Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.
Politics and elections are never straightforward in Tower Hamlets. No sooner had the Mayoral and London Assembly taken place, an effective Labour councillor for the Weavers Ward tragically and suddenly died, just nine days after his 40th birthday.
Weavers is the north western extremity of the borough sharing a boundary with hipster Shoreditch. In fact, Shoreditch High Station is in this Ward. The Ward includes the famous Boundary estate, designed and constructed in the early 1890s by the LCC to replace the Old Nichol, then the most notorious slum in London. The Boundary estate has survived both the Luftwaffe and post war planners and is now, fortunately, listed. Nearby is Jesus Green an area of old Bethnal Green where one time artisan cottages now sell for mouth-watering sums. This is the area close to Columbia Road, a historic flower market which attracts visitors from far and wide every weekend. There are also many post-war council blocks as well as Keeling House, designed by Sir Dennis Lasdun as social housing, which has become a listed landmark. Politically, Weavers Ward (named after the Huguenot silk weavers who four hundred years ago lived and worked here), had a Liberal Democrat tradition. Since 2010, it has returned Labour councillors.
This will be the third by-election since 2008, the previous two took place on London Mayoral election days in 2008 and 2012. The 2008 contest was on a disastrous day for Labour, but, exceptionally, Labour gained the seat in the by-election. The newly elected Labour councillor was almost immediately mired in controversy and Labour declined to renominate him for the 2010 election in which he fought and lost the Ward on behalf of Respect. One of the three newly elected councillors, Kabir Ahmed, left the Labour Party in 2011 to join Lutfur Rahman’s team. The 2012 by-election caused by the resignation of another Labour member was contested by the former Respect leader, Abjol Miah as an Independent and supported by Lutfur Rahman. Labour won this contest with John Pierce, whose death has caused the current by-election.
You may think this should be an easy Labour hold. After all, the Party secured 48 per cent of the vote in 2018 in a six way contest in this Ward. The hiccup is Liveable Streets – or traffic free neighbourhoods. This should be an area where Liveable Streets would expect to be welcomed. The Labour council has spent £29 million promoting and installing Liveable Streets in the Borough. However, they should have been aware of the many flaws in the consultation exercise. When the Bow programme came before Cabinet, Mayor John Biggs noted there was little sign of what he described as Bow residents, as opposed to the overwhelmingly, white, middle class, professional and well spoken cycling lobby who came to Cabinet to support the proposals. Significantly, proposals in Whitechapel Ward were deferred until after May 2022 at the request of the local councillors for fear of the campaign waged against the proposals by Lutfur Rahman and his party.
The Weavers street close-downs have been chaotic. Refuse vehicles cannot enter many streets, resulting in rubbish left on pavements or next to the planters (each costing £1,000) that seal off the streets. Far worse is the response from the emergency services which have entered the public domain via FOI requests.
London Fire Brigade wrote:
“It is important that the London Ambulance Service lodge an official request to Tower Hamlets Council to suspend the works in the event that somebody dies as a result of not being able to get an ambulance to them if the planned works go ahead.”
An Ambulance Service official said:
“The Tower Hamlets Council traffic teams sometimes struggle to understand the needs of the emergency services.”
Staggeringly, the Mayor, when faced by concerned residents, suggested that emergency vehicles could gain access to streets by mounting pavements.
This, then, is the background to this extraordinary by-election in a ward whose residents include journalists in the national media, top flight lawyers, and senior figures in the civil service who are united alongside ordinary residents to oppose a single council policy.
After Cllr Pierce’s funeral, the by-election was called by the Labour Party. The Conservatives selected Bethnal Green resident, Elliott Weaver, who hit the ground running. Before nominations closed, his second leaflet was dropping into letter boxes and he was securing pledges of support from local residents. Labour immediately became mired in a selection problem. Locally, the two favourites were a community activist and a Labour Party stalwart. Both were white men and on July 7th, the day of the selection and the England Germany semi final at Euro 2022, the selection meeting was cancelled as Labour’s national executive imposed an all woman shortlist.
Labour were due to meet on the 13th July to select a candidate and once again it became controversial with internal party emails being leaked. There were six names on the list, however at the meeting two senior Labour officials (both councillors) attended and one of the six did not attend. A further name was added. This candidate, Nasrin Khanam, is not from the area and, it is suggested, does not have a sound knowledge of the local issues. In the event she was selected with the result that much information has leaked out to other parties and bloggers. Importantly, Lutfur Rahman was given a full account of the meeting immediately the result of the selection became known.
Whilst the Labour selection meeting was under way, leaflets from Rahman’s Aspire Party were being distributed. His chosen candidate, Kabir Ahmed was elected a Labour councillor for the Ward in 2010 and, as we know, defected to the Rahman Party. He lost his seat in 2014 and featured in the 2015 election petition, where he was much criticised by Commissioner Mawrey. He works in his family shop in the Ward. He is campaigning to “end Liveable streets’ road closures immediately.”
The Greens are nominating a candidate and the Liberal Democrats (in a ward which they once held) will be nominating a “paper candidate.” Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Greens are all ardent supporters of Liveable Streets.
More importantly, as we head towards the 2022 local elections, will be the actions of the police to this by-election. In May this year, as it was in 2014, the police response to problems is to avoid taking action. In May, there were strict rules regarding social distancing at polling stations. Nothing was done when electors were harassed by groups of aggressive men at polling stations. There was extensive evidence of this, but the police ignored regulations on social distancing. Hopefully this harrassment will change as the government have promised to prevent intimidation at polling stations. There will also be new regulations regarding the handling and delivery of postal votes by political parties, which caused some concern in May.
My next concern for the by-election is the preservation of the secret ballot. The law, as it has existed since the Secret Ballot Act of 1872, must be enforced. It is a disgrace to our democracy that in 2021, in full public view, women are being prevented from voting in secret because of what is described as “family voting.” This is no more than intimidation and the stealing of votes. Democracy Volunteers commented how prevalent this was in Tower Hamlets in 2018. I have, unanswered, emails to the police and the Returning Officer from an elector describing how he watched men take ballot papers from women voters whilst he was inside his local polling station in May.
In the 2012 Weavers Ward by-election, the Evening Standard covered the intimidation at a single polling station in the Ward.
Nine years later nothing appears to have changed.
The Metropolitan Police response to the 2015 election court was a disgrace. The 200-page Judgement, delivered in the Royal Courts of Justice was described in a press release by a serving officer, Phil Langworthy, as “a report.” In the intervening years the police have continued as previously, ignoring letters and concerns regarding electoral probity in this borough. As is now known, 2015 was infamous for the Metropolitan Police spending vast sums on the infamous Operation Midland which was a smear against distinguished people from a known liar. This collapsed when it was eventually realised that the complainant was a serial liar and criminal. This saga is laid out in coruscating details in a superb report by Sir Richard Henriques. Worryingly, more than one officer involved in the failed Tower Hamlets investigation played roles in Operation Midland.
In my view, the Home Secretary should invite Sir Richard, a distinguished Judge with no connection to London politics and elections, to review the Tower Hamlets investigation.
The downplaying of the election court by Scotland Yard has not been lost on Rahman. He now repeatedly states that he was disqualified from office by not a court but a tribunal – and using the police’s own words, a disqualification based on a report.
In 2022, will it be members of the public once again having to fight for electoral probity in and around the world’s fourth largest financial centre because the police lack the will to enforce the law?
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