Lewis Baston: The post-election loss of Labor’s Tower Hamlets will worry parties across London
Labor suffered a shocking defeat yesterday in a by-election for the Weavers congregation in Tower Hamlets. which was created by the sudden death of Alderman John Pierce in June at the age of only 40. The winners were Aspire, a local party based on the political movement around former mayor Lutfur Rahman, who was ousted in 2015 after an electoral court ruled that he won office the previous year through “corrupt and illegal practices” had. A tangled web of factors was at work in a community where deception was part of recent electoral history.
Weavers is based on the western section of Bethnal Green. The name “Weavers”, which has been used for the station in this area since 1978, pays homage to the ever-changing nature of the East End. For many years the area was a center of the weaving trade and the place where generations of migrants and refugees, especially Huguenots and Irish, found a home and work. It is a densely populated residential and postal industrial area. One of the few local open spaces just outside the Weavers community is Weavers Fields, which opened as a result of wartime bombing and the demolition of the weavers’ huts that had previously been there after the war.
The inner East End is still an area of recent migration, with the largest community being of Bangladeshi origin. Of course there is also a longtime white population. The parish boundary runs through the middle of the former fiefdom of the Kray brothers, Vallance Road. A more pleasant East End institution within the community is the Columbia Road Flower Market. The western edge of the borough comes close to Shoreditch High Street. The peculiar raised concrete tunnel station of this name spans the border between Tower Hamlets and Hackney.
There are quite a few Shoreditch artists and city pros at this end of Weavers. Part of the area was Old Nichol, a terrifying slum in Victorian times until it was replaced by a very early piece of public housing, the Boundary Estate. The blocks from the 1890s radiate from the Arnold Circus bandstand through quiet residential streets, which is one of the reasons why the by-election was so sharp and its result so surprising.
The East End is sometimes viewed as the solid heartland of the Labor Party, but while Labor usually wins elections here, there are enough exceptions to prove that it is not quite that easy. It was not until 1945 that Labor won the Bethnal Green South West parliamentary constituency for the first time when Percy Holman defeated Liberal MP Sir Percy Harris.
The parties that made up the Liberal Democrats reappeared in local elections in the late 1970s, and from 1982 to 2010 they represented Weavers Ward more than often on the council (although Labor won the upper hand in 1994 and 1998). They controlled Tower Hamlets from 1986 to 1994, aided in the early 1990s by seedy tactics that led to a national investigation by the Lib Dems.
More recently, the threat to Labor has come from parties that represent a more left-wing or communalist form of politics. The first shock came in 2005 when George Galloway won the Bethnal Green & Bow constituency in this year’s general election, followed by local election wins for Galloway’s Respect Party. Labor won the district elections in May 2010, but split heavily over whether Rahman was their candidate for the first mayoral election later that year. He was eventually stopped from being the candidate but ran as an independent and won.
However, his re-election in 2014 was declared null and void by the electoral court. Labor’s John Biggs won mayoral elections the following year and was re-elected in 2018. Labor council colleagues won a resounding victory in the seats that year, but wiser observers noted that while the previously divided forces of Lutfurism had been defeated, their electoral base had not been destroyed.
Throughout this turmoil, Weavers held on to Labor. Due to border changes, the community was reduced from three to two members in 2014. Pierce and his Labor colleague Abdul Mukit won the seats that year, defeating Kabir Ahmed, the previous one was elected to Labor in 2010 but ran for the district for Rahman’s Tower Hamlets First Party and fell just nine votes below Pierce’s total.
The electoral court that removed Rahman’s dismissal as mayor also looked at the 2014 Weavers district elections. The verdict was that Ahmed did not reside at the Bethnal Green address where he was registered and concluded: “It follows that Mr. Ahmed’s registration was a false registration and that his votes were illegal.” (Paragraph 327). The Labor team had a healthier-looking majority in 2018, but only won just over 50 percent of the vote. The rest of the pack was led by the so-called Lutfurites, who were meanwhile running as aspires.
Six candidates ran in yesterday’s by-election. Trade unionist Hugo Pierre the Socialist Party (Militant) ran under the banner of the trade unions and the Socialist Coalition and received 30 votes. Entrepreneur Emanuel Andjelic won 50 votes for the Lib Dems. The next two candidates tested the limits of nominative determinism: Nathalie Bienfait of the Greens didn’t do that well with 205 votes (9.7 percent, roughly what the party won in 2018); the Conservative candidate Elliott WeaverOn the other hand, he improved his stamina significantly compared to his battle for the seat in 2018. Gaining 360 votes (13.9 percent) and more than doubling the Tory share.
Rather than pushing through, the Conservatives actually fought in the by-election and were duly rewarded for their efforts, which were largely inspired by the young Mr. Weaver. His literature, however, downplayed his loyalty to the party – voters were shyly invited to support the party, whose emblem was a tree, the party’s name being a little difficult to find.
But the serious battle would always be fought between the two parties that led the field in 2018. Labour’s defense didn’t start well. The eventual winner of a controversial selection process, young activist Nasrin Khan, was endorsed by the district leadership, but both the process and its outcome were rejected by some within the Weavers party who viewed it as inexperienced and not local enough. The Aspire candidate could not be accused of inexperience. It was none other than Kabir Ahmed who this time gave an address in Redbridge.
The campaign was carried out with the vitriol one is used to from the elections in Tower Hamlets. It was busy. Local governments, especially in complex inner-city districts like Tower Hamlets, have received a lot of criticism and complaints of seclusion, inefficiency and not listening have persisted. There is a legacy of communalism practiced by the Rahman administration which directed resources to specific sections of the population of Bangladesh. The district’s ever-fragile cohesion has never really been the same since Galloway’s 2005 win. There is distrust of the electoral process born from the district’s recent experience, as well as general paranoia.
However, the theme that really stimulated the campaign was a London-wide concern: low-traffic neighborhoods. In Bethnal Green, thoroughfares run along fairly narrow streets (unless these have been cleared and widened during renovations). Weavers has two LTNs, one in the Boundary Estate and one near Columbia Road.
Traffic calming is no stranger to this area – there have been markets in and around Columbia Road for a century and a half. But the campaign has shown a lot of local dissent on the issue – the general principle, the complaint that the consultation was insufficient, and the specific design of the LTNs. The Conservative and Aspire campaigns reinforced each other in their anti-LTN messages. Labor received no hearing for its position on the issue and the other traffic calming parties (Green and Lib Dem) saw their votes stagnate or fall.
When the votes were counted, Aspire had won a great victory. Ahmed received 1,204 votes (46.5 percent) and Khan was way behind (742 votes, 28.6 percent). The voter turnout of 27.9 percent was well below that of 2018 (40.7 percent), let alone the somewhat fictitious number of 2014 (46.2 percent).
I have a feeling that this was not the last time we heard of this by-election. The result was an uproar in a district of bitter politics and a history of electoral irregularities, and will undoubtedly fuel even more anger between Labor and Aspire – who previously took a seat in Shadwell in a February 2019 by-election – in view of the upcoming district and mayoral elections in May 2022.
It will also worry Labor people across London. Tower Hamlets is undoubtedly peculiar, but it still begs the question of how well the Muslim Labor vote in general is holding up and whether the LTN dispute is a powerful wedge issue with the potential to divide the strong electoral coalition of London Labor. As the manifestos are prepared and the district Labor leaders determine their stance on their local LTNs, the result of Weavers will be on people’s minds.
Photo by Tower Hamlets Council. This article was updated on August 14, 2021 to indicate that Weavers Fields Park is just outside of the Weavers District.
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