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Mayor (be), Mayor (be not)

local politics

By Vincent Carroll-Battaglino

In this weirdest of 12-month periods, the fact that the most mercurial of London Boroughs could change its governance system is hardly even news. As we enter the last six weeks of campaigning, we can’t find betting odds online. The Evening Standard’s last piece on the matter was in November 2020, when the referendum was initially agreed. The paper used to love regular updates on the Council’s shenanigans and played a prominent role in fall the first Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman.

In part that’s a reflection of the difficulty of running a campaign during COVID-19 restrictions: even the London mayoral election appears to be going under the radar. But it misses the key point: Lutfur Rahman is the dominant figure in this debate, and he’s served his time on the bench. Essentially, after a period of cooling off around the massive Labour victories in the 2018 elections, Tower Hamlets could be interesting again. 

The background

The 2010 referendum happened as a result of a campaign by the Respect Party, which was riding high as Labour was power-fatigued and mired in post-Iraq troubles. This re-visit is a product of internal Labour politics: the local parties called for it and eventually the Labour Group on the Council agreed it too. The conversion to the cause by the current Mayor John Biggs appears late, but he’s now backing the deletion of his own job. 

The campaigns

The two campaigns facing off are these: Leading Together TH, which favours the return to the cabinet system; and Yes for Mayor TH, campaigning to retain the current system. In a sense it’s a re-run of 2010, with all the main parties plumping for the cabinet system, and local independent politicians backing the mayoral system. 

Following on from their obvious soft-peddle in the 2018 mayoral election, the Conservatives, led by Councillor Peter Golds, have been urging residents to question the mayoral system. Former Conservative, Councillor Andrew Wood, wanted the committee system on the agenda, but is certainly encouraging his significant network to get involved. After a period where it looked like a split could open up, the local Labour Party is united for a change. The big guns have been pulled in for the campaign: former Deputy Mayor Rachel Saunders, is the agent, and former Leader Helal Abbas has appeared in a campaign video. In a show of unity, former Independent mayoral candidate Rabina Khan has lent support.

Simply put, there are two methods of campaign: the ‘air war’ and the ‘ground game’. The ground game of door knocking, where Labour traditionally thinks it’s strongest (cf. the Party’s four successive General Election losses to judge how useful that is nationally) is eliminated under COVID-19 restrictions. Even leaflets (surprisingly effective) have been verboten until very recently. In the last year, the camaraderie of door-knocking has been replaced by campaigners joining a Zoom or Teams meeting to watch each other make phone calls to voters. Not quite the same is it? It also robs the campaigner of the casual conversation while pretending to be out and about for another reason (picking up casework, eg.). Replacing door knocking is social media, on which the campaign seems to be focusing. Videos and response edits circulate social media and Whatsapp groups.

Then there’s the air war: media and advertising. With name recognition and good penetration into the well-followed Bangla community media, the opposition, led by Lutfur Rahman and his supporters, would appear to have the advantage. The local rag East London Advertiser, more likely to be read by the major party voters, has given as much coverage to the pro-PR 'Make Votes Count’ campaign as it has the mayoral referendum – and that one’s a complete non-starter.

So it’s a strange campaign all round, making it difficult to get a feel for who’s in the lead.

The arguments

Both sides argue that it’s about accountability. Leading Together TH says an executive mayor has too much power and a cabinet better serves a diverse community. Lutfur Rahman says a directly elected mayor is accountable to the people, not councillors and parties. Both have a point, but these comments are all red herrings. A system is as good as its people (interestingly, Biggs states this in his Leading Together TH video). The right system for you is the one that gives you the best chance of power and hampers your opponent. Of the six referendums ever on removing the mayoral system, three have gone either way. What each case has in common is that the local dominant party had found itself unable to rely on winning the position, so cried foul.

Behind it all, the Leading Together TH strategy is the same as the Labour Party’s was in 2015 and 2018. Wake the voters up to the supposed danger of a Lutfur Rahman administration. Biggs’ announcement that he was backing a cabinet system explicitly referenced Lutfur Rahman – “we’ve seen examples of bad mayors including one here and he wants to return, who surround themselves with yes men, and they were normally usually men”. One suspects had the new Rahman challenge not emerged so strong, he may have kept out of it. Note they never actually beat him in an election. 

The prospects

To say much has changed since the 2010 referendum is to forget how close the 2015 mayoral re-run was and how catastrophic the split in the Independents was in 2018. It’s to forget the 2019 Aspire by-election victory in Spitalfields. And it’s to underestimate Rahman’s ability to get out his personal vote. The Labour Party has learnt that lesson more than once.

We have no indication this is a sure thing. Rather the opposite. Leading Together TH campaigners report a lack of interest is the overriding response. The strong Yes 4 Mayor leaflet was out first, and their ground game of community work is undoubtedly strong. Mainstream disinterest is particularly bad news for Leading Together TH: it’s a toss-up and depends on who can motivate their core. The referendum happening at the same time as the London mayoral election should help the Leading Together TH camp. 

With mayoral referendums set to take place in three London Boroughs of Croydon, Newham and Tower Hamlets on 6 May, it is the latter authority which will pose the most interesting campaign and potential outcome.

Clients should keep a watch but not worry too much. The current Tower Hamlets strategy of 'build ‘em high on the Island, offset with high numbers of affordable' was created by Rahman and continued under Biggs. Here at SEC Newgate UK, we recognise Tower Hamlets is akin to John Peel’s description of The Fall: “always different, always the same.”