In the heart of east London last week, close to the markets and restaurants of Brick Lane, 120 people gathered in the Montefiore community centre. They were mostly residents of the surrounding streets, there to support Tower Hamlets councillor Rabina Khan in her bid to become mayor.
Speaker after speaker got up to talk about Khan’s record and the issues at stake in the election on 11 June. It was one of a series of such meetings taking place across the borough.
Khan finished her own rousing speech quoting Martin Luther King, and adding, “The 11 June will go down as the defining moment for democracy in Tower Hamlets—when we will challenge the establishment and tell them we are here to stay.”
The election was triggered when, on the basis of contested and flimsy evidence, an electoral court removed mayor Lutfur Rahman and banned the Tower Hamlets First party. This judicial coup is a result of Islamophobia and the Tories’ determination to punish anyone who stands up against austerity.
The formal move to throw out Lutfur Rahman was initiated by a leading local Ukip member and an unsuccessful Labour candidate. A local businessman who had fallen out with the council and a former government adviser who is now running for mayor were also involved.
Disgracefully Labour has also gone along with all the attacks.
The people of Tower Hamlets have been a thorn in the side of successive governments.
It was one of the strongest centres of opposition to the Iraq war, and elected George Galloway as an MP on a tide of anti-war campaigning.
They elected Lutfur Rahman as an independent mayor in 2010 after he was removed as the Labour candidate through a grossly undemocratic procedure. And they re-elected him again in 2014.
Under Rahman’s leadership the council has done more than any Labour-led authority to blunt some of the Tories’ austerity drive. That is why the then Tory local government secretary Eric Pickles sent in commissioners to run parts of the borough last year. He then ordered them to take total control just before the general election.
The Tories and the Labour hierarchy are not going to accept a determined, anti-war, anti-austerity council—especially one led by Muslims.
Khan was a key member of Rahman’s cabinet, and is now standing as an Independent. Her candidacy is a chance to strike back—and to defend the reforms the council put in place, residents and activists at the meeting told Socialist Worker.
Sutana said, “Because the mayor brought in bursaries and a replacement for the education maintenance allowance that the government took away from students, my son and 800 other young people were able to go to university. There are a lot of poor people in Tower Hamlets, working people and unemployed people on benefits, so this helps them a lot.
“And now I’m supporting Rabina Khan because she stands for the same thing. Whenever people go to her for help, she helps them.”
Khan led the council’s work on housing. Jesmin Chowdhury said, “She helped me get a new flat when I went to her for advice about overcrowding.”
Tower Hamlets council has built more new council homes than any other.
Councillors also hold frequent surgeries, and Khan is an active campaigner. Ruhel said, “We’ve had lots of politicians who say they represent the community but who you only see at elections. We prefer politicians who are on the frontline, actively involved on the ground.
“It will also be very good to get a woman elected and break through all the sexism. And Rabina Khan is a champion of fighting racism and promoting diversity in Tower Hamlets.”
Diana, a Socialist Worker supporter and Tower Hamlets council worker said, “As trade unionists we have sometimes had to fight against Lutfur Rahman. He has pushed through some of the government’s cuts.
“Tower Hamlets First is no perfect model for the sort of left we need. But there can be no doubt that a win for Rabina Khan would be a huge boost to the battle against Islamophobia and austerity. It would be a blow against the Tories and the Labour leadership who have acted appallingly.”
The mainstream media and politicians have repeatedly tried to paint Tower Hamlets as a backward place dominated by sinister Islamists. And they have smeared ordinary Muslims as political zombies incapable of choosing for themselves.
The electoral court judgement disgustingly argued, “A distinction must be made between a sophisticated, highly educated and politically literate community and a community which is traditional, respectful of authority and, possibly, not fully integrated with the other communities living in the same area”.
They’ve failed repeatedly to back up the smears. A £1 million report by accountants PriceWaterhouseCooper last year found no evidence of corruption. The electoral court found Rahman guilty of the 19th century crime of “spiritual influence” in his election last year, after imams signed a letter supporting him.
But there was no outcry in March when a letter from Catholic bishops was read out at masses across England and Wales urging people to “think carefully” about who to vote for in the general election. Nor is there an objection to the 26 Church of England bishops who sit in the House of Lords deciding on laws.
Muslims are repeatedly accused of being insular.
But when they do get involved in politics on their own terms they find the whole weight of the establishment bearing down on them.
Mabz was canvassing the flats nearby the previous weekend. He told Socialist Worker, “I was there when Lutfur Rahman was elected. It was like a carnival, a celebration. But the next day I turned on the TV and they were reporting it as a riot.”
