Six of the mayoral candidates in Tower Hamlets have pledged to promote more diversity within the borough, an area which has suffered anti-gay campaigns in recent years.
Candidates Elaine Bagshaw (Liberal Democrats), John Biggs (Labour), Andy Erlam (Red Flag — Anti-Corruption), John Foster (Green Party), Peter Golds (Conservatives) and Vanessa Hudson (Animal Welfare) delivered their views on LGBT issues at a special hustings monday night and heard the voice of the sexual minorities in the borough.
Those missing were Independent candidate Rabina Khan, formerly of disgraced Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s banned Tower Hamlets First party, who had agreed to attend the meeting but pulled out at the last minute because of an illness in her family. Other candidates for the seat who were absent were Nicholas McQueen (UKIP), Hafiz Abdul Kadir (Independent) and Motiur Rahman Nanu (Independent).
Chief Executive of Rainbow Hamlets Jack Gilbert who organised the hustings said: “This is the first time in London that candidates for such a powerful role will face an LGBT-focused audience. As Mayor, the winner would be responsible for ensuring that the local authority serves all the diverse communities of the borough equally.”
All candidates agreed that the police “could do more” to combat hate crime and bullying despite progress, such as having a LGBT liaison officer and regular meetings with Rainbow Tower Hamlets.
“The issue of hate crime and bullying is the major, major problem in this borough,” said Erlam, although the borough had “thrown out one of the most corrupt homophobic administrations in the country,” it still has a long way to go to make homophobic behaviour and hate crime “part of the past.”
Lib Dem candidate Bagshaw said: “One of the important things is working with the police and making sure they act on things that are reported to them, [and] support people when they do report issues that they had.” She added there should be “zero tolerance” on homophobic behaviour in the borough.
Golds, the Conservatives candidate who has disclosed that he is gay, agreed that the council should get the Metropolitan Police to “do what they are supposed to do” and cited the example of “the business of the hate stickers (‘gay-free zone’ stickers). They were obvious. Everybody knew who did it.”
“The police knew him. The police knew the stickers, but what did they do? They let the British Transport Police prosecute, who of course can only prosecute him for devising an advert, not for actually putting hate crime out there.”
In one occasion, he was told to “sit down you f’king old queer” by a supporter of Rahman, Golds said. “It happens. They [the police] don’t want to do anything” even with a witness statement and a photograph taken.
Although Tower Hamlets remains one of the better-funded boroughs in this country, the LGBT community is worried about the effects of the austerity measures proposed by the Tory government on services like mental health and HIV aid.
Biggs said: “It is easy to make cuts. And it is easier in niche areas”, citing the example of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
This view was shared by Erlam, who said: “One thing is clear in this sort of society unless you fight for what you want, you will be cut and you will be damaged more than anybody else, so I will urge you to fight the cuts.”
Golds said: “Everybody in the country has absolute right to access everything, regardless of their sexuality.” He criticised grants from Tower Hamlets council to some faith groups as “absolutely pernicious” and pledged to end it, saying: “Corrupt administration was thrown out, but so much money was poured into religions which caused damage to the community.”
Hudson suggested that the council should “[look] at the entire [grant] process, making sure that is transparent, and making sure that we support all groups in our communities.” She added: “Some groups we are giving money to are promoting hatred.”
“The council should start stipulating that we only award grant to those groups that are working towards social cohesion, not division.”
Another concern raised was the preservation of LGBT venues in Tower Halmets, which has served as community centre for the group.
Golds, who has been a strong advocate in preserving LGBT venues such as The Old Ship, The White Swan and The Joiners Arms, pledged to bring back LGBT businesses. He said: “Get back the environment where people can fly a rainbow flag to show that we are open for businesses not just for everybody, but also a real place for LGBT.”
But he described the politics in the borough as “poisonous”, saying people “who voted for the White Swan was subject to an extraordinary campaign of vilification by Tower Hamlets by a letter or leaflet targeted on the Muslim community saying that they are in favour of a ‘sex establishment’.”
Asked about long-term measures, all candidates agreed that sex and relationship education is the key.
Huddson: “Education is the place to start on working on community cohesion.”
Foster said: “You are not born with prejudices. You are not born with sort of race prejudices. You are not born with homophobia. It is sort of a learned experience.”
“It is important we use education to build bridges between different communities,” added the Green Party candidate.
While parents have the rights to opt out of sex education, Hudson thinks: “We should champion the schools and teachers who are doing well” and provide the support they need.
Biggs agreed this is crucial, as we have to make sure our children receive “proper, accurate information”.