Tower Hamlets: how did Aspire win?

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In May 2022, the Labour Party found its gains in London (like Barnet) hampered by losses in previously strong areas. Some of these losses were to their traditional rival, the Conservatives; but in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, Labour lost power to a relative newcomer to the London political scene. This was the left-wing Aspire Party, led by former Mayor Lutfur Rahman.

In the last Tower Hamlets election (in 2018), Labour won nearly every seat on the council and the directly-elected Mayor. Aspire, meanwhile, finished third in the Mayoral election and won no seats on the council at all. Just four years later, Aspire has experienced a remarkable reversal of fortunes: they now hold an overall majority on the council and the post of Mayor, leaving Labour watching from the sidelines. The victory was total and unambiguous, and leaves Aspire as the first party outside the big three to win a majority in a London borough since the 32 boroughs were created in the 1960s.

There has been very little analysis of how Aspire was swept into power, and without any local polling that’s perhaps understandable. But the data that is available indicates that this political earthquake in Labour’s heartland was driven by Muslim voters, BAME voters and renters – all groups traditionally loyal to Labour, but who seem to have thrown their support to Rahman and his party.

What happened?

In short, Aspire won – and their victory was total and complete. They won the Mayoralty by a clear margin in both rounds, with the Aspire vote rising by a stunning 28,000 votes (+32.7pts).

But Aspire also triumphed in a more difficult election: the borough council election, which was conducted in 20 wards under first-past-the-post (FPTP), with each ward electing between one and three councillors. In terms of the popular vote, Aspire increased their vote share by 20pts and won by a small margin.

As is so often the case with FPTP elections, the swing in terms of seats was even more dramatic. Aspire won no seats in 2018; this time, they won 24 (due to by-elections wins, they held two prior to the election). Labour, meanwhile, went from holding 93% of the seats to losing power entirely.

The swings were quite remarkable; in the Mayoral contest, Rahman increased his party’s vote share by 33 percentage points, recording a 24pt swing from Labour to Aspire. In the council election, Aspire increased their vote share by 20pts and gained 24 seats – more than Labour gained in the whole of England (+22).

In a symbolic victory, Aspire won the ward of Lansbury in a landslide, taking all three available seats and winning 47% of the vote. Lansbury is named after long-time East London Labour MP, George Lansbury, who led the party from 1932-1935.  Labour has won the ward named after their former Leader in every election since 1994; they now hold no seats in the ward at all, for the first time in 28 years.

How did they win?

Including Lansbury, Aspire won the most votes in 11 of Tower Hamlets’ 20 wards. As we have census data for all of the wards, we can look at the demographics of Aspire’s strongest areas. And the trend is clear: the more people in a ward who identified as BAME, the higher Aspire’s share of the vote.

Aspire performed worst in wards with a very low population of BAME residents, and performed best in wards with a high population of BAME residents. In Poplar ward (67% BAME), Aspire won an absolute majority of the vote; in St Katharine’s & Wapping ward (29% BAME), the party won just 13% of the vote.

When you plot this data on a ward-by-ward map, the trend is even clearer. And it’s not just BAME people who appear to have swung to Aspire. Of the 10 wards where more than 40% of the population are Muslim, Aspire triumphed in 7 of them; in Shadwell ward, where 55% of residents identify with the Muslim faith (the most of any ward), Aspire won both seats with 42% of the vote (+20pts). The trend is very clear.

But there was another element to the Aspire surge: housing. In areas with high numbers of renters, Aspire did best; in areas with significant home ownership, they did poorly. In St Katharine’s & Wapping (53% renters) they got just 13%; in Bromley North (81% renters) they got 43%. In the two strongest Aspire wards, nearly 8 in 10 households rent.

Some of this success may be attributed to Aspire’s left-leaning housing policies. The party has pledged (amongst other policies) to:

  • Build at least 4,000 social homes over the next four years;
  • Work with the local renters’ union;
  • Seize long term empty properties and convert them into social housing; and
  • Increase council tax to landlords who leave homes empty.

Conclusion

Aspire is not the first localist political party to win council elections in the UK, nor will it be the last. Residents’ Associations and independents have a long history of success in local government – the Mansfield Independent Forum, for instance, held a majority on the council and the directly-elected Mayor between 2007 and 2011. But what is almost entirely unique is that Aspire ran on an unashamedly left-leaning platform, and won an absolute majority of seats under first-past-the-post. Even the more widely successful Greens have not managed that (all of the councils they’ve led have been as minority administrations). Not only that, but Rahman’s movement is the first party outside the big three to win a majority on a London council since Greater London was established in the 1960s.

With independent left groupings in Liverpool (Liverpool Community Independents) and Lancaster (Eco-Socialist Independents) being established, and new small left parties like Breakthrough attracting defectors from Labour, there is a lot for the left to learn from what Aspire achieved in Tower Hamlets.

And with a left-wing movement beating Labour by uniting Muslim voters, BAME people and renters, Keir Starmer should arguably be concerned. Because if Labour can lose power to the left in a borough where Labour won a super-majority of the vote (68%) in 2019, places like Liverpool and Bristol might not be as safe for Labour as they seem…

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