Great Britain

How to get rid of the mayor: just vote him out, say Tower Hamlets referendum petitioners

John Biggs at Labour Party campaign HQ in Bethnal Green winning election for mayor in 2015. Picture: Mike Brooke

John Biggs at Labour Party campaign HQ in Bethnal Green winning election for mayor in 2015. Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

Moves to decide whether Tower Hamlets should get rid of its directly-elected mayor has led to two rival petitions both calling for a public referendum.

What to vote for... elect executive mayor or scrap the post. Picture: PAWhat to vote for... elect executive mayor or scrap the post. Picture: PA

They start the process of looking at replacing the mayor and going back to local neighbourhood councillors making decisions at the town hall.

The issue is being thrashed out at next month’s full council meeting to forestall a public vote being “slipped in unnoticed” that might keep the all-powerful elected mayor for another 10 years if a “no to change” majority got through.

That would prevent another referendum until 2030 and keep executive mayors in power for a further decade.

Those wanting councillors to make the big decisions instead, rather than the mayor behind closed doors, are forcing the debate, called by Tory councillor Andrew Wood who is backed by ruling Labour group members on the opposite side.

Challenger Andrew Wood... Challenger Andrew Wood... "Residents and not just politicians should have a say on how we make decisions that affect us all." Picture: Mike Brooke

“A referendum shouldn’t just be ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Cllr Wood told the East London Advertiser. “We want three choices on a ballot paper so that voters would know the alternatives.

“Residents and not just politicians should have a say on how we make decisions that affect us all.”

His online petition states: “Covid threatens the economy in Tower Hamlets while the population continues to grow, which makes it increasingly difficult for any one person to cover everything and therefore responsibility needs to be more widely shared.”

The East End’s first executive mayor was Lutfur Rahman in 2010 after a referendum pushed by his ally George Galloway, Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow at the time, calling for direct elections which got him into office.

Triumphant Lutfur Rahman flanked by Ken Livingstone and supporters on Whitechapel walkabout campaign for first Tower Hamlets elected mayor in 2010. Picture: Dan McCurryTriumphant Lutfur Rahman flanked by Ken Livingstone and supporters on Whitechapel walkabout campaign for first Tower Hamlets elected mayor in 2010. Picture: Dan McCurry

But Rahman’s secretive administration soon ran the gauntlet of criticism about public assets being sold off and taxpayers’ cash being given to dubious organisations without being scrutinised.

It eventually led to his ban from office by the High Court which overturned the 2014 corrupt election that had secured his second term.

Government auditors had to be brought in to take over town hall finances while chasing funds that were unaccounted for.

Labour then swept back to power with its own elected mayor, London Assembly’s budget chairman John Biggs, who opened up to council scrutiny.

Angry Lutfur Rahman at Mile End rally after High Court bans him from office in 2015. Picture: Mike BrookeAngry Lutfur Rahman at Mile End rally after High Court bans him from office in 2015. Picture: Mike Brooke

But critics maintain the executive mayor is still too powerful by having the final word and want decisions to revert to councillors after a decade of being sidelined.

They have pushed for next month’s open debate to stop their opponents quietly kicking any chances of change into touch, as results of a referendum cannot be challenged for 10 years once it is held.

His petition calls for voters to have three choices on the ballot paper with impartial information about “what’s right for Tower Hamlets” rather than just a straight “yes” or “no” which had undermined the national 2016 Brexit referendum.

It also looks at what Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz did in neighbouring Newham with a Democracy and Civic Participation commission that looked at issues on how democracy works.

2015 hustings for elected mayor... John Biggs beats Rabina Khan into second place. Picture: Mike Brooke2015 hustings for elected mayor... John Biggs beats Rabina Khan into second place. Picture: Mike Brooke

A similar commission for Tower Hamlets could be followed by “a more-enlightened referendum” than 2010 which had been held the same day as general and local elections that allowed it to slip through almost unnoticed. The call this time is a separate poll so that voters are more informed this time round.

The rival petition between keeping executive mayors or returning to council leaders specifies a vote on May 6 next year.

It states: “The people voted in 2010 without the experience of an executive mayor. Now they have experienced it for 10 years and should decide which is best for Tower Hamlets.”

The three-choice alternatives petition and the two-choice petition are both on Tower Hamlets Council’s website.

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