LONDON // A Bangladeshi immigrant who was dumped as a Labour Party candidate for alleged links to Islamic extremists has romped to victory in the first-ever mayoral elections in an impoverished east London borough.
With the official Labour candidate left floundering when the results were declared in Tower Hamlets yesterday morning, the outcome was an embarrassment for Ed Miliband in his party's first electoral test since he became its leader last month.
But the circumstances surrounding the Tower Hamlets poll were exceptional even by the standards of political infighting that have become commonplace in this long-time Labour stronghold where 36 per cent of the population are Muslims, mainly from Bangladesh.
It was the Bangladeshi vote that was attributed with swinging the election in favour of Lutfur Rahman, who got more than half the first preference votes in a five-way contest.
"It really is Britain's Islamic republic now," a senior Labour Party activist said to The Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Many traditional Labour voters stayed away from the polls as little more than 25 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote for the first mayor the borough has had. Previously, the council was administered by a cabinet system of locally elected representatives.
Even before yesterday's vote, the mayoral campaign had left the local Labour Party split. Mr Rahman, a former council leader, was originally selected as the party's candidate after a vote among members in the borough.
John Biggs, a local member of the London Assembly for the area, finished second in that ballot with Helal Abbas, the then-council leader, coming third.
But Mr Abbas made a formal complaint to Labour's ruling body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), accusing Mr Rahman of vote-rigging and of having ties with extremists in Islamic Forum of Europe.
The NEC upheld the complaint, dumped Mr Rahman and installed Mr Abbas as the official Labour candidate, ignoring the claims of Mr Biggs that he had the most votes after Mr Rahman.
Mr Rahman, who, like Mr Abbas, had arrived in the UK as a boy from Bangladesh, then announced he would stand as an independent.
In the heated campaign, Mr Abbas was accused of being a wife beater in pamphlets delivered to thousands of homes, though Mr Rahman denied he had anything to do with them.
Mr Rahman won the backing of Ken Livingstone, recently selected as Labour's candidate for next year's mayoral elections across the whole of London, and George Galloway, the well-known Saddam Hussein apologist who quit Labour and had represented the Tower Hamlets area as an MP for his Respect Party in the previous parliament.
Most political pundits had predicted that Mr Abbas would still emerge victorious but, after the votes were counted yesterday, it was Mr Rahman who ended up with an outright victory, without the need for second preferences to be counted.
He received 23,283 votes to Mr Abbas's 11,254. Neil King, the Conservative candidate, was in third place with 5,348, followed by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.
"We may have lost tonight, but at least the Labour Party has clean hands," Mr Abbas said afterwards. "I am proud that we fought a clean, decent campaign and refused to get in the gutter with the candidate backed by George Galloway and the so-called Respect Party.
"This is a sad night for those of us who want to build a better future and a united Tower Hamlets."
Mr Rahman pledged to "serve the people of Tower Hamlets whether black or white or whatever their religion or creed".
He appealed to local people: "Whatever part of the community you belong to, work with me to deliver for the people of Tower Hamlets. If we work together and with each other we can do so. Join me to heal the divisions."
Mr Rahman will now pick up a £75,000-a-year (Dh432,000) salary and have overall control of a budget worth about £1 billion.