiliates has just got underway. The intention of the party leadership is to affirm there is no need for an open election process for the 2018 candidate and that the incumbent is automatically chosen, ie John Biggs.
It’s my understanding that John has genuinely impressed the Government appointed commissioners and senior officers who oversee and run the council. The council is regaining respect in Whitehall.
But for a great many people, and not just loons, this doesn’t really matter. For them, partly because of his character (dry and sometimes blunt), but more because he is not Bengali, it’s time for another Bengali mayor.
So they are seeing this decision to “impose” him as candidate for 2018 as an undemocratic stitch up. The rallying calls have gone out. These trigger ballots must be completed by November 16. Only those who were registered Labour members before April 16 are entitled to vote.
If he loses the trigger ballot (he has to win a majority of wards and affiliates), there will be new selection process. And that will mean new hats into the ring. What is probable if that happens is that John will not win.
Who those new hats may belong to is a fascinating question in itself. I am told Helal Abbas has not ruled himself out, although he also fancies himself to take over Jim Fitzpatrick’s seat in whatever becomes Poplar and Limehouse in 2020.
But the really wild card hat is Rabina Khan, who, with her husband Aminur Khan, yesterday quit the Tower Hamlets Independent Group. This was as I predicted last month when THING and Lutfur chose Ohid Ahmed as their 2018 candidate for mayor. I am told she was subjected to a certain degree of misogyny by some of her former group colleagues, which does not surprise me. So good on her.
So here’s the interesting scenario. Remember she is a former Labour councillor who defected to Lutfur in 2010. She and others would like to return. Senior local figures like Abbas have made it known that the party should be “reaching out” to her and others (to Ohid Ahmed, even), to draw a line and readmit them to the fold. Some regard this as breathtakingly cynical.
But I would not bet against it happening. And if she is readmitted, there is a very good chance that the woman who lost to Biggs in 2015 could defeat him in an internal selection process next year. Even if Biggs wins the Labour trigger ballot this month, she could take him on outside the Labour tent as an independent.
Oh, the machinations, eh… . Well, they’ve only just begun. Last night, the first of the affiliates to hold the trigger ballot, the Women’s Forum, descended into farce and acrimony — and resulted in an official complaint by Shiraj Haque to Labour’s general secretary Iain McNicol about the way it was conducted.
I have been sent a copy of that letter, which was copied to Jeremy Corbyn, Len McLuskey, Shami Chakrabarti, loads of others, and Christine Shawcroft. I’ve copied it below.
The facts are that 67 people signed in to vote, but somehow 80 ballots were cast (so the usual story, really). The organisers, Victoria Obaze and Catherine Overton, who are John Biggs supporters, say they had no choice but to declare the vote null and void. It is claimed by John’s opponents that the vote would have gone against him.
Over the next few days, there will be many more such ballots.
Oh, we also have the matter of the Whitechapel by election on December 1 after the demise of jailbird Shahed Ali who is serving time for housing tenancy fraud.
Labour is selecting its candidate tomorrow night. John I think favours ex-councillor Motin uz-Zaman, but Abbas, Khales Uddin and Shiraj Haque are said to be lobbying hard for Tarik Khan. (Update: Tarik denies this; at the shortlisting session on Wednesday night, Motin, Asma Islam (Wais’s wife) and Victoria Obaze were chosen: the full selection is Thursday night. This is also being viewed as a stitch up.)
Oddly, THING is not putting up a candidate. A certain Shafi Ahmed is believed to be standing on behalf of something called the ‘Residents’ Alliance’ and THING are standing aside for him. Any more details on Mr Ahmed gratefully received.
Here’s the letter sent by Shiraj Haque and friends to Labour’s general secretary. One person who was at the meeting has told me the letter is “bollocks”.
Dear Mr McNicol,
Affirmative ballot for the mayoral candidate in Tower Hamlets
We write to formally inform you on behalf of a number of distressed members the Tower Hamlets Labour Party whom have been victims of intimidation, bullying, harassment and blackmailing by members of John Biggs’ campaign team; some of whom are senior and leading figures of the local Labour Party including Jim Fitzpatrick MP.
