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John Biggs Labour politician London | Photo: Secretlondon – Wikimedia Commons | cropped from original | CC BY-SA 4.0 | license linked at bottom of article

John Biggs Labour politician London | Photo: Secretlondon – Wikimedia Commons | cropped from original | CC BY-SA 4.0 | license linked at bottom of article

The breakthrough for Lutfur Rahman’s Aspire in Tower Hamlets shows how fed up people are with Labour’s local and national failures, writes Sybil Cock

Thursday’s local elections saw an earthquake in East London’s Tower Hamlets. The right-wing Labour directly-elected Mayor John Biggs was soundly defeated by ex-mayor Lutfur Rahman, standing for Aspire on a fairly radical anti-cuts and progressive ticket. Aspire also took an overall majority of seats on the Council.

Biggs’s administration was characterised by vicious cutting of services.  Massive campaigns were mounted against Nursery closures, the axing of Special Language Services, means testing for Adult Social care, and SEND cuts. It must be acknowledged that these campaigns were largely initiated and run by Labour members in the two constituencies. Both have a proud record of activism. During the pandemic, Biggs adopted a policy of ‘fire and rehire’ for all council staff – effectively sacking everyone and rehiring on worse conditions. This was vigorously and noisily opposed by Unison and other unions locally. 

Biggs’s administration also mounted a vicious prosecution for housing fraud of the radical Poplar and Limehouse Labour MP Apsana Begum who was forced to defend herself in court in front of smirkers who were looking forward to her conviction and the chance to select a more compliant candidate for the safe Labour seat. Labour’s national silence when Apsana was acquitted was noted locally. 

The administration adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism in the autumn of 2018, and despite vigorous campaigning from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, refused to include the recommended caveats which would have protected our right to campaign for Palestine. The borough has a proud record of solidarity with Palestine, and councillors and local trades unionists have visited Jenin and welcomed many visitors from Palestine.

The chilling effect of the IHRA became clear when the council refused to allow The Big Ride for Palestine to end in a Tower Hamlets Park in 2019, and then lied about the reasons. Again, the local community rallied around.

This is all rooted in the contempt and entitlement which Labour has shown over many decades for the local community, especially its Bangladeshi members. There has been organised resistance for many years – in 2005 we saw a Respect MP elected as a direct result of the Labour incumbent’s support for the war in Iraq.

Respect councillors followed, and then Lutfur Rahman was twice elected as Mayor (2010 and 2014) on a large vote, but with a minority of councillors. In 2015 his election was annulled by the Electoral Court, an arcane body. Lutfur’s unseating and disbarment was a result of Tory-Labour determination to put a lid on local activism. The dog-whistle racism around the judgement was audible. 

Biggs, in predictable fashion, echoed this in his statement conceding defeat to Rahman. ‘I worry about divisive community politics….’

The massive vote for Aspire was not the result of communalism or Bangladeshi special interest politics, as will no doubt be suggested in the backlash. It was very clearly a class vote - the platform appealed to all those who are fed up with Labour's national and local record of failure to resist the Tory neoliberal agenda.

In Tower Hamlets we are cheering and getting organised. There is much to fight for. 

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