As the polls closed on this momentous election day, all the political parties agreed on one thing: it really is too close to call the mayoral election. That is not to say that the winning margin will be small, though it may be. It’s just that the days when they used to weigh the Labour vote (and the Tories polled 24 in a Lansbury by-election – their worst result ever) are gone.
Lutfur Rahman will have gone to bed tonight hoping that he has enough first preference votes to win on the first round. John Biggs will have gone to bed tonight hoping that he has enough first preference votes that when the Tory, UKIP and Lib Dem second preference votes are counted, he can leapfrog Lutfur to victory at the head of a “stop Lutfur at all costs” coalition. Be in no doubt that there has been one: messages have been circulating round opposition party supporters urging them to hold their noses and vote Labour to see off Lutfur Rahman. This is the difficulty with the mayoral system. Although it allows groups who feel strong to transcend party politics and back a local independent, it carries the risk that opposition parties can unite to stop a candidate who might have won a “first past the post” election.
In the fuss of the mayoral election, it has been easy to overlook the fact that 42 councillors have just been elected (though we do not yet know who they are), with another three due by the end of June, once the delayed Blackwall and Cubitt Town contest has taken place. It’s understandable the focus has been on the mayor, because the councillor has a very limited role under a mayoral system – but the possible scenarios are interesting. It is entirely possible that the electorate will back one party in the mayoral contest but a different party for their councillors. John Biggs’s nightmare scenario must surely be that he wins the mayoralty thanks to Tory, UKIP and Lib Dem second preferences, but that the Tower Hamlets First vote has been strong enough to deliver a majority of local councillors. That would leave Biggs not only having to face a hostile council half a dozen times a year (no big ask, that one) and having to get his budget through a hostile council (a bit harder, that one) – but also very limited in the choice of who he can put in his Cabinet. If Biggs is to stay on at the GLA and only be a part-time mayor in Tower Hamlets, he will rely heavily on who he can put in his Cabinet. On the other hand, Lutfur will be hoping that as long as he can pass that first preference hurdle his pool of councillors will grow, giving him more talent to bring in to his Cabinet to strengthen his Administration.
The campaign has been hard going. But that is the easy bit. When the dust has settled, whoever is mayor will have to deal with further cuts in the Council’s funding and a raft of difficult decisions. That’s where the schoolboy politics will not cut the mustard. We can tell from the last three and a half years what Lutfur’s approach will be. We cannot tell what the Labour Party would do. Virtually none of their council candidates has been on the council under a non-Labour Government and the Party does not yet seem to have worked out how to run a council with the Coalition throwing its austerity measures at it. The Party that brought you stock transfer has no magic powers to bring the social landlords into line. It is worrying to think that the Party that backed austerity (though not its extent or its timetable) to “solve” the banking crisis may be in charge of drawing up a budget to help local people through its after-effects. The Party that declared war on Afghanistan and Iraq, like a tinpot dictator sending out the battleships in the nineteenth century, has much to answer for.
The other point that is often overlooked is not so much what the winner will do, but what the candidate who comes second will do. How would Labour cope with defeat? Would it still blame the stupid electors for getting it wrong again? What would Lutfur Rahman do if the combined votes of Labour, the Tories, UKIP and the Lib Dems push him out the way? He’s unlikely to retire: whose side would he be a thorn in? There may be an MP or two in the borough who said their prayers after the polls closed and hoped that Lutfur Rahman would be safely confined to the mayoralty. After all, Westminster elections are still first past the post.
However, there’s only hours to go now – so begone this speculation!
Watch this space on Friday: ELN will bring you our take on the likely results as the count progresses.