Chris Wilford was the Conservative candidate in the void 2014 Tower Hamlets Mayoral Election. He stood as the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Poplar and Limehouse in the 2015 General Election.
In his landmark speech earlier this week, the Prime Minister set out his plans to address extremism. He touched on the passive tolerance of practices running totally contrary to our values and recent events in Tower Hamlets. In my view, as the dust settles there are three key lessons from events in Tower Hamlets:
1. Intercultural relations must be a priority in the inner city
Intercultural relations must be taken seriously as a strategic priority in diverse urban areas. To discuss intercultural relations may sound like pie in the sky but, to put it bluntly, we are in danger of losing the war with extremists in all their forms. As David Cameron states, moderate debate is being drowned out in our urban areas. Local politicians and community leaders have an important role in reclaiming the narrative and enforcing our democratic values, both in minority and mainstream communities.
The smokescreen of community politics has been used to divide and divert in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for far too long. Political actors have deflected personal criticism by wrapping themselves up in ‘the community,’ a task made all too easy by mistrust and a lack of understanding between communities. These barriers need to be shattered by proactive programmes that seek to establish spaces where people can come to understand.
We need to start the debate now about what we can practically achieve in the inner city to bring us together and what such programmes should look like. What is clear that the construction of cohesive communities must be ‘owned’ locally, with programmes specific to the demands of the community mix in different areas, rather than be seen as a centrally imposed initiative. Councillors, directly elected mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners and community leaders all have a critical role to play.
2. Accountability must be at the heart of the localism agenda
The reports on the activities of the former administration in Tower Hamlets have been cast by some as attacks on the British-Bangladeshi community as a whole. Whilst some have sought to make events purely about the differences between communities, and as my first point states this is an area that needs to be tackled, it should not be forgotten that as the Prime Minister rightly states this was a saga ultimately about ‘political corruption on an epic scale.’ In short, events were about accountability and a failure of the governance systems in place which meant four brave residents had to resort to submitting to an election petition to hold those in power to account.
I have written before for this site on the trend for the role of directly elected mayor to be viewed as some kind of magic panacea for the problems our regions face. It is apparent that existing systems need to be overhauled and a long, hard look taken at how directly elected mayors are held to account before this model proliferates. Localism should is not just about empowering local structures, it is about empowering local people. Accountability must therefore be at the heart of the localism agenda.
3. Institutions matter
If accountability is to be the heart of the localism agenda, then strong, accountable and independent institutions will be its engine. The Election Court gave citizens a voice and closed a chapter in Tower Hamlets politics. However, events in Tower Hamlets highlight the urgent need for electoral reform: voting is not a mere process, it is the institution that underpins our democracy and must be cared for as such. It is time that the Government implements the five electoral reforms that Cllr Peter Golds, supported by ConservativeHome, has called for:
- A review of postal voting on demand
- Prosecutions for falsified electoral registration
- An end to the mobbing of polling stations
- An end to interference with voting inside polling stations
- A requirement to produce a form of ID when receiving a ballot paper
Labour’s John Biggs secured victory in the recent election and I wish my former opponent well as he seeks to bring our diverse borough together. Residents can rest assured that the Conservatives will be holding him to account every step of the way.