Beyond Labourism

In 1964, Tom Nairn issued a challenge to an isolated and listless British left. Faced with a Labour Party that dominates the political scene, ‘and has sunk such deep roots that any radical change in it seems unthinkable . . . what criticism could affect a leviathan like this?’ Nearly fifty years later, the Official Opposition has reverted to type following a brief, unrepeatable hiatus between 2015 and 2019. The party’s current platform combines hosannas to ‘iron fiscal rules’ and support for wage deflation with law-and-order rhetoric and a pledge to stop refugee boats from crossing La Manche. Its previous leader is subject to damnatio memoriae, unable to stand as a Labour candidate at next year’s general election. Dissenting members are being summarily expelled, with even the Guardian and Financial Times beginning to question the intensity of Keir Starmer’s crackdown on the left. This being the case, effective criticism of the leviathan is unlikely to occur inside its slimmed ranks for the foreseeable future.

But what about from outside? Last month, Tower Hamlets – London’s poorest borough, located in the east of the city with a population of 320,000 – signalled its refusal to conform to the country’s rightward trend. Its social-democratic council marked a year in office by expanding free school meals to all primary and secondary school students. This example, set by the area with the highest rate of child poverty nationwide, spurred others to act. The London Mayor Sadiq Khan and the Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford announced similar, albeit more limited policies to address the ‘cost of living crisis’. At least some parts of Ukania, it seems, are resisting Labour’s direction of travel.  

The electorate of Tower Hamlets rejected Britain’s increasingly hard centrism in May 2022 and instead chose an ambitious programme of social democratic reform, effecting the biggest swing against Labour in living memory. The victorious mayor, Lutfur Rahman, picked up 11,000 votes more than the incumbent, John Biggs, who had imposed a series of austerity budgets and a variant of fire-and-rehire on 4,000 council workers. Rahman’s party, Aspire, secured an outright majority of council seats, while Labour lost 23.

A Bangladesh-born solicitor and former Labour politician, Rahman first won the mayoralty back in 2010. Though he was initially selected as the Labour candidate, he was forced to run as an independent after his political rivals accused him of ‘electoral corruption’ and ‘links to Islamist groups’. During his first term he passed a raft of policies to protect frontline services from spending cuts, as well as building thousands of new homes and significantly hiking council wages. He was re-elected with a landslide in 2014, but the result was challenged in the civil courts by Labour and UKIP, who doubled down on their allegations of clientelism. On the orders of a single judge, the vote was invalidated, and Rahman was banned from running for five years.

As a Muslim socialist with a committed base and a national profile, Rahman is one of the most distinctive figures in European urban politics. One in six of Britain’s Bengali community live in Tower Hamlets, and their votes were crucial to his political comeback last year. Since then, the media has continued to present him as a criminal, a demagogue or a dangerous populist. In the New Statesman, Paul Mason dismissed his supporters as ‘essentially a faction within local Muslim community politics’. Others attributed his success to the ‘unrepresentative’ demographics of the borough. The structural features that Tower Hamlets shares with other urban areas are less remarked upon. Deindustrialization of the docks, factories and warehouses; the increasing power of real estate developers in the Docklands redevelopment; the behemoth of deregulated finance capital in Canary Wharf; rising rents with the gentrification of Brick Lane, Bethnal Green and Bow – all this resonates with parallel developments in Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and elsewhere.

Still, it is unsurprising that Tower Hamlets has become the springboard for the most serious challenge to the Westminster consensus. This small corner of East London has long incubated political dissent – a pattern that predates the arrival of the Bengali community. Its history of recalcitrance includes George Lansbury’s Poplarist welfare-rights rebellion in the 1920s, the momentous Cable Street anti-fascist demonstration in the 1930s, Phil Piratin’s victory as one of the handful of Communist MPs in Limehouse and Bow in the 1940s, the uprising sparked by the racist murder of textile worker Altab Ali and the squatters’ movement in the 1970s, and George Galloway’s victory on an anti-war ticket in Bethnal Green in the early 2000s. In Tower Hamlets, a combative working-class culture, invigorated by Irish, Jewish and Bengali-led movements throughout the twentieth century, has not been decisively broken as in other parts of the country. This peculiar micro-political climate – a historic tradition of worker militancy sustained by migratory waves – has created a hostile environment for the moderating tendencies of Labourism.

The programme of the current council is arguably the most radical in Britain. The borough’s 22,000 properties will be brought back in-house, as will various public facilities, and council workers will be entitled to a living wage. Aspire has rolled out bursaries for university students and an Education Maintenance Allowance for 16-18 year olds. A total of £12 million has been earmarked for youth services, along with £4.7 million for the voluntary and community sector. Free in-home elderly care will be made available, while charges for disabled care will be scrapped. A major expansion of social housing will coincide with a significant tax hike for unoccupied properties, and a ‘Masterplan’ for Spitalfields and Banglatown will aim to fight back against gentrification. Detractors accuse Rahman of depleting the council’s sizable reserves and risking default on its obligations. Supporters reply that a series of insolvent Conservative and Labour councils suggests that austerity does not guarantee financial stability.

The Aspire project demonstrates that building an active constituency of working people demands more than centralized coteries of technocrats and social-media influencers. As left-populists on both sides of the Atlantic confront the limits of Caesarist communication strategies, Rahman has taken a different approach – prioritizing gradual, face-to-face organizing and generally avoiding online campaigning. Nonetheless, the party still lacks a formal structure, membership and clear mechanisms for mobilization. Its all-male team of councillors poses problems for developing and diversifying its base. In the long term, a more effective synthesis of policy proposals and political mediation will be required to advance working-class interests in education, social care and housing. Historically, the most successful experiments in European municipal reform show that durable class coalitions rely on mass organizations capable of articulating and enacting popular demands. Without building this kind of institution, it is difficult to see how Aspire’s example could be replicated elsewhere. At present, the party’s political ambitions seem to stop at the borough’s boundaries, and its horizon of expectation remains focussed on the next local elections in 2026.

Such working-class alliances have typically relied upon the reconciliation of fractions with apparently divergent short-term interests. In Tower Hamlets, hostility to ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ among Aspire’s base – many of whom rely on Uber or logistics companies for their livelihoods – will have to be harmonized with demands for traffic reduction and environmental regeneration. The council has so far tried to achieve this by opposing LTNs while installing electric vehicle charging points, new electric waste vans and green fuelling provision, as well as solar panels on council buildings. But it remains to be seen whether its environmental agenda will succeed in papering over these possible divisions. Perhaps more pressingly, any socialised house-building programme must resist the temptation to collaborate with corporate developers and housing associations – eschewing quick fixes in favour of genuinely decommodified accommodation. Public spaces will also have to be defended against astroturf campaigns that claim to represent local interests. The task of reconnecting political institutions to atomised twenty-first century urban workers takes more than a well-known leader or popular policies – whether in New York, Paris, Madrid, Berlin or London. A prerequisite for any sustainable movement for social transformation is the anticipation and sublimation of contradictions among subaltern layers.

Witnessing the delivery of Aspire’s programme, the Labour left must choose between three potential pathways: bide their time and hope for the best within the party while remaining hamstrung by its new internal culture; deprioritise party work for extra-parliamentary campaigns to shift the balance of power elsewhere; or break free of the Labourist straitjacket altogether and build an alternative formation. Whatever they decide, in East London there are signs that resignation to staid austerian politics does not have to be the order of the day. British socialists will determine their own fate, whether they submit to inglorious inertia or rediscover their capacity for critique.

Read on: Owen Hatherley, ‘The Government of London’, NLR 122.