Snub to Labour machine

Lutfur Rahman has garnered support from some sections of the left, writes James Turley

It has been common among sections of the left to consider the Labour Party bureaucracy as completely unassailable - a mini-version of Orwell’s 1984 in practice. No victories, no matter how small and insignificant, are possible.

This conveniently ignores the ongoing guerrilla struggles, particularly in left-leaning localities, against attempts to parachute New Labour candidates into safe seats. Many have, so to speak, landed safely - the arch-opportunist Tory defector, Shaun Woodward, for example, who won St Helens South in 2001. Others, however, have been thwarted. Most prominently, in the first London mayoral election in 2000. When long-time Labour left Ken Livingstone was passed over by the anti-democratic electoral college in favour of the reluctant Frank Dobson, he romped home as an independent. He was grudgingly readmitted to Labour when it became clear that he would do the same again in 2004.

Much the same story took place recently, on a smaller scale, in the Tower Hamlets mayoral elections. Lutfur Rahman, long-time local Labour politician and council leader for two years, was selected as Labour candidate in as fair and square a manner as is possible in such a bureaucratised organisation. Unfortunately for him, the Labour national executive committee thought him untouchable. He was summarily deselected, in favour of councillor Helal Abbas. But Rahman was undeterred - he ran as an independent and trounced allcomers with 51% of the vote.

It is not difficult to see why. If the Labour machine expected local party activists to close ranks against Rahman, then selecting Abbas - who was placed third, not second, in the selection row, and who very visibly put the knife into Rahman at the NEC proceedings - was an idiotic move. The calculation was obvious: no white candidate could hope to win in Tower Hamlets, and so tough luck to runner-up John Biggs. Yet a very substantial portion of the close-knit Bangladeshi community in the borough had already rallied around Rahman, and continued to give him strong support throughout his independent candidacy.

In fact, this factor underlies much of the story. Long-time readers of this paper, and activists in Tower Hamlets, will recognise this aspect of the body politic - the profound influence of the Bangladeshi community in the goings-on in the borough. The turnout in the mayoral vote was very low - around 25%. Of the voters, the overwhelming majority were Bangladeshi.

When Respect was something approaching a serious political force, its ‘red base’ was Tower Hamlets, where it was the official opposition to Labour. It obtained much of its influence by currying favour with local notables - in short, it worked through the existing patriarchal structures of this community. In his parliamentary election campaign in 2005, George Galloway started not at town-hall meetings and hustings in Bethnal Green and Bow, his constituency-to-be, but in particular political circles in Bangladesh. He made influential friends and, sure enough, beat the pro-war Blairite Labour candidate, Oona King, in the general election.

Respect managed to obtain a whole series of councillors in much the same manner. This was perfectly useful to George Galloway and his allies in the area - not so good for the Socialist Workers Party (then the main left force inside Respect). The SWP insisted on selling some dubious individuals, including local small capitalists, as leftwing tribunes of the people. In truth, they were politically illiterate - Weekly Worker interviews with these figures harvested, among other things, an affirmation of support for trade unions, because, after all, “we need all the trade we can get!”

Easy come, easy go. What became clear in the Respect years was that political defections in Tower Hamlets (and, in truth, in the degraded institutions of local government all over the place) are par for the course. Respect councillors defected to all the main parties - mostly, of course, to Labour, which since 2008 had provided a council leader who was a well-rooted, left-leaning localist: Lutfur Rahman. Eight Labour councillors rebelled over his deselection, including  former Respect councillors Oliur Rahman and Rania Khan.

It is this aspect of local politics that caused Lutfur Rahman so much grief with the Labour hierarchy. In February, Tory investigative journalist Andrew Gilligan put together a Dispatches documentary for Channel 4, highlighting dubious links between Rahman and the Tower Hamlets council and the Islamic Forum of Europe. The IFE is closely linked with Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist organisation in Bangladesh (naturally). It has outposts in a number of European countries, but London - and Tower Hamlets in particular - is its primary base of operations, where it effectively runs the East London Mosque. In response to the TV programme, Labour had him replaced as council leader by Helal Abbas.

