I’m a Socialist, and I Just Beat the Labour Party in London’s Poorest Borough

In London’s poorest borough, I ran as an open socialist against the Labour Party to become mayor — and I won. Despite Labour’s conservative turn, the Left can win like I did: by going on the offensive.

Lutfur Rahman (second left) has been elected mayor of Tower Hamlets in London on the second round, defeating incumbent John Biggs (second right) of Labour. (Aaron Chown / PA Images via Getty Images)

Last week I was elected as mayor of Tower Hamlets, London’s poorest borough. Our victory was a grassroots-led upset of the big Westminster parties, including the Labour Party which has attempted for years to stop me from running under trumped up corruption allegations. After electing twenty-four councilors at the most recent election, Aspire, our left-wing independent party, is now the largest political force in Tower Hamlets. Labour, in contrast, gained only twenty-two councilors across the whole of England.

This is the first time that a council in London has been taken over by a party that isn’t named Labour, Conservative, or Liberal Democrat in nearly sixty years. In every conceivable sense, ours is a historic victory to which the whole world should pay attention.

Building on Radical Traditions

A short walk from where I live, the Commercial Road branches out of Aldgate and heads for the Docklands. It connects London’s two great financial districts, running through wards where half of children grow up in poverty. It was built as a private toll road, inaccessible to locals, to rush the ill-gotten gains of empire into wealthier districts.

Within walking distance, radicals two centuries ago plotted the downfall of the slave trade in nearby cafes. Forty-four years ago in Brick Lane, the western end of Tower Hamlets, a young man named Altab Ali was murdered by racist thugs in an incident that shaped my adolescence and the adolescence of everyone I grew up with. And the area also has seen the far right driven out by massive, multiracial mobilization — from the antisemitic British Brothers’ League, to Mosley’s fascists and the English Defence League (EDL).

Since I arrived in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets as a small child, fresh from a village in rural Bangladesh in the aftermath of that country’s civil war, this place — with all its history and politics and deep contradiction — has been my home.

Tower Hamlets was the site of the Poplar Rates Rebellion of the 1920s, where councillors refused to inflict austerity on their residents, and the birthplace of many of the UK’s modern trade unions. Most importantly, though, by winning here we have shown what ingredients are needed to build a bottom-up politics that seriously challenges our broken and rigged economy.

Local government is often seen as involving not much more than organizing garbage collections and parking rules. I happen to think that getting such everyday things right is quite important — but I also believe it is about much more. There is no other political space in which representatives have to mingle constantly with the people they represent, and where community organization can have an immediate and direct effect on the political process. We come into contact with the impact of every political decision, from transport to housing to environment to economics, through dealing with people at the point where those decisions affect them.

That’s why I’ve been pleased to see increasing attention on pioneering Labour councils in the UK, like in Preston and Salford, and an increasing focus on local economic democracy and community wealth-building in large parts of the United States as well. Strong local institutions, rooted in unions and civil society and working-class communities, are the building blocks of any attempt to change politics for good. If it is possible for socialists to win in Britain, home to one of the most centralized political systems in the Western world, it is possible everywhere.

Second Time Round

For five years, I was banned from running in the constituency, which I had served loyally, after years of campaigns, led by both major parties, to discredit me through race-baiting and Islamophobic innuendo. Between 2008–10, I was the Labour leader for Tower Hamlets Council, a position I used to implement radical reforms to education and housing.

When I ran to be Labour’s candidate for the newly created mayoralty of the borough in 2010, I was blocked from the shortlist with no reason given. I fought back and had to threaten legal action to be included as an option on the ballot. I won the case, so the party dropped me as their candidate, claiming I was rigging the ballot in allegations that were easy for me to disprove in court, but whose outcome wouldn’t be settled until after the election. Faced with this campaign of dirty tricks, I left the party I had been a member of since childhood, ran as an independent, and won.

Politics is always a messy game. But there was a growing whiff of race-baiting about all of this. At the height of the so-called “war on terror,” I was accused of being an Islamic extremist — a set of accusations that rapidly caught fire. New arches being built at the end of one of our roads were described as “hijab-shaped” and construed as an attempt to enforce “Islamic values.” A memo asking colleagues not to eat the food that Muslim councillors had bought to break their fasts with was presented as an attempt to force secular colleagues to fast. When an overwhelmingly white majority presided over the borough, this was just politics-as-usual. Whenever we won, it was chalked up to “communalism.”

The victim here wasn’t my reputation, it was my hometown’s, and not just because of the message sent to aspiring young minority political activists by tarring Britain’s first elected mayor of color as an Islamist fifth-column. The US hard right, in the build-up to the Donald Trump years, became obsessed with “Sharia law no-go zones” in my borough, which obviously have never existed. The far-right EDL turned up at mosques to intimidate people. And mainstream journalists and politicians who should have known a lot better repeatedly joined the cacophony.

The attacks didn’t stop and culminated in me being thrown out of office seven years ago, a year after I was reelected on a higher turnout than ever before. I was removed from office in a civil case with a different burden of proof to a criminal one. I don’t accept the findings, but nor could I afford a costly appeal.

