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Archive for May 26th, 2014

The Count

WHEN even the Great David Dimbleby starts sighing live on the BBC about a “shambles” in the Muppet land of Tower Hamlets, we know we have a problem.

The Guardian journalist James Ball tweeted in the early hours of this morning: “There’s always one. And it’s always f***ing Tower f***ing Hamlets.”

Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament was understood to be irritated.

Today, broadcaster Iain Dale devoted an hour of his LBC radio programme to it.

Delaying the results of the European Parliament elections by five hours last night wasn’t the best of PR moves.

A borough that had already been branded by some as a byword for sleaze is now (perhaps a little unfairly) a byword for incompetence.

If Eric Pickles was in need of any extra camouflage for a form of intervention when the PwC auditors hand him their report by June 30, he now has it.

There will be many reasons for the counting shambles of the past few days, but the most basic is that we have a dysfunctional local authority at a political level.

John Williams, by day the head of democratic services at Tower Hamlets (a job in which he largely excels, given the circumstances), is a very decent and straightforward man.

But I’m not sure he was the most senior employee available to act as Returning Officer.

My understanding is that he was thrust into the role because other more qualified individuals may have ducked the job or could not be trusted by some of the political parties.

And the reason the parties felt they couldn’t trust some of these candidates is because of previous political shambles.

The chaos and dysfunctionality that some of us have been writing about for years manifested themselves right at the heart of the democratic process at the weekend.

Clearly, we are now at a point where serious action is needed.

Which brings us back to the election and the results.

Maybe the words spoken in the aftermath of election war aren’t the best guide to future thinking, but they can reveal innermost thoughts.

At his press conference in the early hours of Friday morning, Mayor Lutfur declined to say John Biggs wasn’t a racist. I think that was a mistake and perhaps Lutfur also knows this.

Some time later, he tweeted this to John:

 I extend my thanks to ‪@johnbiggs4mayor for the work he put into his campaign and hope we can work together to better Tower Hamlets.

 John replied:

‪@MayorLutfur I am happy to repeat best wishes & offer support for nxt 4 yrs. Non-sectarian partnership always possible.

This was conciliatory and professional.

John, having been baited by Lutfur’s supporters, also tweeted these messages over the weekend:

3 tweets: 1 Thanks for the support. Pleased many know I’m a good guy. Not a racist. Proud to be here and of what we have achieved together.

2. & I don’t mind the abuse – it helps understand the polarised, dishonest, and often quite racist thinking behind the Mayors party.

3. Finally most of us in East End want to live together. We must continue to fight those who try to divide us. From right, or pretend left.

The more learned in Lutfur’s camp believe John was wrong to react to the thugs, but I disagree. I think he was quite right to take them on and he probably should have done so in similar language during his election campaign.

A worrying race-fuelled frenzy was whipped up by the Tower Hamlets First campaign. In the same way they believe the EDL came banging on the borough’s doors due to errant words and inaccurate labelling, they must now recognise similar dangers by their own words.

The mayoral election result and the campaign that went with it underlined the racial divisions in the borough. I’m fairly sure they’re mainly at the political level at the moment, but there’s a serious risk of that becoming part of a wider mindset.

Community cohesion, a phrase that has for so long been associated with Whitehallspeak, now has to take on real meaning.

Even many in Lutfur’s own camp, and in the Bengali media, recognise his victory was too narrowly based. He has a strong mandate, but mainly from one community. His Tower Hamlets First group has, at the time of writing, 18 councillors, all of them Bengali, 17 of them men. Just one woman.

He now has to show he can truly lead for the whole borough.

So how does he do that when there are so many dynamics at play?

 

My greatest criticism of Lutfur in his last term were his disregard for scrutiny and an insecure appetite for trappings of power.

With a bigger group behind him in council, I suspect we’ll see him become more confident and address some of these criticisms. In the council chamber, I think he’ll start to take more questions and I suspect he’ll ditch the chauffeured Merc and hire an eco car instead.

