Monday, 8 June 2015

By-election Previews: 9 and 11 June 2015

The second week of June 2015 sees four by-elections.  One, an unusual Tuesday poll in Worcestershire, is a piece of unfinished business from May's ordinary election. The three Thursday polls are all in London, and two are controversial.  Read on...

One by-election on Tuesday 9th June 2015:

ARELEY KINGS AND RIVERSIDE
Wyre Forest district council, Worcestershire
Postponed from 7th May due to the death of Independent Community and Health Concern candidate Nigel Thomas at the age of 70.  Thomas had been a district councillor for the former Areley Kings wards from 2006 to 2014, and had been a former leader of the Health Concern group on Wyre Forest council.

Stourport Bridge
This newly-drawn ward covers part of the town of Stourport-on-Severn, around the canal basin and the Lickhill Road, together with the village of Areley Kings on the opposite side of the River Severn.  Areley Kings has connections with the late 12th/early 13th century Arthurian poet Layamon, who was priest here, while Stourport is an unusual example of a town brought into existence by a canal, being located at the junction of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal with the Severn.

Wyre Forest's politics underwent a revolution in 1999 with the foundation of Health Concern, which started off as a single-issue party campaigning for the restoration of Kidderminster Hospital's casualty unit.  At the height of Health Concern's powers it controlled the district council and had the local MP (Dr Richard Taylor); although the party's fortunes have declined a bit since then it is still a major political force in Wyre Forest.  The district introduced new ward boundaries this year: Areley Kings and Riverside is a new ward, consisting of the whole of the old Areley Kings ward together with parts of the old Lickhill and Mitton wards.  On the outgoing council Areley Kings had three Labour councillors prior to this election, while Lickhill was Health Concern's strongest ward and Mitton was a normally Tory ward won by Health Concern in 2012 and UKIP (standing a former Tory councillor) in 2014.

Three seats are up for election, which means that at least two councillors will lose their seats.  For Labour, all three outgoing Areley Kings ward councillors are standing for re-election: they are Vi Higgs, Rob Lloyd and Jamie Shaw.  Health Concern have two councillors standing for re-election, Dixon Sheppard (Lickhill ward since 2006) and Cliff Brewer (Mitton ward since 2012); they are joined on the Health Concern slate by John Thomas, a county councillor for Stourbridge-on-Severn and district councillor for Areley Kings ward from 2007 to 2011.  There is a full UKIP slate of Martin Clapton, Ian Jones and Trevor Newman, and the Tory slate is Malcolm Gough and Ken and Lin Henderson.  Completing the ballot paper is John Davis for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Wyre Forest
Worcestershire county council division: Stourport-on-Severn
ONS Travel to Work Area: Kidderminster

No previous results on these boundaries



Three by-elections on Thursday 11th June 2015:

MAYOR OF TOWER HAMLETS and STEPNEY GREEN
London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Caused by the disqualifications of Lutfur Rahman and Alibor Choudhury respectively, for reasons which will be discussed below in great detail.

"Welcome to Tower Hamlets"
About once a year this column has to write about the Byzantine politics of Tower Hamlets, and for someone who is looking at the borough from two hundred miles away it all gets a bit confusing and repetitive.  No doubt my readers (hello Sid, hello Doris) think the same thing.  However, in the circumstances of this particular by-election I make no apology for the length of this preview, nor for rehashing and expanding on material that has appeared here several times before.  Let's start by rewinding ten years and looking at a couple of quotes from April and May 2005:

"...evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic..."
- Richard Mawrey QC, 4th April 2005

"A shambles of an election which would disgrace a banana republic"
- George Galloway, 6th May 2005

The second quote was newly-elected Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, George Galloway, castigating the Returning Officer for Tower Hamlets for her conduct of the 2005 general election.  It clearly echoes the first quote, taken from a judgment made by election commissioner Richard Mawrey that six Labour seats in two heavily-Asian wards of Birmingham city council were won in 2004 by widespread postal vote fraud.  At the time, observers of politics thought this was shocking.  We could not have predicted what was to come ten years later.

The East End of London has always been an industrial area, cut through with docks off the River Thames and criss-crossed by railways serving London and the docklands.  It's been a focus for left-wing politics for generations: Labour Party leaders George Lansbury and Clement Attlee both cut their teeth in local government here and represented constituencies within the area, and the last Communist MP returned to Parliament was elected here in 1945.  It's been a focus for immigration for centuries, with successive waves of Flemish weavers, French Huguenots, Irish weavers, European Jews, sailors from South Asia and China, and most recently a huge influx of people from Sylhet in Bangladesh, most of that settlement coming in the 1960s and 1970s.  It's always been a poor area, with the main employment traditionally coming from cloth and the docks: the high crime levels that level of poverty implies are most famously exemplified by the unsolved "Jack the Ripper" murders in 1888 Whitechapel.

