Deprivation, joblessness and child poverty: these are three issues for which Tower Hamlets is notorious. Headlines in the pages of the humble East London Advertiser as well as the Guardian and the Times have told the story of deep-rooted problems in the East End borough for many years.
The national charity End Child Poverty identifies Tower Hamlets as the worst borough in London for rates of deprivation, with 53 per cent of children coming from families living on unemployment benefits. It is by no means a new problem for the borough; its history is steeped in tales of extreme overcrowding, lack of well paid jobs, and high rates of disease.
These issues pose a weighty challenge to the borough’s politicians, and the battle for control over the area’s two parliamentary constituencies has become more and more brutal with each consecutive election. In 2006, the general election year in which Respect candidate George Galloway unseated Labour’s Oona King, allegations of “dirty tricks” in the local elections, including massive postal voting fraud, were rife. The Respect party went so far as submitting a dossier of dozens of alleged offences to the police.
More recently, in June 2009, Martin Smith – chief executive of Tower Hamlets council – was awarded a £500,000 payout after allegedly being forced out by council leader Lutfur Rahman. On March 17th of this year, Lutfur Ali, the assistant chief executive of the council who was brought in after Smith’s departure, was forced to resign after a high-pressure campaign against him led by Telegraph journalist Andrew Gilligan. Gilligan had made a Channel 4 documentary alleging that headhunters involved in Ali’s recruitment doubted he was qualified for the job. He claimed in a series of blogs that Ali was also connected to the Islamic Forum for Europe, an organisation he has taken pains to denounce as “fundamentalist”.
But a spokeswoman for the council was reported to have said at the time of the allegations: “If we had to rebut every inaccuracy Andrew Gilligan put out we’d be here for a very long time.” The Respect party, of course, claim Ali was the “first Muslim victim” of the “Tory-Labour witch hunt”.
It is clear that while the politicians have occupied themselves in mud-slinging matches with their opponents, the state of Tower Hamlets has continued to worsen. Take, for example, the fact that the number of households with more than one person per bedroom has been growing for the last 30 years, shown in the graph below.
Number of households with more than one person per bedroom in Tower Hamlets
What do the 4 main parties in Tower Hamlets propose to do about the borough’s problems?
Tim Archer, parliamentary candidate for the new consituency of Poplar and Limehouse, claims he needs a swing of only 5.5 per cent to win the seat. He has fought a general election once before, and says he preferred to contest a seat in the East End rather than stand for a safe Tory seat.
On his website he claims his “number one priority” is health, and backs the Conservative promise to increase spending on the NHS and give patients more freedom of choice. Another proposal he supports is to reintroduce dental checks for school children. This could make him popular in a historically unhealthy constituency where GPs and patients have recently taken to the streets to demonstrate against proposed NHS cuts.
The Conservatives’ argument that they would do better than Labour for the NHS in Tower Hamlets was strengthened in February when the lead member of the council for health, Dr Anwara Ali, defected to the Tories. She said: “Gordon Brown’s obsession with top down targets and a tick box culture has ruined the morale and goodwill of the national health staff. Ill health and early death in the East End is a direct result of Labour’s failure to bring real reform to the NHS.”
The East London Advertiser reports that Tim Archer’s other key priorities are housing, education, crime and anti-social behaviour. He says he wants to see more neighbourhood police on the streets outside office hours when there is more likely to be anti-social behaviour.
Tory candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow, Zakir Khan, is looking to make history, not only in Tower Hamlets but in the country, by becoming the first Bangladeshi Tory MP. He is known among Conservaties for promoting youth community projects.
Former fireman Jim Fitzpatrick has been Labour’s MP for Poplar and Canning Town for 13 years. He is now minister for farming, food and environment. He says his priorities are housing, employment, public services, health and policing.
He courted controversy in August 2009 when he and his wife walked out of a Muslim wedding, reportedly after hearing that men and women would have to sit in separate rooms. He also claimed last month that the Islamic Forum for Europe was acting like a party within Labour. He said: “They are acting almost as an entryist organisation, placing people within the political parties, trying to get individuals selected and elected so they can exercise political influence and power.”
His voting record shows he is against MPs being able to claim furniture allowances, and for the more rigorous scrutiny of MP expenditure, having voted for the rejected bill of July 2008 that proposed to strictly regulate parliamentary expenses. This vote was taken before the expenses scandal of last summer.
Jim Fitzpatrick’s main policies are lower council tax, working for a “cleaner safer borough”, reducing youth unemployment, supporting older residents, and providing for more “family sized homes”.
Listed by The Guardian as one of the most powerful Muslim women in Britain, Rushanara Ali aims to win the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow. It was once a Labour constituency, until Oona King was unseated by George Galloway in 2006. She said: “I’m confident that we can win this seat back, but it’s important to work across the community. At the last election we were divided, particularly around the issue of Iraq. It’s really important that we rebuild trust in this area.”
The Lib Dems have made housing a priority locally, which can only be a good thing in a borough as overcrowded as Tower Hamlets. “With 23,000 people on the housing waiting list, we cannot afford to have even one home empty in Tower Hamlets – The number of empty homes is a scandal. We should put pressure on owners and investors to ensure they do not leave housing vacant for months at a time. There are people and families who need those homes,” says local councillor Stephanie Eaton.
Jonathan Fryer is standing in Limehouse and Poplar, proposing to lobby for affordable housing. He promises that no tax will be charged on the first £10,000 of earnings, and says he supports the national policy to “campaign for ethical British foreign policy in which peace and justice come first”.
Ajmal Masroor will stand in Bethnal Green and Bow. He is a member of the Muslim Council of Britain, and is chairman and director of Communities in Action. He is also a television presenter on the Islam Channel and has presented programmes broadcast on Channel 4 and BBC One.
The notorious George Galloway is standing down in Bethnal Green and Bow, saying he always intended to allow somebody else to take the seat. Abjol Miah is stepping up to take his place. He proposes a wealth tax on bankers and says Respect will work to reverse university cuts.
George Galloway is now standing in Poplar and Limehouse.