Issue 168 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review

Rotten borough

Liberal Democrats on Tower Hamlets council in London's East End stand accused of racism. But revelations following the local by-election in the Isle of Dogs, site of the Nazi BNP win, only tell part of the story. Chris Nineham investigates

Over half of council housing in Tower Hamlets has been judged 'substandard'
Over half of council housing in Tower Hamlets has been judged 'substandard'

Revelations of racism among Liberal Democrats on Tower Hamlets council have made a mockery of Paddy Ashdown's attempt to promote the Liberal Democrats as a viable and respectable third force in British politics. The projected image of the clean party of politics has been tarnished.

The local Liberal Democrat controlled council stands accused of creating an atmosphere in which Nazi ideas can grow. But recent reports have only told a small part of the story. The full poisonous record of the Liberals in office in Tower Hamlets is a crucial lesson to anyone who still believes tactical voting or LibLab alliances offer a way forward.

It is not just a case of a few racist leaflets or a few mavericks in the local party. Since the Liberals took office in 1986 there have been constant allegations of racism and corruption in Tower Hamlets.

This racism is not casual or accidental but blatant and provocative, and is a central plank of their operation in the area both now and in the past.

The liberals began to gain influence in the East End in the early 1980s using a right wing populism to attack the extremely unpopular Labour councils.

A 1981 Liberal leaflet ranted, 'every year more break-ins, muggings, rapes, violence and acts of vandalism. People are scared to go out at night, and even to open their doors. Something is very wrong indeed'.

From the moment of taking office the Liberals not only discriminated against the local Bengali population, but actively scapegoated them in a series of high profile publicity stunts. In 1987 they made national news by claiming that 52 Bangladeshi families living in bed and breakfast accommodation had made themselves intentionally homeless, simply by coming to Britain. They were therefore not entitled to benefit. This was too much even for the Tories, and the council was eventually beaten in the courts, but the damage had been done. The vile message had already gone out, 'Immigrants are scroungers, they are taking our homes'.

That message was reinforced a year or so later when Tower Hamlets mayor Jeremy Shaw travelled to Bangladesh to tell the government there that immigrants were no longer welcome because the borough was full up. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. Apart from the 900 empty yuppie flats on the Isle of Dogs, the council was sitting on 3000 empty properties, rotting from neglect. But the truth did not matter, the trip was a stunt for home consumption, and the local paper quoted Shaw's claim in a banner headline.

The notorious 'Sons and Daughters' scheme, giving the locally born priority in housing is another nasty propaganda ploy. Few have ever been rehoused through the scheme, but its coded racism has helped to build up resentment and point the finger of blame for mammoth waiting lists at immigrants.

Not content with stirring up race hatred in the East End, Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats have managed to step up the levels of institutional racism nationally. Last year the council decided to take it upon themselves to judge whether claimants or tenants were legal residents or illegal immigrants--a task previously performed by the Home Office. In practice the council is acting as a second tier immigration authority. Since the courts have this time approved their actions, the Tories are planning to enshrine the practice in law. Originally the Department of Environment opposed the move, rightly claiming it would 'affect housing authorities across the country' and have 'an [adverse] effect on race relations'.

And then there are the leaflets, often sounding not so very different from the filth distributed by the BNP: 'Do you believe that new homes should go to Islanders not homeless people... do you believe that your Island councillors should listen to Islanders and not the Commission for Racial Equality?' Even the language is coded, 'locals' standing for 'local whites'.

The national party cannot pretend to be ignorant of the local Liberal Democrats' antics. Paddy Ashdown has been sent complaints at least twice about their leaflets and David Steel spoke up in their defence at the time of the 'intentionally homeless families' affair. And the Liberals were taken to court after the last local election for producing fake Labour leaflets saying Labour would give money to Bengalis.

After fostering a climate of racial tension in Tower Hamlets, the council is now trying its hand at ethnic cleansing.

Its latest scam to avoid spending its constituents' money on providing housing in the borough is to force those on the council house waiting list to accept short term housing in the private sector in other boroughs. Already 133 families have been taken off the housing list in this way, over three quarters of them black or Asian, and there are plans in the pipeline for another 120 families to go the same way. Officials from a local homeless persons' unit have called the scheme a 'callous, carefully conceived plan' to avoid housing responsibilities while Tower Hamlets Liberals admit they are targeting black and Asian families.

Housing provision in the borough is a disgrace. Over 45,000 of the 67,000 council homes in Tower Hamlets are in need of repair or unfit for living in. Around 3000 homes stand empty while not one council house was built last year.