The East End was heavily bombed and depopulated in the Second World War, and within decades afterwards the docks in the area were closed.  The Tory government of the 1980s started a massive regeneration project for the Docklands, which has been fantastically successful with the Canary Wharf area turning into one of the main financial centres of the world.  However, despite some gentrification since 2000 little of that wealth has trickled down into the local area, which remains generally poor and heavily multi-racial.  The 2011 census figures are stark and show the extent of the centuries of immigration into what is now Tower Hamlets: Islam is now the predominant religion with 35% of the population, compared to 27% who said they were Christian, while 55% of the population are from ethnic minorities: 32% being Bangladeshi, compared to a White British figure of 31%.  The Bangladeshi community in the borough is generally close-knit and a large proportion do not speak English as a first language.

This sort of population leads to problems with racism.  Stepney was the site of the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, and the British National Party won a by-election in Millwall ward - which was then a white working-class area - in 1993, coming through the middle of an even split between Labour and the Lib Dems to beat Labour by just seven votes.  It was the BNP's first ever electoral success, and they have never come close to repeating it since: Labour had no problem taking the seat back in the 1994 council election in which they defeated a two-term Lib Dem administration.  Unfortunately the Tower Hamlets Labour party has suffered from serious infighting virtually from that day to this: a row from early in the 1994-98 term, ostensibly over staff reorganisation, played its part in the 2014 election as will be discussed later.  In 2000 the Labour leader from that term, John Biggs, was elected to the London Assembly to represent Tower Hamlets, the City and two other East End boroughs; he still holds that seat today.

The council got new ward boundaries in 2002 which gave a nod to the huge Bangladeshi immigrant community by naming a ward as "Spitalfields and Banglatown".  Two of the Labour councillors elected from that ward that year were called Helal Abbas and Lutfur Rahman, and they formed part of a strong Labour majority on the council with 35 seats to 16 for the rump of the Lib Dem group, who by now were confined to the northern wards with Labour having a lock on the wards down by the riverside.  However, it was around this time that demographic change and the Iraq war led to the wheels starting to come off for Labour in Tower Hamlets.  In 2004 Labour lost a by-election to Respect in St Dunstan's and Stepney Green ward - the first council seat ever won by Respect - then lost a by-election in now-rapidly-gentrifying Millwall ward to the Tories - the first council seat won by the Tories on Tower Hamlets council - then lost the Bethnal Green and Bow parliamentary seat to George Galloway the following year.  In 2006 Respect made a strong assault on Tower Hamlets council and came up just short: Labour emerged with a majority of one, with Respect now the official opposition and the Tories sweeping the Isle of Dogs.

The Respect breakthrough didn't last long - a pattern that has since been seen in Bradford - and their council group quickly fell apart with a number of councillors defecting to Labour - again, a pattern that his since been seen in Bradford.  This changed the balance of power within the factions of the Labour group, which at the time was led by Helal Abbas with Rahman as his main challenger.  At the time most of the Rahmanite councillors within Labour were Bangladeshi, and most of the non-Rahmanite Bangladeshi Labour councillors were on the other side of the main division in Bangladesh's politics, between Jawaat-e-Islami and the Awami League - a demonstration of the strong links between the Bangladeshi community and their relatives back in Bangladesh.  Rahman was able to oust Abbas as leader in 2008, and embarked on an administration that attracted a lot of bad press - not just in Private Eye's "Rotten Boroughs" column - and proved very controversial, with the effective sacking of the (white) Chief Executive combined with more outlandish (and unproven) accusations that Rahman had links with extremist Islamists.  During this administration a petition was organised to establish an elected mayoralty for Tower Hamlets, a proposal which was confirmed by a referendum held simultaneously with the 2010 general and borough elections.

Those elections went well for Labour, which recovered the Bethnal Green and Bow parliamentary seat and greatly increased its majority on the council.  This changed the balance of power within Labour again, and Rahman lost the council leadership back to Helal Abbas.  However, in short order Labour needed to select a candidate for the first Tower Hamlets mayoral election in October 2010.

