Court protects Labour corruption
After Lutfur Rahman’s removal as Tower Hamlets mayor, Paul Demarty calls for authentic local democracy
After Lutfur Rahman’s removal as Tower Hamlets mayor, Paul Demarty calls for authentic local democracy
As the general election looms, attention is focused on the heights of national government, to the detriment of the strugglers in the localities; spare a thought, then, for poor Lutfur Rahman, whose glittering and eventful career as mayor of Tower Hamlets has come to an abrupt end courtesy of the high court.
Rahman was found to have violated numerous parts of electoral law during his successful re-election campaign last year. Favours had been done for prominent supporters; a letter from 101 imams urging voters to back Rahman as part of their religious duty was found to be an act of “unlawful religious influence”; he had smeared his Labour opponent during his re-election, John Biggs, as a racist.
He now finds himself summarily dismissed from his post, possibly facing criminal charges and, bizarrely, removed from the electoral rolls - as if he could somehow rig an election merely by voting in it. While we have no difficulty believing the charges against him, such as they are, we do find the notion ridiculous that he is somehow uniquely culpable of such skulduggery; the question needs to be answered, then, as to why an example is being made out of him.
We cannot answer that question without a short political biography of the energetic Mr Rahman - for a long time a Labour councillor in relatively good standing. In 2010, however, Tower Hamlets found itself lumped with a directly elected mayor - which led to the delicate question of which of the local Labour power-brokers would get the big job. Rahman wanted it, as did council leader Helal Uddin Abbas.
After a lot of grubby legal manoeuvres, during which Rahman was initially selected, he was excluded from the selection process by Labour’s national executive committee. He was hardly the only person to be gazumped in that kind of selection process, but unlike many he decided to fight on anyway, standing as an independent with the support of a minority of Labour councillors, the remainder of Respect’s base, and ‘outsiders’ like Ken Livingstone. He won.
As a politician, Rahman is something of a Huey Long figure. There is a certain leftish populism to his politics - his administration has done more to shield his borough from the depredations of government policy than many others in London; hence in the main the support of the likes of Livingstone and George Galloway.
There is also, of course, the headline-grabbing stuff about fishy deals among the Bangladeshi community, close links to local mosques and so on. In reality, this is just standard-issue stuff: there cannot be a ruling Labour council group in any constituency with a significant, well rooted ethnic-minority community without some kind of ‘good relations’ being maintained with that community’s self-appointed representatives.
A populist with a ruthless streak, well versed in the horse-trading of local politics; a mayor who delivers on his promises and remembers his friends - this is the picture of Lutfur Rahman. Such people, however, also tend to be remembered by their enemies. Biggs was hardly the only person in Tower Hamlets to be scurrilously accused of racism: so routine were such outbursts on the part of Rahman and his coterie that they became a running joke at council meetings.
On one memorable and well-storied occasion, a Rahman associate rounded on Labour councillor Ann Jackson, noting that, while London had once been terrorised by the Blackshirts, now it had to deal with the “black cardigans”. Jackson was wearing the offending attire because she was mourning her husband, who had been buried the day before. Classy.
With this kind of invective flying around, it was hardly surprising that somebody should drag him into court; in the end, this fell to four people described everywhere as mere plucky local residents - although we find it hard to credit (given the nature of this game) that they were otherwise wholly foreign to the turf wars over political patronage in the borough. Certainly, there is only one party that will benefit from this farce; its leader has big teeth and a small teenage fan club.
Parallels can be drawn with his supporter, Livingstone, who likewise struck out successfully as an independent mayoral candidate after a Labour snub, also relying on backroom fixers and boxing clever with ‘community leaders’. Livingstone survived because Labour took him back, and because he was prepared to go back - in spite of everything. Rahman remained out in the cold; Tower Hamlets Labour was determined to defeat him, not submit to him. This is, basically, what has happened.
There are certainly those who have made out of Rahman some kind of folk devil. But he is no Nietzschean superman, transcending his historical horizons; his story tells us a lot about some of the morbid afflictions on the British body politic, for which he is wholly not responsible. As rappers like to say, don’t hate the player: hate the game.
The first one is - again - the headline-grabber: the advance of multiculturalism and official state anti-racism. One aspect of this is Rahman’s political potty-mouth, accusing all-comers of ‘racism’ or else ‘dog-whistles’.
