Being a Tower Hamlets councillor – the parts I don’t want to forget

I’ve written a few things about aspects of Tower Hamlets politics that need to change – I am very grateful to the local people for wiping out the various independent/post Respect/post Lutfur Rahman groupings in the election on Thursday.  I very much hope that the 42/45 Labour councillors who have just been elected will hold together, focus on the needs of the people that need us most, not thuggish power play, and, where they need to, disagree agreeably.  

Public service is a huge honour, and there are parts of being a Tower Hamlets councillor that I don’t want to forget.  So I have written some up.  

My first casework.  A man who I saw often during my by election campaign, who sat on the wall outside the school gate to pick up his children every day. He started to bring notes asking for help, and telling me parts of his story – he couldn’t say very much.   I visited his home and met his wife.  She was Bengali, he was white, and neither of their families supported their marriage.  They moved to the countryside so that they could be together.  One day, on his way to pick his children up from school, he was beaten up by racist thugs, and suffered a brain injury.  They moved back to Tower Hamlets so their families could support with the children.   Having discussed their options with them, I persuaded him to go to treatment to help with his walking and talking, advocated for him to get a council home so and his wife and children could escape from their grim, damp, mouldy rented flat, and eventually he managed to get work.  Their joy when they were able to have another baby.  The last time I knocked on his door and asked him how things were, his biggest issue was that his sink was blocked.  What a victory.  

After a canvassing session when I had just been selected to stand in Mile End East, a group of us went to the Britannia pub, to revel in the joys of Garyoke the Karaoke Blokey.  I sang Valerie.  At 11pm the curtains were closed and the ash trays came out.  I went over to the bar, and asked the landlord if he would sign my nomination papers. “Oh no love, sorry, we don’t get involved in that politics”.. I was crushed.  “Only joking – where do you want me to sign?”. What an honour – nominated to stand for election by Ronnie Golds.  

Years later, the day of Ronnie Gold’s funeral, the Bede estate was swept perfectly clean in his honour.  A hearse and procession of black cars with flowers spelling out his name.  A gin and tonic on his coffin. Their sons and wider family there to support his wife Margaret, their mum.  A spread at the pub afterwards, with faces old and new.  

 When I decided to stand for selection, I asked Bernie Cameron for his support.  He took me for a walk around the British estate, where he had lived for decades, and where, as the chair of the estate board, he was masterminding the regeneration.  The place was covered in scaffolding, and Bernie first described to me what was going on, and what local people still needed, then asked me a series of quick fire questions about my politics, beliefs, ways of operating and priorities.  After 20 minutes he declared “you’ll do, I’ll support you”, and he did, through the selection and election, and up until he died.  As a holocaust survivor, he had his own tragedies to live with, but he was unsentimental, uninterested in reminiscing or reflecting on his extraordinary life,  absolutely focussed on what his community needed now.  He loved the football team he coached, his children, wife, and dog Jasper.  The only other time I saw him really emotional was when I bought back a tiny menorah for him from Israel.  I sat in Bernie’s office in the Maha Centre every month to do my advice surgery – he would encourage people to come if he thought they needed to see me – I had to try and stop him shooing away people he thought were a waste of my time.  His integrity was such that he would happily be unpopular for the sake of doing what he knew was right – and he would dart and weave his way through east end community politics like the boxer he was. He was decent, kind, a grafter, a force of nature.  

Mr R who had enormous pride in his brilliant daughter – he sat in the pub most of the day, or in his living room covered in newspapers and betting slips.  He would ring me regularly to tell me about her brilliant exam results.  I recommended books for her to read.  

The morning after my by election – I went to the town hall to sign in, and very sweetly both the head of democratic services and the chief executive told me the same story about how apolitical council officers like an election with a clear result.  I got on a bus, and got off at the Burdett estate, where I had spent so much time during my campaign, and where Shiria was there with other mums picking up their children.  I stood in the middle of the playground with mothers and their kids clapping and crying and holding on to my hands and arms and clothes.  Being a Mohila councillor, and a strong voice for those women, felt important.  

 I will never forget the time I spent with families whose children had died, through knife crime, drug misuse or illness. 

Let no one underestimate the women of the Bede estate.  Revenge for a drug deal that went wrong meant groups of girls were horribly threatened, petrol chucked over them and lighters waved in their faces.  The mothers of the estate came together to demand action, and I asked them to come with me to a police ward panel meeting.  They were extraordinary.  

The women of the Burdett estate.  Bengali women who made me clothes, fed me, fought hard for improvements to their school. The women of the Black Church who sang gospel songs in the street when they heard I won in 2008.  

The kindness of Helen and Avril, making sandwiches for us all day on polling day in 2014.  

The committee of Hamlets Way mosque, who asked me to chair their AGM.  

When the children’s centre that we fought for on the Bede estate opened.  

When we agreed in cabinet to rebuild the Wellington Way GP surgery, after years of lobbying.  

The fury and frustration of third sector organisations at our first engagement event in 2015, and the buzz and energy when they realised we were serious about getting it right.

International Women’s Day with young women in Stepney talking about feminism.

The incredible science summer event at St Paul’s Way – at what used to be a failing school.  

Mr Hannan and Faruk on the British estate – always, especially in times of campaigning need.  

In 2010, a letter using forged headed paper and pretending in be from my co councillor Motin Uz-Zaman was sent through the post to every household with Muslim names – about half my ward.  It said I was a Jew, that I hated Muslims, that I wanted to shut down mosques and madrassas.  

I found out about this letter when when I was walking through my ward, and the chair of the Hamlets Way Mosque stopped me in the street.  He held my arm, and told me that he had suffered racism, that he recognised hatred when he saw it, that I should not worry and we would stand together.  With him, Motin, Faruk and Mr Hannan, my husband and my mum, we got a rebuttal direct mail out to four thousand voters within 12 hours explaining that the first letter was a fraud, and reaffirming our opposition to hatred and division.  Again, I was elected with a big majority – attempts to whip up anti semitism backfired. 

The colleagues and friends in the Labour Group and local party who fought the good fight when it wasn’t much fun.  Party staff and senior politicians who supported us, friends and family who put up with it all.  

It’s been an honour to be invited into the homes, places of worship, schools, children’s centres, community centres, hospital, youth centres – the list goes on – of this extraordinary community.  I have lived here since I first came to London when I left university.  I’m not going anywhere.

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