That selection turned into a farce.  The initial shortlist - drawn up by the regional Labour party - consisted of John Biggs and two little-known Bangladeshi candidates.  Rahman appealed, and the selection was re-run; he was again left off the shortlist and only put onto it after a second appeal.  In the ballot of Labour party members Rahman won, with Biggs second and council leader Helal Abbas third.  However, Abbas then presented a series of serious allegations against Rahman to Labour's National Executive Committee, which unilaterially removed Rahman as Labour candidate and imposed Abbas in his place.  But Lutfur Rahman had the last laugh: he stood for election for Mayor as an independent, and won in the first round.

During Rahman's term as Mayor he quickly attracted a number of councillors to his cause - most of them defections from Labour, all of them Bangladeshi - and registered a political party called Tower Hamlets First to support his re-election.  In this column in July last year, I was slightly reticent to expand on the details of Rahman's 2010-2014 mayoral term beyond those facts, mainly because there were many claims and counter-claims and I hadn't a clue what was going on.  It seems that central government shared my confusion, and following a Panorama expos√© in March 2014 they sent in the auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers to take a look.

PwC noted that Rahman's ruling style was autocratic, with essentially no power being delegated to the Mayor's cabinet, unlike what happens in other councils with elected mayors.  In particular, the Mayor made a high proportion of decisions on council grants himself.  PwC also determined that large grants of public money were paid to organisations that weren't deemed eligible for grants by Council officers; that nearly £100,000 was paid in grants to Bangladeshi or other Muslim organisations for lunch clubs when none of them had applied for a grant; that wards which voted for Tower Hamlets First had their grant allocation increased and wards which voted for Labour had their grant allocation reduced.  Following those findings central government sent in Commissioners to take over the council's functions relating to grant allocation.

Rahman's autocratic nature extended to his political party, Tower Hamlets First, which was never run in accordance with the law on political parties.  Most notably, the party never had a bank account: while it does appear to have paid its bills, its financial arrangements are a mystery.

Rahman was due for re-election in 2014, and was up against Labour's new candidate John Biggs.  Rahman and Alibor Choudhury, his election agent, decided to play the race card.  Biggs had been interviewed by the BBC's Sunday Politics programme in September 2013 in which he said
"All [Rahman's] councillors are from the Bangladeshi community and the primary focus of his policy making has been on the Bangladeshi community. A very important community in Tower Hamlets but not the only community in Tower Hamlets."  Biggs went on to talk about his vision of the borough's different communities working together.

Choudhury reported the first sentence of that quote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who initially sent an ill-advised response suggesting that it might amount to a hate crime and should be reported to the police, then sent a second letter retracting that opinion.  Knowing about this retraction, Choudhury then issued a press release to the effect that the EHRC had substantiated the complaint against Biggs.

Choudhury then found a 1995 document written by then Labour councillor Michael Keith, who would later become Leader of the Council and is now an Oxford professor, as part of the staff reorganisation row.  The document was written in support of a fellow Labour councillor who was facing disciplinary action for sending a bogus fax.  In comparing an allegedly-racist election leaflet distributed by the Liberal Democrats featuring a picture of the boxer Mike Tyson with allegations by John Biggs that his opponents were "loony left", Keith's document said
"In this context it is proper to see John Biggs’ use of the loony leftism accusations in the same light, they cannot be freed from their bigoted connotations, as the East London Advertiser made clear when they subsequently went to town in their usual poisonous way when John Biggs’ assimilation memo was ‘leaked’ to them. In short I would also accuse John Biggs of racism, no more and no less than those who put together the Mike Tyson leaflet..."
Lifting the words "In short I would also accuse John Biggs of racism" completely out of their context, Choudhury issued a further press release clearly implying that Biggs is a racist and the Labour Party have known this for two decades.

On election day, Rahman had a big lead on first preferences but won re-election quite narrowly over Biggs, who picked up nearly all of the second preferences from other parties.  Rahman's re-election was challenged in the election court by four electors from Tower Hamlets, led by Andy Erlam who had unsuccessfully stood for the council on a left-wing anti-corruption ticket.