This is a good time to note that - oh, happy day! - Rahman is not entirely bereft of supporters. Perhaps the most vociferous among them is Counterfire, the shrivelling rump of former Socialist Workers Party members headed up by John Rees and Lindsey German, which has leapt to the beleaguered mayor’s defence. An email lands in our inbox, with the subject line, “Defend democracy in Tower Hamlets”, howls of outrage at the “racially skewed judgments”, and advertising an “emergency meeting to protest [the] outrageous ouster of UK’s first elected Muslim mayor”:
The meeting aims to “set the record straight about the removal of Lutfur Rahman as mayor of Tower Hamlets and set out what needs to be done to defend democracy in Tower Hamlets, to challenge racism in the borough and beyond, and to ensure that anti-racist, anti-war and anti-austerity politics find their rightful place in the council”.1
Linked therein are two further diatribes: one by John Rees,2 and another by Ady Cousins.3 Both expend an enormous amount of energy disputing Judge Richard Mawbrey’s incidental claim that Bangladeshis are “not in any real sense a minority” in Tower Hamlets (depending on how you add up ‘white people’ - do we include recent European migrants? - they are the plurality at 32% of the population).
Comrade Cousins establishes, with admirable rigour and empirical evidence, that Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets do still suffer from racial discrimination. Very good! Alas, he did not find space to justify the assertion that this particular Tower Hamlets Bangladeshi, Lutfur Rahman, suffered his recent misfortunes as a result of racial prejudice; let alone that he was innocent of the charges against him.
Rees, meanwhile, froths about “the long and disgraceful war by Tories, Liberal Democrats and the local Labour Party to stop the rise of Bangladeshi representation in the area”. Unfortunately, this claim, to use the jargon of bourgeois political science, is bollocks. A glance at the ethnic make-up of Labour councillors in Tower Hamlets reveals over 50% Bangladeshis - ie, the latter are overrepresented. Rahman’s quitting of the Labour Party, again, saw him stand against the not especially white Helal Uddin Abbas first time round.
But this is hardly surprising, because there is no “war” on Bangladeshi representation here - quite the opposite. It is official state policy, and at least semi-official policy of all the mainstream parties, to actively promote ethnic-minority candidates, especially in metropolitan boroughs where white Britons are not so preponderant.
The concrete effect of this - we repeat - official state policy is a racial politics reflective of the bureaucratised structure of declining capitalism. The one charge against Rahman comrade Rees comes close to conceding may have some justice is the matter of funds misplaced for ‘grants’ to allies; and this is precisely the approach of central and municipal government to maintaining ‘ethnic harmony’: throwing freebies to those who can present themselves plausibly as representatives of a given ‘community’. That means small charities and NGOs, and religious organisations.
The effect is to remove most of the ugliest features of what multiculturalism succeeded - openly racist controls on ‘non-white’ immigration, police forces composed almost entirely of racist whites and so on - but, paradoxically, leaving the general working class population of those siloed into such ‘communities’ still disenfranchised. They gain a louder voice - provided it is the voice of the imam, or the preacher, or the NGO chief. It is no surprise that, in this situation, the spoils in local government very often go to those who can effectively negotiate (in other words, bribe) the community leaders.
The second important factor is the increasing centralisation of British politics. Rahman’s ouster follows on from Eric Pickles’ suspension of some Tower Hamlets powers, which in turn resulted from his sending in of beancounters Pricewaterhouse Coopers. The episode with Ann Jackson’s black cardigan is widely known, in part, because Pickles unilaterally ordered all council sessions to be broadcast on video. Since especially the Thatcher years, the powers of municipal government have been radically curtailed.
This, ultimately, leads not to the emergence of corrupt local government (which is surely as old as corruption and local government), but to the bleak fact that there is, at this point, almost no other purpose to local government. Those who are not directly feathering their own nests have an eye on bigger things in the long term - a seat in the Commons. As the stakes get lower, so does voter turnout, and overall political engagement.
Even at the municipal level, however, the drift towards centralisation is evident - most strikingly in the rise of these directly elected mayors. Whatever one might say about the ethics prevailing among councillors, at least there are multiple self-interested agendas, which, taken together, might in principle alert voters to dodgy activities. Rahman, on the other hand, had £1.2 billion at his own executive disposal.
The result is, as with the cult of the straight-talking CEO and ‘presidential’ elections, a proliferation of petty Bonapartes. Rahman is a representative example of the species. Here, there is something of a contradiction: after all, such a mayoralty is a stronger card to play in negotiations with central government than the divided loyalties of dozens of councillors; Rahman was able to put up some token resistance to austerity far more effectively than ‘old-fashioned’ Labour-controlled councillors elsewhere.
We do not advocate presidential politics, in Westminster or Tower Hamlets or anywhere else. Instead, real power must be devolved as far as possible: with a serious stake in local affairs, the masses of people may be relied upon to take care of things, without demagogues to do it for them. Tower Hamlets council meetings will be less colourful without the contributions of Rahman and his cronies; but those assembled will not be less corrupt, cynical and grasping, until a genuine democratic transformation makes those meetings matter..