By John Bloxam
DESPITE losing seats, New Labour retained control of Tower Hamlets Council on 4 May, winning 26 seats and a bare majority of the total 51.
Significantly, many of the cabinet members most closely associated with the Tory policies pursued by the previous New Labour administration were defeated – notably the Council leader and lead member for Housing.
Although damaged by their record and incompetence, as well as national events, New Labour had pulled out the stops to retain control of the Council. This included a U-turn over Crossrail building works in the Brick Lane area, which they claimed credit for stopping while Bethnal Green MP George Galloway was holed up in Big Brother.
In the last Council the Lib Dems, who ran Tower Hamlets for a period in the 1980s, had an opposition group of 15. That has now been reduced to six. They clearly suffered from being seen as too similar to New Labour, unlike both the Tories and Respect.
The Tories were elected in seven seats (up six), and now form a bloc on the Council for the first time for decades. Respect gained 11 new seats, and is now the main opposition group with 12 councillors.
Respect is claiming fraud in the election, and is threatening legal action. 3 of their candidates were barred from standing on a technicality, which they failed to overturn on appeal. However, even if they do gain more seats, the results are not as “brilliant” as they are now spinning.
Tower Hamlets New Labour Council was an easy target for even a minimally left-wing campaign. Respect had momentum from Galloway’s defeat of Blairite Oona King in last year’s general election. They had confidently been predicting for months a Respect-run council after 4 May. Instead, having announced that they had “Labour on the run”, they won fewer than half the seats they needed for a majority.
Respect’s existing councillor, Oliur Rahman, only scraped in on a recount. None of the prominent SWP members, including generalissimo John Rees, were elected, and the SWP has no presence in the new Respect council group. The gainers were the Bengali section of the communal electoral alliance cobbled together by Galloway last year. In contrast to the “mainstream” parties, all of which have councillors from various communities, every single Respect candidate elected is from a Muslim background.
Respect’s campaign presented no clear left-wing,let alone working-class, alternative to New Labour. Instead, it focused almost exclusively on ending New Labour sleaze, council house privatisation and the Iraq war. “Only Respect is corruption free, puts public provision before private profit, wants the troops home from Iraq and to stop an attack on Iran”.
Mention of opening more youth centres and pensioners’ clubs, even building more council houses, was reserved for the small print or the pages of Socialist Worker. There was no pledge to freeze rent increases, which had been a central part of past council campaigns by left-wing Labour and the Communist Party in its popular front heyday (which the SWP are clearly using as a model).
On one level, a Respect majority would have provided a welcome clarification of politics in the area, with their populism and communal electoral alliance being put to the test. The present situation allows them to function as a populist opposition in the council, although whether that will satisfy the new Respect councillors remains to be seen.