Mayor or leader: Your choice on May 6

Lutfur Rahman (left) and John Biggs last went head-to-head for mayor in 2014 at this London Citizens hustings 

Lutfur Rahman (left) and John Biggs last went head-to-head for mayor in 2014 at this London Citizens hustings - Credit: Mike Brooke

This week, people all over the country will be heading to the polls to cast their votes for local elections. 

As well as making their choice on the London mayor and GLA positions, residents of Tower Hamlets will be asked how they would like the borough to be governed in the future.

The referendum will ask if the council’s decision-makers should be changed from a directly-elected mayor and cabinet structure to a leader and cabinet style.

Tower Hamlets Council's website explains: "The main difference between the two versions is that the mayor is chosen directly by all local electors whilst a leader would be selected from amongst the councillors."

This newspaper asked those campaigning for both options to lay out their opinions.

These are the current mayor Tower Hamlets John Biggs, who is arguing for a transition to a leader and cabinet structure; former mayor Lutfur Rahman, who is backing the mayoral model, and Cllr Andrew Wood, who launched a petition on the referendum unsuccessfully calling for a third option - the committee system - to be on the ballot paper. 

John Biggs
Current Tower Hamlets mayor

John Biggs

John Biggs - Credit: Mike Brooke

This May, voters in Tower Hamlets will be asked whether the council should be run by a directly-elected mayor, or by a leader and cabinet.

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In my view, and while I have enjoyed being mayor, the leader and cabinet model is a tried, tested and successful way to run a council. That’s why I proposed we hold a referendum on returning to it.

The former mayor, who was removed from office, showed what can go wrong with the mayoral system. Plus most councils manage perfectly well without one. Now that we’ve recovered and stabilised the council, I think it’s a chance to go back to the old system.

If voters choose to keep the mayoral system, we’ll work with it, but leader and cabinet works well for most councils.

That’s why I’m supporting the Leading Together campaign to bring back the cabinet system.

Lutfur Rahman
Former Tower Hamlets mayor

Lutfur Rahman

Lutfur Rahman - Credit: Joe Lord

On May 6, voters face an important referendum. Amid the global pandemic, councillors are blowing taxpayers' money in their attempt to replace the borough’s mayor, elected by you, with a council leader picked by councillors behind closed doors.

The mayoral system’s opponents have sought to make this a referendum about me, employing a smear campaign with the backing of allies in the media.

They claimed I was found guilty of criminal corruption. This is a lie. These claims relate to an election tribunal, with no powers to decide criminality, a fact confirmed as much by the High Court where Lord Justice Lloyd Jones and Mr Justice Supperstone said that the findings “did not amount to a finding of criminal guilt”.

My opponents continue to push these smears to distract from the fact that my administration made historic achievements, in contrast to the dire state of the council under the present Labour administration which has cut frontline services, hiked council tax and closed roads in deprived parts of the East End, crippling local businesses already struggling under lockdown restrictions. 

Our positive grassroots campaign makes the point that with an elected mayor, residents can break through the two-party system that has often blocked progress in Tower Hamlets.

A high-profile mayor can attract investment into the East End. As mayor, I built more social housing and oversaw landmark projects like the reopening of Poplar Baths and our landmark Town Hall in the old Royal London Hospital building, currently under construction.

We invested in our young people, bringing in a replacement Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) scheme and introducing university bursaries as school results soared. 

This was only possible because of the mayoral system and because of the enormous spirit of the people of Tower Hamlets.

Keep your power, keep your vote.

Andrew Wood
Tower Hamlets councillor (Canary Wharf, Independent)

Andrew Wood

Andrew Wood - Credit: Mike Brooke

You have a difficult choice at the ballot box in the Tower Hamlets referendum on May 6.

Keep the directly-elected mayor or go back to the old system of a councillor as leader where you elect councillors who then pick one of their own to lead for four years.  

The two systems are actually similar - a single person in charge. They only differ in how they are elected. Whether a mayor or leader, one person has all of the power including the ability to give well-paid jobs to some councillors. 

When you were presented in May 2010 with the same referendum choice, 60 per cent of you voted to try the new mayor system for Tower Hamlets and 40pc voted to keep the leader system. 

This is maybe because the mayoral system is arguably more democratic, as you get to choose. In an election for mayor, you have two votes, a first choice and a second choice. That means the mayor is more representative of voters intentions. 

But when you elect councillors, we use a first past the post system. The party with the most votes wins. This is why in May 2018, only 46pc of you voted for the Labour Party—but 93pc (42 of 45) of councillors ended up elected from Labour.

That means any leader selected by councillors may be less representative of voters and that process may well happen in secret.

But in theory, councillors could change their mind and change their leader, which you cannot do with the elected mayor.  

We cannot change the system for 10 years, or three elections.

It is such a difficult choice. I have not decided myself which way to vote.