Given the popularity of Rahman’s campaign among the Bangladeshi community, it is far from unlikely that he has some kind of working relationship with the IFE. The position of the Dispatches documentary, however, which insinuated that the Tower Hamlets Labour organisation was being effectively taken over by a shadowy group of jihadi wingnuts, was a hopelessly inaccurate smear. IFE affiliation is simply one aspect among many of the murky patriarchal relationships that shape the local political scene.

It is nevertheless instructive that controversies that previously engulfed Respect are returning in almost identical forms to haunt Labour. George Galloway openly declared his debt to the IFE - Abjol Miah, the former leader of the Respect group on Tower Hamlets council and a parliamentary candidate this year, also has ties to the organisation. Now, it seems, allegiances are shifting - Labour is more fertile ground for their like than Respect, which is transparently going nowhere.

Certainly to impute to Rahman some kind of hard Islamism on the basis of these charges is ridiculous. One may as well accuse Galloway or Livingstone of being Islamists. Even now that he is outside the Labour fold, Rahman is very keen to stress his leftish Labourite credentials: “My whole upbringing has been based on social democracy,” he told a Guardian blogger,[1] also stressing that he was to the left of Abbas. Perhaps he hopes for a sensational return to the fold, à la Livingstone. This is less likely, however - should Tower Hamlets, under his leadership, become an island of municipal resistance to cuts, he will likely be castigated for his ‘irresponsible’ behaviour by the Labour leadership; but if he cooperates, he will lose the local popularity that would make him an attractive recruit.

There is a sense in which Rahman’s self-description should be taken at face value. There is a long tradition of so-called municipal socialism in the workers’ movement - the notion that it is possible, at the local level, to guarantee basic means of subsistence to the general population. It was derisively referred to as ‘gas and water socialism’ among its opponents in the American socialist movement at the beginning of the 20th century, where its poster-boys were Emil Seidel and Daniel Hoan, two socialist mayors of Milwaukee.

We do not live in Milwaukee in the 1910s, however, but a Britain which has seen persistent attacks on the powers of local government. What can be done is determined by that horizon - and in reality means promoting religious and ethnic ‘community leaders’ and handing out public money to this end, under the rubric of multiculturalism. This practice was first established under Labour governments of the 60s and 70s and radically extended by (of all people) Margaret Thatcher. Lutfur Rahman embodies the meaning of gas and water socialism in 21st century Britain.

It is in this light that we should view the support Rahman has garnered from some sections of the left. Ken Livingstone, appropriately enough, has gotten into hot water for all but campaigning for Rahman - which is absolutely against Labour Party rules. The remaining forces in Respect, meanwhile, have fallen over themselves to support Rahman, to the point where some in the bourgeois press have muttered darkly about Rahman being a de facto Respect candidate. Even the SWP claims to have made it onto the campaign trail. Its report on his victory is cryptically sanguine - “the voters who put Lutfur in office will now look to him to head up the battle against cuts, racism and Islamophobia”.[2]

The issue is that Rahman’s whole political outlook is limited to his neighbourhood. A similar figure getting into every elected mayoral post in the country would not make a difference in the long term. The whole mode of politics he represents is founded on ephemeral figures who can be easily replaced - and a social base of fickle community notables and petty bourgeois who will always expect their pound of flesh. Rahman adapts to his environment rather than seeking to change it in any radical way. He appeals not to the masses as the masses, but as vote-fodder mobilised by religious and ‘community’ structures. To get beyond these limits, a much broader programmatic outlook - which is not only national, but international - is needed. Such arguments are conspicuously absent from left commentary on Rahman, for whom it is enough that he is the plucky, deselected David taking on the bureaucratic Goliath of the Labour Party.

His victory is certainly a body-blow to the command-and-control practices of the Labour Party bureaucracy. Its significance is ultimately symbolic, however. In the long run, Rahman will either be reabsorbed or quietly steamrollered. It is up to those in the Labour Party with a larger vision of an alternative society to make that symbol into a mobilising force.


  1. www.guardian.co.uk/politics/davehillblog/2010/oct/11/tower-hamlets-independent-mayoral-candidate-lutfur-rahman-interviewed
  2. Socialist Worker October 30.