Huffpost UK Politics uk
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Lutfur Rahman Headshot

Fairness for all, in an Unfair (Tory) World

Posted: Updated:

This week, Giles Fraser, my Deputy Ohid Ahmed and I launched the new Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission in the famous surrounds of Toynbee Hall in London's East End. As someone committed to social justice and the role of the state in helping to fashion it, this feels like a crucial moment in the progress towards a fairer society. There has been no better moment to reassess our responsibilities and contributions to each other, both as individuals and organisations. Tower Hamlets' geography, economics and people mean that examining these responsibilities here will have a resonance for the whole of London, and indeed many other large cities.

I know that many on the left have been having these conversations, including Ed Miliband and the Labour Party, as well as many think tanks and national charities. However, many of these discussions have been at a theoretical level and haven't had an opportunity to bring these ideas to bear on an area, with organisations engaged and ready to implement these ideas. This is what makes the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission such an exciting departure.
I believe the work of the Commission will play a critical role in shaping the future of Tower Hamlets - a future which must now be shaped without many of the certainties we grew up, and entered public life, with.

Since the second world war there has been a consensus view that the role of the state is to provide a level playing field for all, no matter family wealth and background; that the necessities of life included health provision, housing, education, benefits for those out of work, and pension provision; and that the responsibility for providing these rested with the state.

This was clear move away from provision for the poor in society being provided by private philanthropists and religious organisations. Many of which, including Dr Barnados Ragged School and Toynbee Hall, originated in Tower Hamlets, amongst some of the worst poverty and slums of Victorian England.

Whilst different political climates have toyed with these principles and damage has been done, notably to council housing provision; the role of the state and the importance of providing universal education, healthcare and decent housing and benefits for those out of work, have remained.

Here in Tower Hamlets we have felt the impact of increasing investment, both financial and of political commitment in tackling poverty and improving education. Over the last ten years we have made impressive progress: Our GCSE pass rate (five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths) has almost doubled since 2005/6 to 62.4, we are now amongst the best in London; We are now providing the most affordable housing in the UK, child poverty has also fallen; we have reduced homelessness and overcrowding and we were leading London in crime reduction.

Tower Hamlets has not just been at the forefront of the changes to the public sector, the factors of globalisation and changing economic landscape have also shaped the borough. From a thriving docking economy, supplying the capital, to the centre of Europe's financial sector. Tower Hamlets has been the changing face of the UK's changing economy, shaping our landscape significantly. These changes have brought opportunities to the borough, which an increasing number of our residents are able to take up. However it also, almost overnight, created a huge disparity of incomes and living standards in the borough, bringing risks to cohesion and the sense of a united community.

The borough has also been shaped by the different groups of immigrants; from the first China Town in Limehouse, to the Huguenot weavers in Petticoat Lane, the Jewish tanneries and tailors in Whitechapel to most recently a Bangladeshi Community, originally employed in the garment industry and now the £4m curry trade. The history of Tower Hamlets has also seen some of the worst attacks on multiculturalism. The Battle of Cable Street was one of the worst provocations by British fascists; the racist murder of garment worker Altab Ali in 1978, was another crisis moment, as was the election of a BNP councillor in 1994 on the Isle of Dogs. Most recently the threatened English Defence League march in September last year was only prevented by a banning order by the Home Secretary. However these attacks, including those from certain sections of the press, come in the main from those outside the borough. In the borough the number of residents stating that people from different backgrounds get on well together has risen year on year and now stands at 78%. At moments of crises the borough stands united - a remarkable coalition of people and organisations helped to bring about the ban on the EDL.

My fear is now for the future of the borough. I am increasingly alarmed at the severity and implications of the cuts. The Coalition government is determined to shrink the state, and at the rate they are going the UK is on course to have a smaller public sector than any developed nation.

The implications of austerity for residents in boroughs like Tower Hamlets is literally to turn back time. Our youth are the first generation to be poorer than their parents. No longer can families have the expectation of increasing living standards. The welfare state compact that has defined the post war period is being rewritten, and not for the better. The consequences will be greater inequality, with all its accompanying ills.

In this climate, I feel a number of responsibilities. I want to protect residents as best I can from the cold winds of austerity. To that end my administration has introduced a number of innovative polices including being the only local authority in the country to reintroduce the Educational Maintenance Allowance and provide free home care for the elderly. I also feel a responsibility to be a voice for those whose lives are being adversely affected due a crisis not of their making. It cannot be right that residents in one of the poorest boroughs have having to bear the brunt for an economic crisis caused by the wealthiest institutions in the country, banks. Nor that those dependents on welfare benefits are denigrated as 'spongers' while high street multinationals pay no tax. Nor that Tower Hamlets have the highest level of child poverty in the country while we have an economy worth more than £6 billion a year.

When this financial crisis first broke in 2008 with the Lehman's crash it gave rise to much soul searching about morality and economy. That debate, despite Ed Miliband's best efforts, has been somewhat pushed to the margins. My hope is that this Commission can make a contribution to bringing it back to centre stage where it belongs and involving a wide range of partners into the discussions and solutions.

There are big questions to be addressed: What is the role of the state and private institutions in providing services for residents, especially for the most vulnerable and those in a time of need? Who is able to live in Tower Hamlets, and what should determine that ability? What do large businesses owe the communities they are located in?

The responsibility and capacity for tackling these global and national issues, which conspire to have such an impact on Tower Hamlets, must rest with the entire borough: organisations from the public, private, third and faith sectors as well as residents. Our new Fairness Commission must engage in a conversation with the partners in our borough, recognising the challenges we all face and drawing out the consensus, I am sure can be reached.