Not just the ‘red wall’ – how Labour took voters for granted in the heart of east London | Hettie O’Brien

It’s easy to read the divisions that run through modern England as ultimately coming down to a binary between those who live in London and those who don’t. On average, people in the capital and its commuter belt earn more money, have better public transport and receive more state investment.

The problem is what these averages leave out. London is the most unequal region in the country. Take Tower Hamlets, the hefty borough next door to the City of London. This is a place of jarring disparities: it has the highest child poverty rate in Britain and more than 23,000 families are on the waiting list for housing. Some of the wealthiest people in Britain also work here, in the headquarters of HSBC and JP Morgan. The area can feel like the outer ring of the capital’s future, where luxury towers are rising at a rapid speed.

This is not a place that people think of when they imagine the “red wall”. But Labour has controlled Tower Hamlets council almost since its formation, and the borough’s two parliamentary seats are Labour strongholds. The party’s core supporter is just as likely to be found renting a council flat in the shadow of the Gherkin as in a post-industrial Midlands town.

And yet, a gulf has opened here between the former Labour council and its voters, offering a stark example of how a party can lose its base. At the local elections in May, Labour lost control of Tower Hamlets council. On top of that, in recent weeks, local campaigners have brought a judicial review to the Royal Courts of Justice challenging the former council over a controversial redevelopment plan. A decision on their case is expected any day now. In this East End borough, voters haven’t just switched off from their Labour-run council: they’ve actively turned against it.

Much of this pushback is coming out of Brick Lane, an important hub for the area’s Bangladeshi population. This long stretch is bursting with independent businesses, curry houses and grocery shops, defying all the familiar predictions about the death of the high street. At its centre is the Truman brewery, a giant mishmash of arts spaces, shops and offices. Its current owners, the Zeloof Partnership, want to turn this into a five-storey office block with chain stores, a new public square and two new restaurants. Only 10% of these offices will be affordable. The Runnymede Trust, which has mapped Brick Lane in a recent project called Beyond Banglatown, has argued the plans will push out working-class and minority-ethnic residents. More than 550 residents and 140 traders have signed a petition against the planning application (nationally, it received more than 7,000 objections).

Not everyone is opposed. Some business owners think the buildings could bring more footfall; others worry the new development will cause a steady increase in rents. What few disagree on is how the plans were pushed through. Only three councillors were permitted to vote at the final meeting when the scheme was approved last year (one councillor attended over Zoom; because they were not physically present, they were not permitted to vote). The council’s complicated rulebook dictates that when a planning decision is delayed after an initial meeting, only councillors present at the first meeting can vote on the decision. And because the decision was deferred after an online meeting held earlier in the year, members of the public weren’t allowed to speak at this pivotal assembly. So a plan that could have huge repercussions for those living in this part of central London was ultimately voted through by just two people.

The Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

One councillor who voted in favour of the proposals said it would be “unfair” to the developer if the scheme was rejected; another suggested planning was the mere “application of rules” that should not be confused with politics. If this were the case, one campaigner angrily told me, “we’d be better off with a committee of lawyers”. The borough’s development manager acknowledged the thousands of objections but said the planning system deals with “the use of the building and not the occupiers”. In other words, if a new office block is followed by an influx of corporate chains, it’s not the council’s problem.

Why was such a big decision placed in the hands of so few? Why weren’t opponents allowed to voice their objections at that meeting? These are the questions campaigners are now trying to answer. The Save Brick Lane campaign, a diverse coalition of different groups, has taken on the council in a crowdfunded judicial review. Its details sound technical and specific, but its implications are momentous: if the campaigners win, the victory will be a blow to the prevailing model of regeneration and its trickle-down theory of economic change. What the area needs isn’t a new office block that was conceived before white-collar employees started working from home, but social and genuinely affordable housing. Already, campaigners have sketched an alternative masterplan that takes account of these needs.

The implications of their fight extend far beyond a single planning decision. Tower Hamlets has one of the highest levels of population change in the city. This isn’t happening accidentally, or inexorably. The invisible hand of the free market has been given a great deal of help. In the 1990s, the west of the borough was designated as part of London’s “City Fringe”, a target for developer-led gentrification. Luxury flats have sprung up and affluent new residents have supplanted existing communities. In 2020, the council had to close a local primary school because there were no longer enough children to fill its classes.

One person who has benefited from all this unravelling is Lutfur Rahman, the former mayor of Tower Hamlets who was kicked out of office in 2015 after an electoral tribunal found that he had engaged in corrupt and illegal practices, including vote-rigging. Two months ago, he staged a political comeback that few foresaw. Rahman unseated the Labour mayor John Biggs; his Aspire party won control of the council. He wasted few opportunities to invoke the spectre of the Truman brewery redevelopment to gain votes, and loudly opposed the former council’s low-traffic neighbourhood scheme (LTN). So far, Rahman has quashed LTNs but offered scant data on their drawbacks, and has been criticised for appointing an all-male cabinet. Whatever your views, one thing’s clear: a former mayor found guilty by a civil election court of vote-rigging was not the winner that psephologists expected.

The reason for his surprising revival can be traced back to many of the decisions of the borough’s former Labour council. One phrase crops up to describe this: “managed decline.” One former councillor told me: “The idea seemed to be that nobody can afford to live here now anyway, so these communities are doomed to die. It was like the main aspiration was for residents in Tower Hamlets to move to Essex.” It should be a lesson: if you turn against your supporters, they may eventually turn against you.

Hettie O’Brien an assistant opinion editor at the Guardian

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