Dead Men Left

Friday, November 04, 2005

Tower Hamlets

Out, last night, delivering leaflets for Defend Council Housing on the Ocean Estate in Tower Hamlets. DCH has organised a debate on the borough's housing provision next week between George Galloway and whoever the local Labour Party rustle up: it's the single biggest issue in the borough, with Tower Hamlets amongst the most overcrowded area anywhere in the country, but there have been precious few serious attempts to organise effective public discussion about it. We've been left with the default New Labour setting of stock transfers and PFI schemes for council housing, both of which involve the privatisation of public housing and the necessary weakening of tenant security.

New Labour locally has put in great efforts to win ballots on estates for privatisation, but like other parts of the country, council tenants in Tower Hamlets are starting to cut through the pleasant pink fluff stock transfers come wrapped up in. The two most recent ballots in the borough both voted against stock transfer, following pretty hard campaigning work by DCH, leaving Labour itching to reclaim the initiative on the Ocean.

(See this report for some evidence of the ferocity with which the issue is being fought; Michael Keith, apparently council leader, has taken to stalking George Galloway from meeting to meeting: he appeared at my ward Respect meeting on housing, 50-60 people in the audience, with a slightly dotty old tankie and the council's head of housing in tow. Cllr Keith is given opportunity to speak, ex-CP member then makes booming if mad contribution about the necessity of supporting New Labour as the progressive voice of the working class in this historical juncture - rebuild the Wall, I say - much heckling and loveable cockney banter, gawd bless em, ensuing argument takes rest of meeting to subside. Cllr Keith sits back in his chair with an inscrutable smile, pencil behind ear, the hand of history upon his shoulder.)

It's a critical estate for them: an early target for the government's New Deals for Communities initiative, the great wodge of cash supposedly delivered to the Ocean under the scheme never seemed to quite produce the expected results, and the ensuing allegations of serious corruption have led to resignations and police investigations. That is a microcosm of New Labour's operations in the borough: it's an unholy alliance of shiny, happy Blairites out the front and old-style clientelist politics at the rear. It was the glaring failures of this united front that allowed Respect to make its first electoral breakthrough, with the election of Cllr Oliur Rahman after a by-election in summer 2004, counting amongst his voters many of those on the Ocean estate bitterly angry with the failings of local politics.

I'm laying all this out for a couple of reasons. First, because the dynamic in Tower Hamlets is not solely about the war: although the invasion of Iraq opened the breach, Respect has grown out of an immediate, local political situation. Second, because I don't think Tower Hamlets is particularly unique here; there must be many other councils, throughout urban areas, where similar conditions exist: a general failure of New Labour to deliver, allied with evident corruption. God knows, on this basis, what strange things may emerge at the local elections next May.