Lutfur Rahman’s election as the first ever mayor of Tower Hamlets on 21 October — on a record low turnout — is a bad result for the working-class population of this deprived East London borough.
Rahman is not, as the SWP and others claim, a socialist. His supporters include wealthy Brick Lane restaurateurs, George Galloway’s Respect party and political Islamists of the Islamic Forum of Europe.
Cynical manipulation of race, religion and cults of personality — all that is rotton in a national politics devoid of a working-class political voice — were all present during this local election.
Rahman won the mayoralty as an independent but originally wanted to be the Labour candidate. He won the poll of Labour Party members convincingly.
The third placed candidate, Helal Abbas, presented a dossier to the Labour Party Executive, accusing Rahman, among other things, of organising an Islamist entryist project. Without having time to read the dossier, Labour imposed Helal Abbas as their candidate. The second placed candidate, John Biggs, was ignored.
The Islamic Forum of Europe, based at the East London Mosque, is a big player in local politics and is probably sending people into the Labour Party. However, this does not make Labour’s decision democratic. It is simply a sad fact that Islamist organisations can organise 200 people to join the Labour Party at a time when the local trade union movement would struggle to organise 10. We should oppose the Executive decision, but we need to rally the trade unions for a fight to reclaim the Labour Party from right-wing political opponents (including Islamists).
The injustice of his expulsion from Labour gathered Rahman some support, but his victory also points to powerful forces working behind the scenes. During the campaign, a free sheet called Bangla News was delivered to every door in Tower Hamlets with the unsubstantiated claim that Abbas was a “wife-beater” and a “racist”. A mysterious organisation called the Domestic Violence Forum East advertised a demo outside Labour Party offices to protest at Abbas’ crimes against his wife (and then failed to turn up). A meeting of the local Muslim clerics (except the moderates in the Brick Lane mosque) endorsed Rahman and denounced Abbas.
Rahman’s election has split the Labour Party and the broader left. Eight Labour councillors (some ex-Respect) have been expelled for supporting Rahman and forming his cabinet.
In another twist Ken Livingstone’s supporters joined Rahman on the campaign trail and denounced Labour’s decision. Livingstone is a longtime friend of Islamist personalities and groups, though of course here it is also a democratic stance. Labour Party activists should should oppose any punishment Livingstone might get from Labour.
This story is made still worse by the stance of the local anti-cuts campaign, Tower Hamlets Hands Off Our Public Services. THHOOPS is controlled by the SWP, who have argued against placing any demands on Tower Hamlets councillors because they want to “involve them in the campaign”. They hope that diplomacy and unctiousness will stop the cuts, rather than class struggle.
During the election THHOOPS remained quiet and inactive but Socialist Worker positively supported Rahman. Unite Against Fascism has acquired a new affiliate — the Islamic Forum of Europe — making it even more of a politics-means-nothing “popular front”.
Tower Hamlets, the borough of Cable Street, Brick Lane and the Poplar Council, was once a bastion of working-class self-assertion. Now politics has descended into bad farce. Leftwingers inside and outside of the Labour Party are right to feel concerned about rising anti-Muslim racism. But the would-be-left often treats Muslims as a homogenous mass of passive victims who if offered a bit of token support for any old “militant sounding” political project, as Islamism often is, will embrace “the revolutionary party”. And the left often ignores many other political voices and socially conscious people in Muslim communities.
Now more than ever we need to unite Muslim and non-Muslim workers on a common programme based in working-class politics.
And, whatever happens, trade unionists and community activists cannot put faith in either Rahman or the Labour group to take a principled stance and refuse to pass on the Tory cuts. We need to build a working-class force to assert some rational politics and slough off the bourgeois scum.