Tower Hamlets youth protest in support of no cuts budget Photo: East London SP
Tower Hamlets youth protest in support of no cuts budget Photo: East London SP

Now build a mass movement to fight austerity

Hugo Pierre, Tower Hamlets Socialist Party

Right-wing Labour mayor John Biggs was defeated in Tower Hamlets, east London, after unleashing eight years of austerity.

In hustings in 2018, Biggs proclaimed he was proud to be representing the fastest growing party in the borough. This was during the Corbyn surge and after the 2017 general election – where, despite having little or no backing from MPs and councillors, Corbyn’s radical programme took Labour to one of its highest votes in history.

What Biggs failed to mention was that he was a co-signatory of a letter to Corbyn from Labour council leaders demanding no interference in the autonomous decision-making of Labour groups in councils. This was at a time when Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell, feeling the pressure of a new and more radical mass membership, were considering whether Labour councils could act against cuts imposed by the Tories.

Biggs then presided over an effective ‘one-party state’ council from 2018. Its first act was to increase councillors’ allowances whilst driving through cuts.

In a perverse parody of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) position, Labour used the borough’s substantial reserves to help implement his cuts programme. The council rolled back local reforms that had granted free universal home care and a local Education Maintenance Allowance when it had been cut nationally.

Nursery closures

Despite a major, successful campaign in the borough against closure proposals under the previous administration, Labour privatised nursery provision, knowing this would lead to a driving down of working conditions. Such was the petty nature of Labour’s cuts, they even closed an incontinence laundry service that cost just £41,000 a year to run, among others.

In the ultimate act, during the first Covid lockdown, the Labour council sacked its entire workforce to rehire them on worse terms and conditions, facing resistance from a strike of Unison union members. Close to 1,000 local Labour Party members signed a letter calling on Mayor Biggs to reverse the attack.

The reforms that Labour has been busily rolling back were a product of the administration led by the previous mayor, Lutfur Rahman, who had split from Labour and won as an independent. But he was subsequently banned from standing for five years by a single, unelected electoral court QC, without an opportunity to state his case.

Rahman said on his victory this May: “The people of the borough gave a verdict today. I was in the court of the people and they said… they wanted Lutfur Rahman and his team to serve for the next four years.”

In his manifesto, Rahman’s promises included freezing council tax for four years, extending free school meals to all primary school children, building 4,000 social homes, bringing privatised services back in-house, and seizing long-term empty properties.

In a policy first put forward by TUSC, Rahman pledged to use landlord licensing to control rents. He also pledged to abolish ‘Liveable Streets’ (traffic calming) schemes – a complicated issue which causes some division, mainly stemming from Labour’s top-down and sometimes ill-thought-through imposition.

Tower Hamlets is a borough of massive contrasts. The financial centre in Canary Wharf masks the huge levels of poverty. The average salary is over £70,000 a year for workers commuting into the borough, but average household income of residents is £30,000, falling to £23,000 if housing costs are taken into account. Estimates put the proportion of children living in poverty at the highest in the country.

Tory governments have reduced the central grant to Tower Hamlets Council by 50% since 2010 when Rahman was last in power. They have plans to reduce it further still. This gives his administration even less room to manoeuvre and implement reforms.

Establishment pressure

Without a fight to reverse this, it would mean the borough relying on income from council tax and its share of business rates. Finance officers estimate the council faces a deficit of £9 million this year and a further £30 million over the next two. So Rahman will quickly face establishment pressure and conflict in delivering much of his programme.

As well as the executive mayor’s position, Rahman’s party, Aspire, won a majority of ward seats. This gives them full control of the council‘s agenda.

In the past, the Socialist Party and TUSC worked with supporters of Aspire who are now councillors to draw up a no-cuts council budget, using reserves and ‘prudential borrowing’ powers. We see this as a strategy to prepare the borough, and particularly the trade unions and community organisations, for a mass campaign to force money from the Tories for local council homes, jobs and services.

However, as well as important reforms, Rahman’s previous administration balanced the books by passing on some cuts. But it faced opposition on this: joint trade union strike action and major campaigns against nursery closures. Unlike right-wing Labour, he proved willing to bend to that working-class pressure.


But the lack of a broader strategy and mass campaign opened the door for the attacks on him that led to his temporary disbarment from office by  the capitalist establishment. They didn’t see him as a safe pair of hands to run a borough with a fighting tradition. This is a key lesson.

Tower Hamlets TUSC doubled its mayoral vote in this election, even though it was still modest. More importantly there was significant interest, from those we could reach, in campaigning for our fighting programme.

Rahman stated he wants to run a council for the people of the borough. To do this, and have any chance of implementing his programme, he will need to take the fight to the Tories and mobilise workers in the borough.

He could start by organising a local conference, inviting trade unions and community organisations, to develop a strategy to win the resources this borough needs. This must be linked to a national outlook: to work towards a new mass workers’ party that could bring solidarity to a fighting council and spread that fight, opposing austerity and fighting the cost-of-living crisis.