We Are Reversing Austerity in London’s Poorest Borough

I became mayor of London’s Tower Hamlets in May 2022. In seven months, I have put local services under public control, given money to poor high school students to continue their education, and proven that austerity is a political choice.

Lutfur Rahman speaks at the Tower Hamlets election count in London, after he was elected mayor of Tower Hamlets on the second round, defeating Labour incumbent John Biggs in the local government elections. May 6, 2022. (Aaron Chown / PA Images via Getty Images)

The London borough of Tower Hamlets, where I have served as mayor since May last year, is a microcosm of Britain as a whole. To its east lies a financial district erected by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1987 following the Conservative Party’s large-scale deregulation of the city. Surrounding the financial district is a community in which 40 percent of children live in poverty. Wealth has not trickled down, despite bumper profits unleashed by the so-called Big Bang over three decades ago.

The regeneration of the formerly derelict East London docklands relied on a model of regeneration which did little to effectively tackle inequality. In seven months at the helm of Tower Hamlets’ council, the Aspire Party and I have attempted to challenge this model with one of our own. Guided by a commitment to equality and social justice, we have succeeded in starting a reversal of the trend of the past four decades.

How We Got Here

In May 2022, the voters of Tower Hamlets saw past years of smears and misinformation to turn out en masse and vote for a program of real change. By doing so, they not only lent me a sizeable majority and a healthy mandate as mayor of the borough; they also handed our Aspire Party councilors a majority in the council chamber. This was an important act of trust on the part of our local voters because it ensured we were able to avoid the kind of political gridlock that compromises transformative programs, both locally and nationally. Generally speaking, the more radical the program, the sharper the resistance to it.

But the people of Tower Hamlets — the place where my family settled when I was five years old, and where I have lived ever since — knew that nothing less than a transformative program would suffice in London’s poorest borough; a borough where the deprivation of many of our communities and neighborhoods is cruelly framed against a skyline that includes Canary Wharf.

It would be foolhardy for a politician to think that voters care about their good qualities before they care about their good policies. Yes, some politicians have better personal qualities than others, and yes that can have an impact on how people vote at election time. But ultimately, politicians are vectors for the policies they offer, and no success is possible without first being able to articulate a vision of society that differs from the status quo. In rare instances where politicians do manage to ride to power on personality alone, they are quickly found out; the Emperor’s New Clothes are quickly deposed alongside the Emperor.

The program we developed, and the manifesto that codified it, sought to use all the resources available at the local-government level to answer the challenge of these drastic times — times in which inflation is running well into double digits, in which an energy crisis is pushing millions into fuel poverty, and in which homelessness and everyday food bank usage are shockingly widespread. Of course, these aren’t drastic times for everyone; the wealth and profits of the rich and, particularly, the superrich seem to be in good health, regardless of wider economic conditions.

With some notable and inspiring exceptions at local and international levels — such as our colleagues in Preston Council or, further afield, our comrades in Latin America leading the Pink Tide — the response to the challenges facing us from the political class and the institutions it controls is one of “managed decline.” It’s the same ulterior agenda-serving defeatism that framed austerity as an economic law of gravity, rather than a reckless political choice. As much as anything else, I am trying to expose the fallacy that “there is no alternative” to these programs and ideologies that invariably punish the many and reward the few.

Of course, I am mayor of Tower Hamlets and have been focused these past seven months on delivering for the borough and our residents first and foremost. But my hope is that, by delivering, Tower Hamlets can become a beacon for other residents, other localities, and other authorities. That, to me, is the essence and meaning of solidarity across boundaries and borders, and I have been heartened by the support our project has received from the Left across the country and even the wider world. Such support, along with that of our residents, is indispensable to our ultimate success, because the people-power it gives us is a form of capacity strong enough to offset the power of those who oppose us.

Our Record So Far, and What Lies Ahead

There are three main themes contained in our program, all aimed at making Tower Hamlets a greener, cleaner, fairer, and happier place to live. One is local democracy and the empowerment of our local communities; another is social, economic, and environmental justice for our residents; and the third is the protection of the most vulnerable in our borough.

