Bangladeshi Village Politics in Tower Hamlets

On a recent trip to Bangladesh to fulfill a family commitment,  l was plagued by people asking me about what happened in the Mayoral contest in Tower Hamlets.   And while much has already been said about the elected Mayoral contest last month, l feel compelled to say my piece and move on as well.

For many of us outside of Tower Hamlets, the whole sorry episode appeared like a car crash happening in slow motion.  However, this was in fact a case of Bangladeshi village politics within the London political arena and for some observers, possibly even global Bangladeshi politics within London.

Both the leading candidates in the Mayoral contest represent the same ward as councillors, Spitalfields & Bangla Town.  Indeed it is rumoured that Helal Abbas first introduced the victor, Luthur Rahman to local politics.  Furthermore, both drive around in big Mercedes cars and intriguingly also come from the same group of villages in Sylhet, (a sub-district called Balaganj).  So for many like myself, it is difficult to distinguish between them in terms of UK local government politics.

The problem arose when Lutfur declared he would stand as an independent after been disqualified by the NEC of the Labour Party.  In the minds of the Bengali voters (religious and secular) he was immediately perceived as the “victim” and Abbas as our third choice candidate.  Given that the Bengali voters were going to be the only ones bothering to vote, this put the Labour candidate in a critically weak position.

Ken Livingstone may have been right to say that the NEC had its moment of madness,  (illustrated well by Christine Shawcroft’s minutes of the September NEC meeting)  but equally,  Ken exposed himself to similar accusations, by going over to meet Lutfur Rahman so openly after only recently being confirmed as Labour’s Mayoral candidate for London in 2012. The reality is that this election was lost well before Ken turned up at Whitechapel.  You only had to follow what was being said and discussed in the Bengali press before his trip to understand that.

It was right and proper that Phil Woolas was suspended from the Party following the court case announcement last Friday and not any earlier.  Yet we could have done with some of this logic with Lutfur Rahman’s disqualification.  The fundamental tenet of British Justice which requires some proof  before acting, should have been applied to the accusations made against Lutfur before his disqualification.  Ironically, the Islamic Form of Europe (IFE) who are at the centre of the alleged Islamist links with Lutfur Rahman, have stated that it actually had more contact with Helal Abbas then with Lutfur Rahman and it was Mr Abbas who first introduced him to their set-up. Other past leaders of Tower Hamlets council also had regular contact with the IFE.

What worried many is that, one of the accusers was rewarded with the Mayoral nomination when the allegations have yet to be substantiated.   This was again picked up be the Bengali media but was not addressed by our candidate, the campaign or the NEC.

The NEC needs to investigate this almighty cock-up in Tower Hamlets and learn the lessons quickly from start to finish,  including the no campaign against the elected mayor of Tower Hamlets,  the selection of our mayoral candidate for Tower Hamlets and the campaign itself.   However, the investigation should proceed cautiously as we have a by-election in Spitalfields & Bangla Town almost certainly now before the Christmas break.  This will no doubt keep the Bangladeshi electorate preoccupied with local politics.

On a final note, this mayoral election should have been about how an East End borough was going to respond to major cuts in public services announced the previous day but in fact, it spiraled into a personal splat between two individuals in the East End, who know each other well in the world of Bangladeshi village politics.  This is how many in the wider Bangladeshi community see this and the London Labour party should also view this within its rightful context.  Even more importantly, this contest was an unedifying start to the Ed Miliband era for the London Party organization.  This is certainly something we could have done without in the build up to the GLA elections in May 2012.