By Lutfur Rahman
Ask the average Tower Hamlets resident what politicians should prioritise in 2021 and not many would say changing the constitutional structure of local government! And yet, in a few months, residents will vote on whether to abolish the Mayoral structure and replace it with a Leader Cabinet structure in a referendum that will cost them £350,000. Under our current mayoral model, the council’s leadership is picked directly by the borough’s residents, who can then hold the elected Mayor to account in future elections, keeping or removing them as they wish. Without a directly elected Mayor, Tower Hamlets residents would lose their right to vote in or out the council leadership – it would instead be decided in secretive meetings of councillors behind closed doors.
Using the Mayoral system, residents can break through the two-party system that has often blocked progress in Tower Hamlets. In the recent past they have done so, twice electing me as Mayor, beating the establishment parties. Once in office, the mayor can exert real change. Cutting through the red tape and the indecision to deliver on manifesto pledges. The mayoral system allowed me to attract investment to Tower Hamlets, with projects including the successful relocation of the Town Hall, the redevelopment of the Poplar baths and new social housing across the borough. This would not have been achievable without the executive powers that are entrusted to the Mayor and without the public visibility that comes with the mayoralty, neither of which would exist under the proposed new Leader cabinet system.
The mayoralty comes with a certain degree of stability as well. Because the mayor is elected directly, they receive their mandate to lead from the council residents every four years. By contrast, under the proposed change, the council leader would be beholden to their councillor colleagues. Whilst both the Mayoral and Council Leader Models have cabinets, the Mayoral model results in a collaborative working environment, whilst the Cabinet can too often hold back a Council Leader.
Having experienced both the Mayoral and the Cabinet system, I know which I prefer. I can say with conviction that council leaders are primarily concerned with protecting and preserving their position from one Annual General Meeting (AGM) to the other. The fear of a vote of no confidence is real and constantly hanging over their heads. As a result, council leaders are engrossed with keeping their faction of councillors happy until the next AGM. The leader model perpetuates factionalism and disunity, and I was held back from delivering more as a leader, when compared to my time as Mayor. So why this referendum? The councillors are making this move because they understand the power that the existing system gives to Tower Hamlets residents. Having cemented their power in the local parties, they are intent on removing any attempt that residents may make to circumvent said parties. They know the massive pitfalls to the council leader system, but constant infighting is a price worth paying for them to ensure no ‘outsider’ could ever lead Tower Hamlets again.
The Mayoral system afforded the residents of Tower Hamlets the chance to vote for a real alternative to the usual suspects. It allowed the people of Tower Hamlets to vote for me to be mayor twice, having been unjustly barred from standing on behalf of the Labour Party in 2010. As mayor, I built more social housing than any other council nationwide (between 2010 and 2015). I protected frontline services when other councils kowtowed to coalition cuts. Our social care system was exemplary and investment in schools and libraries is widely considered to have contributed to Tower Hamlets schools being recognised as among the best urban schools in the world.
Removing this mayoral system would undoubtedly raise a massive barrier to anyone attempting to break through the local party establishments. This would leave virtually no alternative to the current council and reward them for wasting approximately £350,000 on the upcoming referendum at a time when schools need cash for virtual learning and councils should be doing all they can to support frontline covid response.
No doubt the local power brokers will attempt to muddy the waters on this issue, but in reality, it remains very simple. Our current system allows you to vote for your mayor as the leader of your council, why would you throw that away?
Lutfur Rahman was the first directly elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets