So in the battle between the traditionalists and the modernists, traditionalist John Biggs has trounced the other contenders and he has been chosen by Labour Party members in the Borough to be the Labour candidate in the next election of the mayor of Tower Hamlets. Which, as we know, is not the same as actually being the Labour candidate in the election… but so far, so good for Biggs.
Party members were almost evenly split between the two front runners, with Rachael Saunders marginally ahead of John Biggs in the first round. It took the redistribution of the second preference votes of the supporters of Cllr Siraj Islam and Cllr Helal Abbas to bring home a result. Enough of those second preferences went to Biggs to bring him level with Saunders and then edge him slightly ahead.
Cllr Saunders and her supporters – chief of whom is her husband and party chair Chris Weavers – have worked hard to build a base of support, and their efforts nearly paid off. But Biggs, even though he has not been a councillor in Tower Hamlets for several years, still has the links with the longstanding members to match that base. It was Cllr Abbas’s votes, eight times as many as Cllr Islam’s, which were decisive. No one will know for sure why more of Cllr Abbas’s first preference votes went to Biggs rather than Saunders – though it was not that many more. Either Cllr Abbas did not give his supporters any guidance as to how to use their second preferences, or his supporters did not listen to him.
Biggs’s campaign was supported by the heavyweights – Jim Fitzpatrick MP and current Labour Group Leader Cllr Joshua Peck – though whether this won or lost Biggs votes is unclear. Biggs was also able to rely on a local team of experienced party members unencumbered by any current political responsibilities to drum up support for him. Randall Smith, who has not been active in the borough party since he came briefly out of retirement to help set it up, was quick to post on Biggs’s facebook page that “we” (John’s campaign team, presumably) “have been talking to hundreds of people”. Most decisive was probably the range of Biggs’s supporters though: he obtained endorsements from a range of sitting councillors and party activists, so it looked like his campaign had broad support, from different wings of the party. He also publicised endorsements from GLA figures, which is rather more baffling.
Saunders had her backers, but seemed to use them less, so she did not give a similar impression of having wide support. Saunders made much of the fact that four of the last six Labour leaders of Tower Hamlets supported her candidacy (the other two being candidates themselves). She seems not to have stopped to ask herself how many votes the combined support of Dennis Twomey, Julia Mainwaring, Denise Jones and Michael Keith would give her (and how many party members who saw that would run a mile). Her publicity concentrated more on her policies, and her language in expressing her manifesto probably let her down – couched more in the terms of town hall rhetoric than campaign stump oratory or familiarity.
On policy, Biggs and Saunders were similar. They had little to say, and said it at length. However, tellingly, they had no specific criticisms of what Mayor Rahman is doing – except for a couple which were not really very true – and very little new to offer. Both had general criticisms, with Rachael’s more strident than John’s. However, in essence they both promised to fight evil and strive for good, which amounts to very little.
In that John’s criticisms of Mayor Rahman were actually very muted, it remains to be seen what kind of a campaign he will run and how he will differentiate his manifesto as a Labour candidate from what Mayor Rahman is already doing (to which subject we shall return in a separate article shortly). He will have to run his campaign in the borough at the same time as attending to his GLA duties – both in City Hall and also in the other London Boroughs he represents on that body. He will also have to make clear if, and when, he would resign from the GLA (and whether this will trigger a by-election).
Biggs will also have to work closely with whoever is leader of the Labour Group. Cllr Joshua Peck has already said that he will not stand again and it would be odd if Cllr Saunders did not put herself forwards now – and rather odd if anyone stood against her. How Cllr Saunders’s hostility towards Mayor Rahman will sit with candidate Biggs’s more measured approach will be interesting to watch. Will Biggs persuade Saunders it is in Labour’s interests to “tone it down”? Or will Saunders push Biggs to “ramp it up a bit”? Cllr Saunders and her supporters must be disappointed by the very close result, but she has immediately responded to it by calling on the Party to unite behind Biggs – though this was said so quickly she may not have thought through whether this would require her to adopt a more mature approach to her Town Hall politics.
Cllr Saunders will also have to consider whether her career prospects are best served by hammering away at Tower Hamlets. If Biggs remains the Labour candidate until the mayoral election, he would probably be able to stay as candidate for the next one, whatever the result in 2014. The Borough’s two MPs have not announced whether they will stand again at the 2015 General Election, but there is no reason to suppose there will be any vacancies in the next seven years at best. With constituencies around the country now looking for their next Westminster candidates, and not least with a significant number looking for women candidates, Cllr Saunders may feel it is time to move on if she is to move up.
However, that is for the future. For now, the focus must be on John Biggs – unless, of course, Cllr Abbas has another appointment with his solicitor.