Copies of their local newsletter Focus and other Liberal material have consistently picked out Asian labour councillors for particular attack. In August this year Yve Amor was attacked for arguing the council send £30,000 in aid to flood relief in Bangladesh. The item ends, 'Liberals claim that money should be spent on repairs and services locally'.

The council's aim has clearly been to create a sense of white resentment and identity in order to keep Labour on the defensive and to escape blame for the miserable living conditions they have helped to create in the area.

Seven years of Liberal control have been a disaster for all workers, black and white, in Tower Hamlets. One of the Liberals' first acts was to close down two holiday homes for old people. They then went on to close Poplar library, a council laundry, numerous community centres, the popular lido in Victoria Park plus the local theatre. More recently they have tried to cut school meals and sell off the council direct works.

Far from being a 'caring and reasonable' alternative to the Tories, the liberals seem to take pride in piloting the Tories' latest fad. From contracting out council services to promoting Housing Action Trusts and the London Docklands Development Corporation, the Liberals have been champions of Thatcherite reforms.

The flipside of the drive to the market has been widespread corruption. As usual free market rhetoric has been used as a cover for rigged tenders and shady backroom deals. The District Auditor was called in to investigate the multi million pound redevelopment of the Monteith Estate in Bow. The auditor's accountants reported the council had 'failed to fully test the market or consider alternative proposals for redeveloping the estate'.

Corruption allegations were raised again in 1990 in a bizarre series of revelations about Petticoat Lane market. Liberal councillor Betty Wright was found to be illegally trading in the market which the council itself was supposed to be 'cleaning up'.

The Liberals' combination of racism, cuts and corruption has hit minorities hardest, but all Tower Hamlets workers have suffered. The mainly Bengali housing estates around Brick Lane and Shadwell are a disgrace. Over half of council accommodation across the borough has been judged substandard. One homeless care unit has had 50 new 'clients' every month since the liberals took office.

At the Liberal Democrats' conference, Paddy Ashdown pleaded with party members not to give the people too much of what they want if this contradicts principle. But the Liberal Democrats have no obvious set of principles and opportunism is the natural reflex of the 'third political force'. Anti working class by nature, the Tower Hamlets Liberals have carved a niche for themselves by outTorying the Tories using a vicious brand of right wing populism. Nothing seems to shake the Liberal Democrats' arrogance and their contempt for the ordinary people of Tower Hamlets. Having presided over the virtual wreckage of Docklands, the Canary Wharf fiasco and after suffering defeat at the hands of the BNP vermin, councillor Snooks invited London council leaders to a lunch time junket at the top of Canary Wharf to prove that the area isn't as bad as everyone says!

This raises one final question- how has such a viciously anti working class administration survived for seven years in a densely working class area? The Liberal Democrats' housing policy--renovating some flagship estates in mainly white, Liberal wards, while neglecting predominantly Asian areas and Labour wards--has undoubtedly won them some votes. But given overall cuts in spending, such divide and rule tactics can only have a limited purchase.

Some of the media and even sections of the left have recently tried to portray the East End as historically and incurably racist. This is nonsense. There have been outbreaks of tension and racial conflict in the East End, but there is also a long history of assimilation and multi-culturalism in the area. The East End population are descendants of French silk weavers, Irish labourers, Jews from Russia, Poland and Romania and the Chinese who settled in Limehouse around the turn of the century. A mosque on the corner of Fournier Street in Spitalfelds has been, in its time, a French Protestant church, a Methodist chapel and a synagogue. And alongside periods of reaction there is tradition of anti-racist struggle in the area going back even before the victory at Cable Street in 1936.

Workers in Tower Hamlets are as angry as any. The local Labour Party must take much of the blame for allowing the liberals to hang on. Labour's history in the area is dismal. The Labour administration that the Liberals unseated in 1986 was one of the most right wing in London. Its acceptance of ratecapping and decision to pass on the Tory cuts was combined with an air of old fashioned incompetence. It didn't even display the paper radicalism of Labour administrations in Hackney or Islington. In opposition, Labour has refused to even attempt to mobilise workers' anger. Instead it has witch hunted principled activists leaving local parties in a state of demoralisation and decay. At the same time it has made horrible concessions to the Liberals' racism, even at one point claiming that on the Isle of Dogs its own 'Sons and Daughters' scheme was more efficient than the Liberal Democrats'. Its response to the BNP's victory has reportedly been to discuss cutting down the numbers of Bengali candidates standing in council elections. There is no doubt East End workers need an alternative to the 'old' political parties. But they certainly do not need the Liberal Democrats.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page