Time for Labour to root out the rotten politics of race in the Tower Hamlets party

This is a cross post by Rob Marchant from Labour Uncut

It was with a heavy heart that Labour Uncut uncovered a little-reported nugget from seasoned east end politics commentator Ted Jeory: the expulsion of five Tower Hamlets councillors from the Labour party.

Actually, no. It was rather with delighted surprise and relief.

At last.

One of the councillors, Shahed Ali, tried to compare their floor-crossing – to join the non-Labour cabinet of independent, Respect-backed mayor Lutfur Rahman – with the failure of Dan Hodges and Alan Sugar (neither of whom are elected politicians, incidentally) to endorse Ken Livingstone.

And where Ali lost all credibility, as Jeory points out, was with his somewhat risible cry of “racism”. Ah yes, it was nothing to do with the councillors’ abject disloyalty: they were being picked on because they happened to be Bengali Muslims. Of course.

The harsh realpolitik is that Labour could not expel these councillors before the mayorals, because then they might have had to expel someone else who campaigned openly for Rahman – one Ken Livingstone.

This latest episode in the colourful history of Tower Hamlets Labour highlights not only the level to which party discipline nationally has diminished, but also how Labour is struggling to retain control over its local party in the east end.

It’s as if a small corner of the party had mutated, like in some bad sci-fi flick, and taken on a life of its own outside Labour.

This is not a criticism of long-suffering party staff, constrained by the political direction and resources they are given: nor of the many decent people in the local party, or its decent MPs such as Jim Fitzpatrick or Rushanara Ali.

But, for over a decade, the local Tower Hamlets party has suffered from a series of ignominies, from the vote-rigging scandals of the 2000s to the extreme of today: the birth of a strange echo of the rogue Labour Groups of the 1980s, complete with corruption and incompetence, being in charge of one of its heartland councils.

The only differences in this case are that the politics are a different flavour from the “loony left” days of Derek Hatton in Liverpool; and that the party affiliation on the ballot paper is now “Independent” and not Labour.

Aside from that, the problem is the same: and Labour cannot escape its responsibility for what has happened. Without the Labour party, Rahman would never have had the political platform to become mayor in the first place. This is a monster we created.

While we might debate the multiple factors which may have led to the current situation in Tower Hamlets, among them would probably be: our tendency to believe that self-styled community elders actually speak for communities and the turning of a blind eye to how they secure votes; the party’s recent unthinking acceptance, backed up by its contorted selections process, that a constituency dominated by an ethnic community should invariably select an MP from that community, further fuelling a divisive politics centred around race; a dismal failure by party and government to wipe out electoral fraud in both party and governmental elections and the threatening of those who uncover it; the mixed messages Labour has sent, ever since Livingstone’s re-admittance in 2004, to rule-flouters everywhere; and its historical, innate squeamishness about challenging individuals who happen to come from ethnic minorities, lest it be open to charges of racism itself – a weakness we can see Ali and other Rahman cohorts being quick to try and probe.

Instead of aiming for a form of politics which is colour-blind to race, what we have done is alternately coddled and cajoled the ethnic communities with members in this and other inner-city parties with a nod and a wink, saying that we are happy to leave them to their own devices; that we understand that things are “different” in their communities. In the end, that unthinking assumption is simply the racism of low expectations.

On the one hand we treat each “community” as a homogeneous mass, which they are clearly not, and try and pander to the ideas, mores and prejudices of its presumed leaders; on the other, as Atul Hatwal identified in the wake of Bradford West:

“Labour has spent two years since the general election agonising about Mrs.Duffy, Englishness and what are euphemistically called “white working class issues”. Well, congratulations, this is the result.”

In other words, we find that the people we have most alienated are the good people of those same communities.

And, in all this time we have been attempting it, we have yet successfully to reform the politics of Tower Hamlets. In fact, they have got demonstrably worse, not better: a pre-requisite to the mere existence of an independent administration is that there has been a colossal failure on the part of the major parties. It is surely time to rethink our strategy in the east end or, better still: our whole dialogue with ethnic minorities.

There are times in politics, as Neil Kinnock would surely testify, when, in order to save the body politic, you need shock treatment. To make it work, the sorting out required may well require the kind of relentless rooting out of wrongdoing in the party that his staff carried out in the 1980s. To send a message to the rest of the local parties in London and elsewhere that the slide into chaos of Tower Hamlets will not be tolerated elsewhere. It would require significant time, focus and resources.

Or we can continue to sweep it under the carpet, knowing that it will one day come back, bigger than before, as Militant did to Kinnock; ultimately threatening the party’s very existence. And that is if the dangerous dalliance of some in the party with groups such as Respect and the Islamic Forum Europe does not do that first.

We have made a start: this could be the first, modest step in neutralising this caustic mix of politics, race, special treatment and electoral fraud. Livingstone, the great protector of this kind of politics, is not gone, but he is much weaker. The time is now.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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