Among the Labour people I’ve spoken to about their party’s shortlist for the Tower Hamlets mayoral selection, two sentiments stand out: amazement and stitch-up. That the shortlist of three, which I blogged on last night here, includes neither the current council leader Helal Abbas, nor his immediate predecessor Lutfur Rahman, is striking. It really is a statement of intent from Labour HQ: they want to clean and control.
They realise any controversy over an all-powerful directly elected Mayor in an Olympic host borough would attract national headlines. Having the crony-loving Sir Robin Wales (read more about him soon in the Sunday Express) as Mayor of Newham is one thing, but to have two controversial figures in neighbouring boroughs would be too much. It’s clear that London Labour (for which read national Labour) want London Assembly member John Biggs as mayor.
Sirajul Islam and Shiria Khatun are in the race, in most people’s eyes (although anything’s possible), to provide the semblance of a contest. In their own ways, both are engaging politicians. In the meetings I covered at Tower Hamlets council, Siraj always struck me as someone who had a heavy dose of common sense: he was both thoughtful and practical. But he was not necessarily keen to speak his mind in public. He was a supporter of Lutfur Rahman in 2008, but a year later (a year in which although he was Lutfur’s deputy, he was regularly sidelined), he changed his mind and switched to the Abbas camp. (Correction: as Rachael points out in a comment below, Siraj supported Denise Jones in 2008, but there is a question mark over who he supported in 2009.)
Abbas-supporting Shiria, on the other hand, rarely suffered, or suffers, such afflictions. She is charismatic and media savvy to the core. Sadly, her outspoken and secular outlook also attracts unwanted attention. In the run-up to the council elections in May, she went public on the odd case of stalking phone calls: I reported it in the Sunday Express here.
Whatever their credentials, neither can really boast of genuinely concrete achievements in office. John Biggs, who has spent much of his political career either in opposition or scrutinising politicians more senior to him, is going to have a similar problems. And this is why former council leader Professor Michael Keith is said to be so deeply hurt and insulted that he failed his interview, so much so that he is considering an appeal.
That’s not the case with either Lutfur or Abbas as I understand it. Abbas is said to have accepted the decision, possibly with the promise that he will become a £60,000 a year deputy mayor. Lutfur, meanwhile, has, I can confirm, been approached by Respect, but his close friends in Labour have warned him they will perform painful below-the-waist surgery if he defects.
Tower Hamlets Labour members will submit their votes in about three weeks’ time. The Lib Dems, Respect and the Tories will then follow suit. As far as the Tories are concerned, we are likely to see someone new introduced. Neither opposition leader Cllr Peter Golds nor his deputy, Cllr Tim Archer, will stand. And neither will Zak Khan, the party’s defeated parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow.
Over the next three weeks, I’m inviting all the candidates to explain on this blog why they would like to be mayor. Shiria Khatun has promised the first contribution, which I hope to post here over the weekend.