The case was heard by election commissioner Richard Mawrey.  Mawrey made his reputation as a hanging judge with the Aston and Bordesley Green cases in Birmingham in 2004, and had disqualified councillors in similar circumstances to Birmingham in Slough (2007) and Woking (2012).  In a long and complicated trial he had to hear a catalogue of allegations against Rahman.  On some counts Rahman was exonerated:


  • The Scrutiny did not find sufficient evidence to support allegations that votes already cast were illegally altered.
  • A dinner held at Canary Wharf for the great and good of Tower Hamlets four months before the 2014 election, which the Rahman campaign declared as election expenses, did not amount to the electoral offence of treating.
  • In possibly the most disturbing part of the judgment, a large number of allegations of intimidation at polling stations by Tower Hamlets First supporters were found not to constitute the electoral offence of undue influence.


But the rest of the judgment was damning, finding Rahman or his campaign team had committed no fewer than seven different electoral offences:


  • Three Tower Hamlets First candidates were falsely registered as electors and cast votes unlawfully.
  • A fourth Tower Hamlets First candidate may have been falsely registered as an elector and two votes were cast in his name.
  • There was evidence of postal vote fraud having been committed: voters had handed their votes in to Tower Hamlets First campaigners, and a handwriting expert found that large numbers of postal vote documents and associated ballot papers had been completed in the same hand and the same ink.
  • The press releases by Choudhury implying that Biggs is a racist, on the grounds of the retracted EHRC letter and the 1995 Keith memo, were false statements impugning Biggs' character or conduct, and Choudhury knew that they were false.
  • The Rahman campaign had illegally paid canvassers.
  • The misuse of grants uncovered by PricewaterhouseCoopers amounted to the electoral offence of bribery.
  • The Council had paid the borough's Bengali-language media to portray Rahman in a favourable light, even after five Bengali TV channels had been censured by Ofcom for making such broadcasts.  Again, this amounted to the electoral offence of bribery.
  • In the most sensational part of the judgment, Rahman played the religious card by soliciting and obtaining the support of the borough's Muslim clerics: the leader of the local Council of Mosques, Hafiz Moulana Shamsul Hoque, gave speeches in support of Rahman, and 101 local imams wrote a letter in Bengali to a local newspaper saying that it was the religious duty of Muslims in the borough to vote for Rahman.  This amounted to the electoral offence of undue spiritual influence, an offence which had not been invoked since the nineteenth century.
  • The 2014 election in Tower Hamlets generally was corrupt.


As a direct consequence of the court's decision, Mayor Lutfur Rahman and his election agent, Councillor Alibor Choudhury, were disqualified from public office and struck off the electoral register for five years.  The Court has also reported Mr Rahman, who is a solicitor, to the Solicitors' Regulation Authority.  There were some other knock-on effects.  The then Communities secretary Eric Pickles (as he was then) sent in more Commissioners to take over more of the council's functions; the Deputy Mayor, another Rahmanite councillor, resigned that post due to a conflict with his job in the civil service; and the Electoral Commission realised it hadn't been paying attention and struck Tower Hamlets First off the register of political parties.

The Mayoral by-election will have ten candidates.  The defending Rahmanite candidate, standing as an independent, is Rabina Khan, a councillor for Shadwell ward and formerly Rahman's cabinet member for housing.  Labour have reselected John Biggs, London Assembly member for the borough since 2000 and Labour's budget spokesman in the Assembly.  The Conservatives have selected Peter Golds, councillor for Island Gardens ward and leader of the Tory group on the council.  UKIP have reselected Nicholas McQueen, who came fourth in the 2014 Mayoral election and third in the general election in Bethnal Green and Bow last month; John Foster is the Green Party candidate; standing for the Lib Dems is Elaine Bagshaw, who also fought Bethnal Green and Bow last month.  Two new parties have entered the fray: Andy Erlam, mastermind of the petition which removed Rahman from office, stands on his own "Red Flag - Anti-Corruption" ticket, while Vanessa Hudson is the candidate of the Animal Welfare Party.  Completing the ballot paper are two independent candidates: Hafiz Kadir (who came last in the 2014 mayoral election) and Mohammed Motiur Rahman Nanu.

An official booklet with publicity for all ten candidates is available here from the Tower Hamlets website.

Turning to the lower-profile by-election in Stepney Green ward, a generally residential area between the Mile End Road and the Commercial Road, and centred on Stepney Way and the Green itself.  In 2014 - the only previous result on the present ward boundaries - Tower Hamlets First polled 43% to Labour's 33%, the Green Party's 9% being best of the rest.  The defending Rahmanite candidate is Abu Talha Chowdhury, a youth leader and social worker standing as an independent.  Labour have reselected Sabina Akhtar, who greatly outpolled her non-Bangladeshi running-mate in the 2014 election.  The Green candidate is Kirsty Chestnutt, who is originally from Australia and has lived in Stepney Green for fifteen years.  Also standing are Paul Shea for UKIP, Safiul Azam for the Tories, Will Dyer for the Lib Dems and Jessie MacNeil-Brown under the description "Something New".