These allegations include threats of being blocked on shortlists of future councillor selections in Tower Hamlets, being expelled from the Labour Party and threatening to refuse and withhold support for community events.
Additionally, there are also serious concern of data protection violation whereby members of John Biggs’ campaign team have been seen with membership data when approaching members for support and it is unclear how such data was obtained and with which permissions.
It is quite clear that Mr Biggs’ team are clearly lobbying support for the trigger in every ward in Tower Hamlets which of course they are entitled to do, however in the process there are clear violations of due process taking place. We shall be following up this letter with evidence and affidavits which shall be sent to you shortly.
As you will be aware the first trigger ballots of Tower Hamlets Labour Party was from the Women’s Forum organised trigger ballot this evening, 1 November 2016 at 7pm at St Margaret’s Hall.
There was a large turnout of members. Many have complained about a lack of organisation, transparency and being denied access to the hall, being asked for photographic ID is which was not communicated beforehand and a new requirement for these types of meetings. Many members did have identity cards in their possession in form of student photo card, driving licence and so on, but due to not presenting their Labour Party membership cards they were asked to stand to a side of the hall, treated like outsiders and entryists and made to suffer humiliation in front of other members.
Finally when members demanded the production of Labour Party rulebook evidence stating that the only acceptable identity cards has to be Labour Party membership cards, they were allowed entry. The vast majority of the members did not receive notice of the meeting to attend this women forum ballot in the first place disenfranchise many eligible to attend and vote.
Members attended the meeting after hearing this via word of mouth and as a result the attendance was high, demonstrating that this is a vote members want to participate in and be heard on.
Many will be relatively new to the Party therefore unaware of the process and some of them did not carry their Labour Party membership cards. Those that did receive notice were not informed in that notice that they needed to bring proof of identification. It has come to our attention that a member and organiser known as Catherine Overton arrived at least half hour after the closing of the door. She was allowed to canvass for Mayor Biggs, take part in the voting process and become a teller while other women who arrived at the same time were turned away. A clear example of discrimination. Members were individually counted numerous times and had to sit through three registration and verification processes before the release of the ballot papers which was done by two people running through the attendee list and yet again verifying each member present individually before issuing them a single ballot paper. The public announcement by Victoria Obaze which announced the opening of the meeting during which she categorically stated that she was delighted that at least 80 members had turned up for the meeting.
The members explains their frustration and intimidation that they had suffered from some of the women councillors during this process. They were strongly advised by some of these women councillors and the organisers to support the trigger ballot in favour of Mayor John Biggs. These members state that upon the first counting of the ballot papers most of the councillors and organisers gathered around the counting table and started gossiping. They then announced to re-count the ballot papers again, but did not explain the reasons. They finally re-counted these papers up to four times before declaring the ballot to be invalid and gave their reasoning as receiving 80 completed ballot papers when they had only 67 members registered and the “discrepancy” in numbers was too large. One councillor went as far as to say publically that perhaps the ballots were tampered with while unattended and extra ballots added to the pile sending a message to members that their presence was unwelcome or some way underhand.
It would follow that if at the start of the meeting Victoria announced the number in attendance having completed the registration was 80 members, you would expect that same number of votes to be cast as was the case. How was there suddenly a 30 vote discrepancy which allowed the vote to be nullified?
For a women’s meeting late on a cold night to have a high turnout is something to be celebrated and encouraged. The above examples show a lack of respect for the wider membership by officers and councillors and makes a mockery of the efforts many women made to attend the meeting despite work, childcare and other commitments. It is unacceptable to Labour Party values of fairness, democracy and transparency to treat members this way. The Tower Hamlets membership list is perhaps one of the most scrutinised in the country and having undergone rigorous due diligence in recent years has been confirmed as robust and on the whole accurate. To treat members this way is appalling.
It is with regret the members wish to know from you whether the process applied tonight by the organisers and some of the councillors was the process held under the Labour Party rulebook.
In addition, we seek the Labour Party to immediately suspend the trigger ballot process in Tower Hamlets with immediate effect pending an independent investigation into our concerns raised above in order to ensure a fair and just process is adhered to. In the absence of any action we shall seek legal advice on this matter.