So barring any huge surprises from the Tories (and I hear they may well be lining up a good candidate), it will be Lutfur versus John Biggs for the Tower Hamlets mayoralty come May 2014.
The “Merc” versus the Morris Minor, if you like.
Actually, I’m not even sure John drives a car so it might be a culture shock should he be triumphant and see the princely wealth of resources Lutfur would have amassed for him in Mulberry Place.
This contest could well be the most interesting fight in local government next year.
Biggs, a former council leader, ousted in 1995 by colleagues who still have (or, as some say, think they have) a fair degree of sway locally (Michael Keith etc). He then went on to make a name for himself as the London Assembly’s biggest ankle biter, first as a thorn in the side to an Independent Mayor Ken Livingstone (although he was a loyal ally when Ken rejoined the Labour fold), and then as an attack dog on Boris Johnson, who I’m told, both likes him and his bulldog sarcasm.
When the Tower Hamlets mayoralty was up for grabs in 2010, John saw it as his chance to have one last Big Job in politics (Westminster was never for him), and when the London Labour party anointed Helal Abbas amid the chaos of the Lutfur (non)-selection that year, he may well have thought his opportunity had gone forever.
However, Abbas’s defeat reopened the door, but how will he fare against an opponent who seems increasingly impervious to mainstream criticism and scrutiny and who is raiding precious council reserves to fund a re-election campaign?
It will boil down to ideas, charisma, resilience and that hardy Tower Hamlets perennial: race.
During this last Labour selection contest, a former deputy leader of Tower Hamlets council, Jalal Ahmed, distributed what was even by this borough’s standards one of the most poisonous and loaded character assassination pamphlets I’ve seen. The document was full of personal history between the two men and as it was also full of libels I won’t reproduce it, but it demonstrated the extent to which people will go to smear a rival.
I wasn’t in Tower Hamlets in the Nineties so I’m not familiar with the details of that period, but the accusations in the document bore no resemblance to any of the conversations I’ve had with John since he started snapping at me in 2006.
But the document was perhaps a clue as to how the next 12 months will unfurl: “What’s he ever done for the Bengali community?”
Maybe his many Bengali admirers, including London Assembly member Murad Qureshi, or Cllr Abdal Ullah, or even, once-upon-a-time, a certain Lutfur Rahman, or indeed Ken Livingstone, may like to answer that.
When Len Duvall, another Labour London Assembly member, announced at Stepney’s Positive East building last night that John was the party’s new candidate, there were barely 30 people in the room. The earlier than expected announcement had caught many of the activists–still down the pub or in the nearby coffee shops–by surprise. As such, the applause was surprisingly muted. Perhaps, most of those there at that time were supporters of Rachael Saunders, understandably disappointed by losing a close race.
It was close and for the record, here are the results:
Round 1: Rachael Saunders 261, John Biggs 257, Helal Abbas 207, Sirajul Islam 26.
Round 2 (after Abbas and Sirajul eliminated and second preference votes redistributed): John Biggs 328, Rachael 319.
Two narratives are being peddled about this. Firstly, that Rachael had benefited from a “bloc” vote controlled by Lutfur, who, the theory goes, perceived her as his least dangerous opponent, or as someone who could knock out Biggs in the first round. And secondly, how can Biggs be the “unity candidate” when he was the first choice of barely a quarter of the party membership: that the Labour party is now split like never before, that there will be further defections to Lutfur’s camp and we will see a contest fought on Bengali versus White next year.
On the first, as one of Rachael’s backers put it to me, it must have been galling for many to see a young white woman do so well: she couldn’t possibly have amassed that much support all by her little self. While there may have been some strategic voting go on by some (who knows how many), given that Lutfur trounced Abbas last time, why wouldn’t he have ordered his mates to get him selected again?
And on the second…well, it’s deal time. As Josh Peck is standing down as group leader in May, Labour have a vacancy to fill. Yet the party now finds itself in the odd position of having a leader locally who is not a councillor. Biggs will have to be the boss but outside the group: he will have to get involved in strategy decisions and on how to take on Lutfur and his cabinet over the next year.
No doubt some will question how he can remain an Assembly member, which is a full time job, and find the time to do “council” work. But his answer will surely be that most councillors have full time jobs anyway. It is possible that a selfless Labour councillor could resign to allow him a seat for the next year, but while it would be fun to see him in the chamber, I don’t think a forced by-election would be an appropriate use of our money.
So that means he needs a close ally to fill Josh’s shoes, someone who can straddle the different factions and someone who may eventually become his deputy mayor. Abdal Ullah is certainly up for such a role and maybe, after all these years, his time has finally come. Having a Bengali on the “ticket” would certainly help John.
Abbas would also tick the boxes, perhaps more so given his experience and strong showing in the selection process. But would he be interested?
Perhaps Rachael is the most deserving, but as this is Tower Hamlets, having two whites run the party would create an obvious opportunity for Lutfur’s race-obsessed groupies.
Cllr Shiria Khatun maybe??
And how John manages the Labour group will be intriguing. I can’t see him stomaching the covert alliance with the Tories that has proved so effective for Labour. Imagine what Boris would say to him…
But how will Team Lutfur attack Biggs, though? After all, for the past two years, his supporters have often pointed out that Biggs was also an injured party in the 2010 selection process. And as he hasn’t been part of the Labour group that they so bitterly criticise in the council chamber, that line of attack isn’t open to them either. Maybe they’ll say he’s been out of Tower Hamlets politics for too long: that would be an irony.
Heaven forbid, will it actually come down to policy ideas?