Although allegations in the election petition against the returning officer were not pursued, it must be remembered that the 2014 count for the Mayoral, borough and European elections was an epic fiasco as this column has previously covered.  With a bit of luck, we may get a result for these by-elections within 118 hours of the polls closing.  And reports over the weekend of more breaches of electoral law during these by-elections only demonstrate that while Lutfur Rahman may have gone, the electoral culture he fomented in this 21st-century rotten borough lives on.

Mayor of Tower Hamlets
Parliamentary constituencies: Bethnal Green and Bow, Poplar and Limehouse
London Assembly constituency: City and East
ONS Travel to Work Area: London

May 2014 result THF 36539 Lab 27643 C 7173 UKIP 4819 Grn 4699 LD 1959 TUSC 871 Ind 205 Ind 164 Ind 162; runoff THF 37935 Lab 34143
Oct 2010 result Ind 23283 Lab 11254 C 5348 LD 2800 Grn 2300

Stepney Green
Parliamentary constituency: Bethnal Green and Bow
London Assembly constituency: City and East
ONS Travel to Work Area: London

May 2014 result THF 2023/1965 Lab 1568/954 Grn 411 UKIP 387 C 209/166 LD 151


WALLINGTON SOUTH
London Borough of Sutton
Caused by the death of Liberal Democrat councillor Colin Hall at the age of 54, from cancer.  Hall was a constituency organiser for the Lib Dem MP Tom Brake, and had served on Sutton council since 1998; at the time of his death he was deputy leader of the council.

Beddington Gardens, Wallington
Now here's a rare thing: a council by-election in a Lib Dem-held parliamentary seat.  Following the general election meltdown, Carshalton and Wallington is now the only Lib Dem constituency in London, and Tom Brake is the party's longest-serving MP having been here since 1997.

The Wallington South ward runs south from Wallington railway station.  As in many London suburban areas, the railway was the spur for development here: Wallington station (then known as Carshalton station) opened in 1847 on the Victoria-West Croydon-Sutton line, and a number of imposing Victorian and Edwardian villas were built around it.  Before suburbanisation - which was complete by the time of the First World War - the main local industry was agriculture, particularly lavender.

Wallington South has been a safe Liberal Democrat ward for many years.  At the most recent election in 2014 the Lib Dem vote fell to 37% but their majority increased; the Conservatives had 19%, UKIP 16% and a candidate standing to save the local St Helier Hospital polled 9%.  In the 2012 London Assembly elections Boris polled 55% here, to 25% for Ken Livingstone and a relatively impressive 7% for the Lib Dems' Brian Paddick, while the Tories topped the list vote with 36% to 22% for Labour, 17% for the Lib Dems and 9% for UKIP.

Defending for the Lib Dems, in their first major test since the general election meltdown, is Steve Cook who has lived in Wallington for 35 years and formerly worked in the film industry, running a business specialising in sound and post-production.  The Conservatives have selected Jim Simms who has recently retired as a mechanical engineer and chairs Woodcote Green Residents Association.  UKIP's candidate is Andy Beadle, a Carshalton resident who fought Bermondsey and Old Southwark in the general election.  Completing the ballot paper are Sarah Gwynn of Labour, Rosa Rajendran of the Green Party (who stood in the ward last year) and independent candidate Duncan Mattey.

May 2014 result LD 1593/1558/1221 C 825/649/571 UKIP 694 Keep Our St Helier Hospital Party 377 Lab 374/358/283 Grn 301/274 EDP 110
May 2010 result LD 2674/2633/2439 C 1891/1839/1684 Lab 559/542/455 Grn 544
May 2006 result LD 1575/1550/1490 C 1305/1247/1224 Grn 339/210 Lab 221/215/189
May 2002 result LD 1465/1427/1411 C 1074/1065/1004 Lab 232/211/183 Grn 207/185 Loony 89

May 2012 GLA results (excludes postal voters)
Mayor: Boris 1286 Ken 591 LD 166 Grn 98 Ind 94 UKIP 85 BNP 31
List: C 838 Lab 519 LD 403 UKIP 209 Grn 190 CPA 59 BNP 54 EDP 40 TUSC 20 NF 11 Alagaratnam 9 Hayat 4 House Party 3

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