To enhance local democracy and empower communities, I have pushed forward with plans to insource our borough’s assets, amenities, and facilities, relieving them from the grip of private and third-party ownership, and returning them to the people of the borough via their elected representatives. This process started back in August of last year, with the insourcing of leisure centers and facilities, and will continue in 2023 with plans to insource all council-owned housing stock. At present, homes owned by Tower Hamlets Council are managed by a third-party organization, but our manifesto commitment would see around twenty-two thousand homes brought back in-house to be managed by a council that answers directly to the people, and invests in services over the long term. In my view, health, well-being, and housing are far too important to be left to market forces to run.

Elsewhere, at a full council meeting in October last year, our administration passed a motion adopting a Masterplan for an area of Tower Hamlets called “Spitalfields and Banglatown” — an area that includes iconic Brick Lane. A Masterplan is a fairly complex planning mechanism, but suffice to say here that we are developing it to serve and protect small businesses threatened by corporate interests and investment, to maximize the provision of land for the building of social housing, and to ensure green and community space is safeguarded and expanded for local residents. Gentrification is rampant in London; a Masterplan is an effective tool for curtailing it. Finally, I am investing £4.7 million ($5.7 million) in our voluntary and community sector to help local civil society flourish in the years ahead, as well as over a million pounds in local resident hubs, libraries, and adult education facilities to remove knowledge from the ivory tower and return it to our communities.

Social, economic, and environmental justice are, of course, entwined with all these concerns and strategies, but require policies more directly tailored to their vast and unique dilemmas. Inequality is often born, but after it is born it is educated. That is why I have been so keen to hit the ground running with several transformative education-based policies in my first six months. The reintroduction of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) — a weekly grant awarded directly to high school children to help pay for the costs of staying in school past age sixteen — makes Tower Hamlets the only borough in England to offer it. The £1,500 ($1,800)-per-pupil University Bursary encourages young people who might otherwise be deterred to continue into further education.

Later this year, universal free school meals will be extended from primary schools to all secondary schools in our borough — again, making us the only borough in the country to offer this critical measure in the fight against child hunger. And because youth doesn’t stop at the end of the school day, I have ensured a huge investment in our depleted youth services totaling £12 million ($14.6 million), which will go toward reopening dozens of youth centers closed during austerity, as well as further resourcing those that managed to survive.

In the face of climate catastrophe, and short of system reset, everything policymakers do is inadequate. But we cannot allow ourselves to be overawed by the enormity of the challenge. I have started on what I hope will be an ambitious green program over the coming years by investing £5 million ($6 million) in green electric waste vehicles and electric vehicle charging points throughout the borough. I have also started the process of attaching £1 million-worth ($1.2 million) of solar paneling to council buildings, and invested around £200,000 ($243,000) on delivering a low-carbon fuel supply.

And lastly, because all these measures combined cannot prevent the pernicious consequences of neoliberalism in their entirety, I have strengthened the social safety net by delivering a £5 million ($6 million) cost-of-living package for our most vulnerable residents, including an emergency energy fund to help with soaring energy costs, a financial uplift for our elderly residents, and a significant funding increase for our all-too-ubiquitous food banks.

The Tower Hamlets Model

These radical policies are a mere cameo of what we introduced in 2022, and an even smaller cameo of what’s to come in 2023 and beyond. But taken together, or even in isolation, they serve simultaneously to improve the lives of Tower Hamlets residents, build a base for the Left within working class communities, and repudiate the myth that “there is no alternative” to managed decline and neoliberal retrenchment of state and society.

What we’re attempting in our borough is not only to meet peoples’ everyday needs and confront the current cost-of-living crisis head-on, but to transform power asymmetries in the longer term. This requires that we not only pass strong socialist policies, but also build strong communities so future administrations cannot simply reverse our progress. We’ll accomplish this by transformational reforms that build capacity for the organizations of the working classes, such as schools, libraries, trade unions, community groups, and tenants unions.

Our model can be summed up in four words — there is an alternative, an alternative that believes nothing is too good for the people of Tower Hamlets or the working classes across the UK and the world.