This Thursday, residents in Tower Hamlets will vote for the borough's first ever elected Mayor. Nothing particularly unique in this; other London councils, including Hackney and Newham, already have such a position. Yet the race in Tower Hamlets has put the 'sham' in shambolic, and further stretched the underlying tensions that run through one of the country's most unequal boroughs.
The two frontrunners are Lutfur Rahman, who began as Labour's candidate but is now running as an independent (albeit with the backing of Respect), and Helal Uddin Abbas, the official Labour candidate. Mr. Rahman was for many years a prominent Labour councillor and leader of the Labour Group on Tower Hamlets council. Yet he is dogged by controversy; a Dispatches programme earlier this year alleged that under his watch the council was being manipulated by an irredentist Islamist movement orchestrated by the Islamic Forum for Europe, described by some as a "Saudi-funded supremacist group" and likened by Poplar & Limehouse MP Jim Fitzpatrick to the militant tendency that corrupted Labour in the 1980s. It has also been claimed, notably by Andrew Gilligan, that the successful referendum on whether or not to have a directly-elected mayor was little more than a sham cooked up by the IFE to advance its own power grab.
There were farcical scenes as Labour attempted to remove Rahman from their ballot, only to see him re-appear after legal action; however, after he easily won the Labour candidacy, the party eventually dumped him, citing widespread electoral fraud.
Kicked out of the party, Mr. Rahman decided to run as an independent, and could well now beat Labour's candidate, Helal Abbas, with a campaign fuelled by the sense of injustice many in the borough feel at his treatment by the party's National Executive Committee. The hapless Mr. Abbas wasn't even Labour's second-placed candidate. That individual, John Biggs, was deemed surplus to requirements: the party thought it unwise to defenestrate a Bangladesh-born candidate and replace him with a white male, particularly in an election where the local Asian population will play kingmaker.
Does this mess sound at all familiar? Ken Livingstone ran as an independent candidate in 2000 after being expelled by Labour, and won handsomely. Perhaps this explains his baffling decision to intervene in Tower Hamlets by campaigning for Mr. Rahman, in clear breach of Labour party rules. The party now has to decide whether to expel Livingstone once again; if they do (unlikely as it seems) that would presumably involve sticking Oona King in place as their candidate for Mayor of London. Or, if the precedent in Tower Hamlets is followed, the largely anonymous person who finished third would get the nod.
Whatever the outcome of Thursday's vote, which (for all the outpouring of emotion on the internet and the streets of Tower Hamlets) will probably see a very small turnout, the electoral process itself seems destined to fulfill George Bernard Shaw's maxim: "Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few."