A campaign to end the directly elected Mayor system in Tower Hamlets has been launched by a cross party political group.
Current Mayor John Biggs welcomed the debate but condemned the group as “political apparatchiks”.
Democracy Tower Hamlets, described in their statement as political but non-partisan, was set up by campaigners “from all political backgrounds”. The group has already begun collecting signatures with the aim of triggering a local referendum on the issue.
Its steering committee includes both Labour and Liberal Democrats members, and the launch event was attended by Conservative Councillor Peter Golds for the Island Garden ward.
Azmal Hussain, a key organiser of the campaign and owner of Brick Lane curry house Preem & Prithi, said: “We believe that those in power should not have a monopoly.”
“Thus, our campaign aims to empower the grassroots and enable ordinary people to become more politically engaged through debate and action in gathering signatures.”
To trigger a referendum for a return to the previous system, 5% or more of the borough electorate will need to sign a petition. That is around 15,800 people, from the official 2018 population projection figure of 317,200.
Before having a directly elected Mayor, a position currently held by Labour’s John Biggs, the borough was governed by the conventional committee system which operates in most local authorities, in which the leader of the biggest political group of councillors becomes the leader of the council and a series of committees take key decisions. Under the Mayoral system, power is more centralised under a Mayor and Cabinet, with cabinet members, also elected councillors, taking responsibility for areas such as housing or education.
Tower Hamlets moved from the committee system to a mayoralty in 2010 as a result of a campaign spearheaded by the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE). In a referendum that saw a turnout of over 61 per cent, 60.39 per cent of the votes were casted in favour of the move. Later in the year, Lutfur Rahman, who ran independently after being expelled by Labour for his links with IFE, won the mayoral election and became the first directly elected leader of the borough.
Rahman was initially reelected in 2014, before being removed from office in April 2015 after the High Court found him guilty of electoral fraud. The 2014 mayoral election was subsequently declared void, and a re-run election took place in June 2015, where John Biggs triumphed over rival Rabina Khan, who was then running as an independent candidate.
Rabina Khan, now a Liberal Democrats Councillor, told Eastlondonlines: “My Mayoral manifesto contained a promise to hold a referendum so residents could decide if they want to retain the directly elected Mayor system or get rid of it, so I wholeheartedly support this initiative by Democracy Tower Hamlets.”
Khan, who serves the ward of Shadwell in Tower Hamlets, said: “If the Mayoral system remains I would like to stand but if elected as Mayor my first action would be to devolve all Mayoral powers to a cross-party cabinet.”
Tim Kiely, Tower Hamlets Green Party’s Co-Chair, told Eastlondonlines that they “will be paying close attention to any campaigns advocating for a removal of the DEM system”. He then said he personally has “attended several meetings of this campaign to offer assistance and advice”.
Kiely said: “The Tower Hamlets Green Party is in favour of removing the position of a Directly Elected Mayor, as we believe this represents an upward concentration of power in local government away from local representatives, and shifts the centre of gravity away from democratic decision making to personal brand.”
“We think that the last few years of Tower Hamlets politics, and the various factions that have ebbed and flowed around loyalty to a particular Mayor, have borne this out.”
The local branch of Labour’s Momentum organisation also supports the abolishment of the Mayoral system.
At a recent AGM, we decided to campaign to abolish the position of Directly Elected Mayor in Tower Hamlets.
At future GCs in the borough we will be debating what is best for local residents as well as councils.
See our briefing for more info: https://t.co/O8815UUkGU
— Tower Hamlets Momentum (@THMomentum) November 19, 2018
Mayor John Biggs told Eastlondonlines: “I welcome a genuine debate on how the borough is run. The priority is we have a well-run borough that delivers for local people, whatever system we have in place. My focus remains on the job at hand and serving our residents despite the challenge of continued austerity from central government.”
“A genuine debate is one that involves the wider community and not a bunch of political apparatchiks. Let us see how this debate develops.”
There are 25 directly elected mayors in England. They include those that govern more than one local authority area, such as Mayor of London, and those that administer a single local area, for example Mayor of Hackney and Mayor of Tower Hamlets.
Democracy Tower Hamlets does not have an internet presence yet but promises to launch an official website soon.