Earlier today, as I sat through David Cameron’s speech, I received two emails. The first urged me to come along to what was being billed as a “hustings” tonight for the Tower Hamlets mayoral election on October 21. And the second also made my heart sink. (I’ll deal with that in a separate post.)
After five days of Birmingham and Tories, I wasn’t sure I had the energy for the Tower Hamlets version of politics, but I shouldn’t have worried. The event described as a hustings was anything but. The organisers were Telco Citizens; it was held at St Mary’s and St Michael Roman Catholic Church in Stepney; and the audience – made up of Telco’s constituent groups including students from Queen Mary University, various churches, the East London Mosque and the Islamic Forum of Europe – numbered about 300, possibly more.
These Telco events are deliberately tame affairs. The candidates are invited onto the stage, or as it was tonight, the pulpit, and asked by a Telco member whether they agree with a Telco demand. The candidates are even briefed beforehand on what these demands are. So in answer to tonight’s five questions (will you as mayor meet with Telco twice a year; will you encourage employers to adopt the living wage; will you support subsidising criminal record checks; will you deliver 1,000 work experience placements in the council and other public organisations; and will you support the development of community land trusts as a way of boosting social housing), not one candidate uttered the word ‘no’.
As a way of strong-arming candidates into commitments, it was fabulous; as a spectacle for those of us who have grown use to Tower Hamlets tub-thumping, it was a touch too grown up.
However, each candidate was given a couple of minutes to say why they wanted to be mayor – and that’s when it became more interesting. Helal Abbas is many things, but a public speaker he is not. I’ve seen him many times on various council committees and his questioning is among the best at the town hall, but he’s never going to be one to raise the roar of a crowd. And so it was tonight. Abbas did not want an elected mayoral. system and his argument seemed to be that because the borough has two Labour MPs, there was also a need for a Labour mayor.
Lutfur Rahman, meanwhile, was a revelation. When he was town hall leader, he often struggled for coherence in his council chamber speeches and regularly came across as somewhat plastic and nervous. Now that the Labour shackles have been removed, he seems to have found a voice and real fire in his belly. Tonight, he actually bellowed and shouted at his audience – and his supporters, including many in the IFE section, clapped and cheered. Perhaps he’s been watching George Galloway videos.
While the style may have been good, the substance was disingenuous at best. He said that as council leader, he had “delivered” on housing, that he had delivered 1,500 affordable homes. “What Labour failed to do in 13 years, I did in two years,” he said. Puzzlingly, he even claimed credit for the changes that have yet to fully happen (and which were developed well before his leadership) on the Ocean estate. He also claimed the saving of the Bancroft History Library and Archives in 2008 was his work, when in fact he was the one who proposed selling off the building and he only changed his mind after a campaign spearheaded by the East London Advertiser, as detailed on this hugely popular Downing Street petition here. And he then claimed the credit for developing plans to save Poplar Baths, when in fact those plans were drawn up, practically single-handedly by deputy council leader Joshua Peck. I know politicians have a tendency to re-write history, but come on….
And then something miraculous happened outside the church: Lutfur spoke to me. I asked him whether he’d had any media training and he said, “No, I’m just an East End boy, I really care.” I invited him to write a piece for this blog and he has agreed and I should have it by the end of the week. In return, he invited me to have dinner with him “after this campaign is over”.
What about during the campaign, I asked? No, he said. Detailed questions are what he wants to avoid, right now.