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Shock defeat for Labour as independent ‘novice’ wins Tower Hamlets by-election at Whitechapel

PUBLISHED: 02:43 02 December 2016 | UPDATED: 15:44 06 December 2016

Ahmed Shafi ... Whitechapel by-election winner (independent)

Ahmed Shafi ... Whitechapel by-election winner (independent)

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Labour took a bruising at last night’s Whitechapel by-election result in east London when a “novice” independent candidate won the seat on Tower Hamlets Council with a runaway majority.

Tower Hamlets council's Whitechapel by-election Tower Hamlets council's Whitechapel by-election

Driving instructor Shafi Ahmed, who has never fought an election and doesn’t belong to any political party, took 1,147 votes at the polls, overwhelming Labour candidate Victoria Obaze’s poor 823.

He joins the back benches filled by fragmented independent council members who are split between contender for mayor Rabina Khan, one-time deputy to disgraced ex-mayor Lutfur Rahman, and breakaway councillors led by another former Lutfur backer Ollui Rahman.

Many see Shafi’s win as a rebellious Whitechapel Bengali vote against the Labour majority now controlling the post-Lutfur local authority.

Ahmed Shafi congratulated by indpendent group leader Rabina Khan at the poll count Ahmed Shafi congratulated by indpendent group leader Rabina Khan at the poll count

But he was reluctant at last night’s count at the Town Hall to put his cards on the table and declare any political allegiance in the council chamber.

“I’m a complete novice at politics,” he told the East London Advertiser. “My election win is a vote against cuts.

“At the moment I’m a novice at this. “I don’t know enough about the politics of Tower Hamlets yet.

Ahmed Shafi ... Whitechapel's new representative on Tower Hamlets Council Ahmed Shafi ... Whitechapel's new representative on Tower Hamlets Council

“But I’m a quick learner as time goes along. I don’t know if I’ll be aligned to any group on the council. I will be learning as I go along.”

But one of the first to congratulate him after council chief executive Will Tuckley declared him the victor at 12.40am this-morning was Cllr Rabina Khan, Rahman’s former protégé who stood against Labour’s John Biggs in last year’s re-run election for mayor after Lutfur fell from power.

The former Lutfur cabinet member was bounced onto the Opposition benches after her defeat by Biggs in May, 2015, but appears to be bouncing back.

BY-ELECTION RESULT AT WHITECHAPEL

Shafi Ahmed (Ind) 1,147 (elected)

Victoria Obaze (Lab) 823

Will Fletcher (Con) 217

Emanuel Andjelic (Lib Dem) 173

James Wilson (Green) 170

Martin Smith (Ukip) 34

She is now putting together an opposition group on the council to run for mayor again in 2018 and appeared last night to be making overtures to the new independent councillor Ahmed, perhaps to recruit him to her caucus group.

Cllr Khan had helped his doorstep campaign, he revealed in his victory speech.

He publicly thanked her, then added: “I am committed to serve every single resident in Whitechapel, whatever their background.”

WHITECHAPEL VOTERS

Electorate:

10,502

Votes cast:

2,572

Percentage:

24.9

Winning margin:

324 votes

For Labour, it was a night of disappointment for local nursery school manager Victoria Obaze, no newcomer to the hotbed of Tower Hamlets politics having lost previous election runs in other wards in the 2010 and 2014 elections.

The Nigerian-born grandmum admits having fought a losing battle on the doorsteps of Whitechapel because of entrenched voting.

“I lost because I was up against a Bengali vote,” she said. “The independents have their roots in Whitechapel which is hard to beat and I’m not Bengali. There isn’t anything more we could have done.”

It was always going to be a close call, but the defeat was no surprise to Labour Mayor John Biggs who arrived at the Town Hall to see the result.

“Whitechapel is the heartland of Lutfur Rahman’s former voting base,” the Mayor told the Advertiser. “It’s not a defeat—the independents have merely held the Whitechapel seat.”

Whitechapel had been a radical ‘protest’ enclave against Labour ever since 2006, in the days of ex-MP George Galloway’s Respect party almost holding the balance on the council, he pointed out.

That was the year Shahed Ali was elected at Whitechapel for Respect—the now-disgraced former Lutfur-backing councillor jailed for housing fraud in October whose disqualification caused yesterday’s Whitechapel by-election.

Last night’s result pushed the Conservative candidate into third place, with Liberal Democrats in fourth, Greens fifth and Ukip sixth.

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