We're electing a Mayor in Tower Hamlets on Thursday. Someone to act as a political figurehead for the borough. Someone with executive responsibility for the day-to-day running of local services. Someone to take charge of most of the high-level operational decisions the council makes. Someone with more power than anyone in this borough has ever had before. And so far, the electoral process has been an absolute complete bloody shambles. I fear it can only get worse.
There are strong undercurrents at work within Tower Hamlets' political system. On the face of it this is a clearcut Labour stronghold - of the 51 local councillors only ten come from any other parties. But there are deep factions within the ruling Labour group, and unconfirmed rumours that a rogue Islamic pressure group has been pulling strings behind the scenes. It's this fundamental factionalism that George Galloway exploited when he set up a completely new party back in 2004 and then successfully stood for Parliament. Respect's electoral standing may have collapsed back in May, but their destabilising influence continues.
You can't just magic up a Mayoral election out of thin air. It takes a petition signed by 5% of a borough's electorate to trigger one, which for Tower Hamlets means 7794 voters. Last summer Respect managed to cobble together a petition with more than double that number, which they duly presented to the council for verification. It turned out that 40% of those signatories were invalid - mostly unregistered, living elsewhere or with incomplete names and addresses. But enough were deemed valid for the petition to succeed, so democracy kicked in and the process moved on to stage two.
The borough's electors then faced a referendum on whether to have an elected mayor or not. The referendum was tacked onto the local and national elections last May, so most voters probably ticked yes or no without a great deal of thought. I voted 'No', because I thought a single Mayor would be unrepresentative in such a diverse borough, and because concentrating too much power in one individual only works if that one individual can be trusted. But 60% of voters said yes, on a relatively high turnout, so democracy kicked in and the process moved on to stage three.
Stage three is on Thursday. There are five Mayoral candidates, including Neil King for the Conservatives and John Griffiths for the Lib Dems. They don't stand a chance, not least because the Coalition will have announced the worst cuts in living memory the day before. There's a Green would-be, Alan Duffell, but realistically we can discount him too. The real battle's between the other two.
Labour's candidate is Helal Abbas, the current leader of the council, who was imposed by the National Executive after supposedirregularities in the local party vote. That had overwhelmingly selected former council leader Lutfur Rahman, but he was ejected from the party and duly flounced off to stand as an independent candidate instead. In second place in the ballot had been London Assembly member John Biggs, but he was summarily ignored in favour of third place Helal. Meanwhile Respect changed their minds saying "we were going to select a candidate of our own but now that Lutfur is standing we won't." There are accusations of racism, there are suspicions of vote-rigging, and there's no love lost between Abbas and Rahman. Thewholeprocessstinksonvirtuallyeverylevel, and yet one of these two men is almost certain to be crowned mayor this week.
I get to exercise my franchise on Thursday, making first and second choices against a somewhat compromised shortlist. But I suspect I'll be very much in the minority. Most Tower Hamlets voters won't even remember the mayoral election is taking place, let alone turn up and make their mark. Which'll leaves the door open for anyone who can get their supporters out in large enough numbers, or drum up the most postal votes by fair means or potentially foul. It would be unthinkable for the Labour candidate not to win, but then it was unthinkable for George Galloway to be elected as my MP and yet he managed that with the support of less than 20% of the electorate.
Tower Hamlets is a borough which regularly exploits democracy's greatest weakness - that the person with the most votes always wins. Whatever Thursday's result, I hope the man with the most votes is the choice the borough intended.