I am always happy to take criticism. But it’s been upsetting to have people claim I’m in politics for personal gain. If that were true, holding the mayoralty of a small corner of London would not be worth years dealing with constant character assassinations, and routine absurd and racialized accusations — not just from the far right but politicians who think of themselves as liberals. Numerous police investigations have cleared me of all claims made against me.

In my last term as mayor, we introduced universal free school meals, universal free elderly care, and banned contracts with companies that blacklisted union organizers. We built more new government social housing than any other borough in the country and stood up to predatory developers. We introduced university bursaries for young people and retained the education maintenance allowance for school students after the government scrapped it and ensured world-class schools even as there was a growing crisis in education nationally.

We revived our urban centers with the help and input of people who lived in them, rather than kicking people out to make way for the wealthy. We did all this in the context of severe austerity, and the method was very simple. We talked to people and worked out what they needed, we selected a small number of battles worth fighting, and then we fought them until we won.

When I became leader, I vowed that Tower Hamlets would be an end to this and reverse this trend. First, this required that we no longer be treated like a branch office that the national party dispatched its trainee elites to manage for a few years before they were shuttled into parliament. From living wages to schools and youth center funding to free school meals, we shook up policy in a way that was popular with communities and ordinary Labour members. I have never been forgiven for it.

Instead, we went back to the court of public opinion, and for a third time we were vindicated. But I didn’t get reelected to redress historic injustices. I ran again because we live in a different and more dangerous world than when I last held office. After a decade of crippling austerity people are less prepared than ever for this new economic crisis. Fuel bills are up, rent is up, food bank usage is surging, and we have lived through tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths because we faced a pandemic with a stripped-down health service and an approach that put profits before people.

We are merrily belching carbon into the atmosphere and leaving a world of scarcity and destruction for our children, and the effects of this are felt acutely in Tower Hamlets, where air pollution blights people’s lives and reduces life expectancies. We must build the kind of solidarity that can shield people from the effects of all this. We must build something better.

Pushing Against the Tide

The problem with trying to change things is that, in doing so, you make enemies. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was kicked out of his own party by Keir Starmer, is the latest in a long line of progressive politicians to experience the full effects of this.

When I became leader of Tower Hamlets Council, New Labour had overseen the country for almost a decade. It was a government I had voted for and supported in the past, desperate for a change after eighteen years of Conservative rule.

Initially I was impressed. But things began to sour quickly. The Iraq War resulted in a huge local revolt against Labour, to which my party seemed utterly blind. Closer to home, social housing was stripped away from us and handed to giant housing associations because the idea that the right to housing was inalienable puts limits on profitability. Neoliberalism’s relentless search for new terrains of profitability demanded both Labour and Conservative governments facilitate the transfer of wealth from public to private.

We are supposed to turn to politics for solutions to these problems. But a business-as-usual politics has no answers and most of the time isn’t even bothering to ask questions. Barely any daylight seems to exist between Labour and the Conservatives on many of these issues, and the pervasive sense that Westminster is populated by a privileged and detached elite understandably generates apathy and dissent among many voters.

Outside of the Westminster bubble itself, mainstream media and powerful business interests do their level best to ensure the politics of business-as-usual — so beneficial to their interests — persists. The intention of these coordinated efforts is to convince us that nothing can really change; that the way the world appears is the way it will always be. This isn’t so, and I am determined to use my administration to demonstrate the power of people-led local government in the twenty-first century.

Our Program

We have a socialist program to spearhead a fairer society. The first absolute priority is to tackle the social emergency. We will restore and expand the homelessness fund, freeze council tax for poorer households, introduce an expansion of free school meals provision, bringing our privatized public services back in-house, and make full use of our powers to seize empty homes for new social housing.

Second, we will get tough on all those holding us back. We will use licensing powers to control rent hikes and refuse to comply with national anti-immigrant laws. We will end the slow destruction of our local heritage, most grimly represented by the Truman Brewery on world-famous Brick Lane being handed over to luxury developers.

And third, we will build a borough fit for the future; using the council’s spending power to boost our local economy, developing a plan for green jobs that take pollution out of our atmosphere and put money in residents’ pockets. We will build homes that people can both afford and be proud of.

The Tower Hamlets I know and love is a radical one; one steeped in a history shaped by its working class and immigrant communities; one that has always rejected the assumptions of power that say real change cannot, or should not, happen; one driven by grassroots activism at every stage of its rich and complex history. This is the Tower Hamlets that I grew up in, and it is the one that I am determined to advance and elevate as mayor.

But — as unique and special a place as Tower Hamlets is — such histories of radical possibility, hope, and change exist everywhere, despite how much guardians of the status-quo try in vain to make them invisible. As much as anything else, I will measure my success as mayor over these coming years by the example of radical alternatives we offer to other boroughs, cities, and communities across the country and indeed the world.

We cannot simply resist the neoliberal onslaught of cuts to social provisions and privatization of public services but we must go on the offensive by insourcing and expanding public provisions, strengthening workers’ and community organizing capacity, and reducing the institutional power of developers, big landowners, and big business. In these dark and troubling times, I want Tower Hamlets to stand as a beacon that says, “It doesn’t have to be like this; another world is possible!”