And wouldn’t it be lovely if he issued a call for reconciliation, a plea for everyone to work together to draw the poison from Tower Hamlets politics? He could ask Labour to supply members to his cabinet, he could form a group of resident advisors to act as a monthly sounding board; he could have public question times every six months.

But I think his overriding desire for readmission to the Labour party (on his terms) will drive him more than anything else. On Channel S TV tonight he said his door is open to the Labour group if they would like to cooperate.

He has a cabinet to pick by June 11, the date of the Annual meeting of the council. I’m sure he’d love to have the likes of David Edgar and Marc Francis serve with him, and quite possibly Rachael Saunders.

Whether Labour would allow that so soon after the election is doubtful. Personally, I think they should just get on with it and give him a go. Nothing wrong with a trial period.

But what would be Lutfur’s price…and also the cost to him?

He has a much larger group to please now, including a certain Abjol Miah, the former IFE-aligned Respect leader, who doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to getting along with party colleagues. Those who served with him in Respect remember him as a rather malign influence in group meetings, someone who shouted at women members. Personally, I’ve always found him courteous, but there’s certainly a risk he could cause internal trouble for the mayor: I understand they’re not best buddies.

Lutfur could of course try to do what Sir Robin Wales is said to do in Newham and placate his group with artificial new committee/advisory positions that pay generous allowances. But because he doesn’t have a controlling majority of 23 councillors, that might be tricky.

Some Labour members might defect of course; but then again, those who lose out under Lutfur may be dangled a destabilising carrot back into the Labour stable.

So among the soft and fuzzy ideas of peace, a complex and hard-nosed game of realpolitik poker is about to be played.

On Lutfur’s side, he has many cards to play. He’s shown what a superb grassroots organiser he can be and he’s devastated Labour while even using many of their policies for his campaigning. What now worries them is whether he can suck in more of their councillors and whether he can mobilise his support in next year’s general election against Jim Fitzpatrick and Rushanara Ali.

His sole female councillor, Rabina Khan, is said to be keen to take on Rushanara in Bethnal Green and Bow. That would be a close fight. In Poplar and Limehouse, Jim is probably safer, but the danger is there. Lutfur could offer to call off this potential war in return for his re-admittance, but he would no doubt demand all his councillors go with him. I think that would be too much for Labour to stomach. Could Lutfur agree on a certain number going with him? I doubt it; he’d be branded a traitor by the rump.

On the other hand, Lutfur may also overestimate his own victory. He’s very popular personally among Bengalis but his success was also due to a collective Bengali ‘patriotism’: many voted for him, not necessarily because they thought he was particularly good, but because they felt he had been wronged and he was fighting a non-Bengali in John Biggs. Had Labour fielded a popular Bengali in Biggs’s place, the story might be different today.

Labour’s post-mortem on its defeat is going to be painful. Next week, they have to elect their new group leader and this will give us an indication on their thinking.

But here’s one last thought. In a recent pamphlet of essays from the think tank, Demos, Max Wind-Cowie, a policy wonk, suggested Tower Hamlets was now so dysfunctional that it should be abolished as a local authority. He said it could be absorbed in parts by neighbouring Hackney and Newham.

I’m not sure Jules Pipe or Robin Wales would be thrilled at that prospect, but is there some merit in that kind of idea?

After all, Tower Hamlets as an authority is a fairly artificial entity, having existed only since 1965. Before that we had the boroughs of Bethnal Green, Stepney and Poplar.

Former Labour councillor Kevin Morton tweeted last night that David Owen, who lives in Narrow Street in Limehouse, once suggested a London Borough of Docklands. Kevin said it was perhaps time to revive that idea…a borough that took in Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs and parts of Poplar and Wapping.

Perhaps not as daft as it at first sounds.

In fact, I think a certain Ken Livingstone thinks we have far too many boroughs in London. Maybe he can help drive that campaign.

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