Abdul Noor told Socialist Worker, “I’ve supported Rabina Khan, and before that Lutfur Rahman, for a long time. I came to Britain in 1969 and I joined the Labour Party. But when they expelled Lutfur Rahman it wasn’t right, so I left the party with him and later joined Tower Hamlets First.
“I saw more change in Tower Hamlets since then than I ever did before. Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats don’t like it”.
Some critics thought Khan’s campaign would avoid issues of oppression. But in fact her main election leaflet features prominently a quote from a supporter congratulating her for being “a strong voice to stand up against homophobia”.
Khan’s supporters stress that the anti-austerity measures the council passed aren’t just for Muslims, but for the benefit of all. Lucia is one of the non-Bengali activists who have rallied to the campaign to help take this message to a broader audience.
She told Socialist Worker, “We need to send the message to the government that they can’t do this. We won’t accept this kind of authoritarian action.
“It’s important to make people understand, this isn’t a just a ‘community’ issue—it affects the whole working class.
“So it’s important to broaden support. It’s the future of Tower Hamlets and the fight against austerity that’s at stake.”
Why I'm Standing
by Rabina Khan
London’s East End is full of people with a wealth of experience and ideas to change both their lives and the world, and yet most of them feel – and are – locked out of politics.
In Tower Hamlets we’ve gone through the years being told what to do by Westminster (with our elections overturned and Commissioners being installed to run parts of the borough) while our local political class have lost touch with what it means to represent people.
They’ve spoken for residents rather than with residents, and become mired in vendettas and petty bickering which has dragged down all of those around them.
The challenges we face are too great to keep going with the politics of the past. We still have one of the highest child poverty rates in Britain. Like other councils, we are not allowed to take advantage of cheap borrowing rates to invest in the social housing we need to alleviate the greatest accommodation crisis in living memory.
We might have had two and a half thousand homeless families on our hands if we had not taken the decision to plough money into absorbing the costs of the government’s economically-illiterate bedroom tax.
I’ve led in creating more social and affordable housing than any other borough in the country. We’re the only inner-city London borough in the top ten for getting our young people into university. A recent report credited us with some of the world’s best urban schools.
We did that because we took the rhetoric of ‘working together’ that all politicians use and made it work in practice, and because Tower Hamlets has no end of local people willing to stand up for good causes.
As a councillor I am constantly visited by a constellation of campaigners – people fighting to save a local LGBT pub, people wanting fairer leasehold charges, people campaigning for a special educational needs unit at their local sixth form college or people wanting more space for cycling and a better deal on road safety.
And when things go wrong, such as the tragedy of local schoolgirls leaving for Syria, we instantly come together across faiths and backgrounds to work out what went wrong and how we can prevent it happening again.
More than anything else, I will fight for a more inclusive and more accessible style of politics, one that puts women, families and ordinary people at the heart of policy and decision-making.
I will lead the most transparent administration ever, with my work and decisions accountable to People’s Question (and Answer) Times regularly. The days of iron walls and political cliques that have plagued this borough for decades before any of us were on the scene will be over.
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. We need to continue creating social housing and ensure that developers are made to put something more into the community than another pile of luxury flats.
In an age of austerity, we need to make sure that the arts and culture are preserved and encouraged to flourish. We need to stand with vulnerable people, whether its over the scrapping of the Independent Living Fund for disabled people, helping working mothers like myself with childcare costs or standing up against a rising tide of racism and xenophobia. And we need to be working together to create decent jobs and decent wages.
I will be publishing a detailed manifesto in the next few days, but for now, I can promise to cap leaseholder charges at £10,000; to support the London Living Wage and London Living Rent campaigns; to put in place a new plan to celebrate our culture and help the East End’s arts and creative industries thrive despite government cuts and put in place a concrete plan to help small businesses deliver decent jobs at decent wages while keeping themselves afloat.
I will work with a broad coalition of people. I will not shut down ideas because they come from people I have political differences with. I will work closely with the Commissioners to ensure that the governance issues identified in last year’s auditors’ report are addressed, but at the same time, I will make sure that the Council is run for the benefit of East Enders, not Whitehall bureaucrats.
And I will encourage everyone who is physically able to vote in person, not by postal ballot, because democracy is precious and the people of Tower Hamlets must show their strength at the ballot box.
I like to think that fixing everyday issues can be part of a bigger picture, something that shows we have the power to do politics differently. In Scotland we’ve seen how the main parties have been completely and utterly left behind, and for the first time in a generation people feel energised by politics because politics is giving something back to them.
Here, while the main parties obsess over decades’ worth of vendettas, we have a chance to focus on the future, strengthen our communities and create an open, rainbow politics where no one is left outside the room.
There are over a quarter of a million people that call Tower Hamlets home. I think all of us deserve more, and that’s why I want to be your next Mayor.