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The Tower Hamlets story

After years of false allegations, former Mayor Lutfur Rahman is running on a radical program to tackle the cost of living crisis. Ashok Kumar reports

5 to 6 minute read

Tower Hamlets town hall

On Thursday, 5 May, voters will go to the polls across London. But one central London borough, Tower Hamlets, will host a contest like no other. Labour mayor John Biggs faces a challenge from an old foe: Lutfur Rahman, Tower Hamlets’s first directly elected mayor. Rahman was himself a Labour Party member before falling victim to a smear campaign that depicted him as an Islamist and then as corrupt.

To understand the choice before East London voters on Thursday, it is necessary to revisit the borough’s recent electoral history. Rahman was the Labour council leader, and in 2010 he was originally selected as the Labour candidate for the inaugural mayoral election, but he was deselected days before the close of nominations after Labour’s national executive suspended him over allegations of links to Islamic extremism.

Allegations that are now discredited. Following Ken Livingstone’s footsteps, Rahman stood as an independent and won a landslide in 2010 to become the first black or Asian directly-elected mayor in Europe.

Rahman’s radicalism in Tower Hamlets

Rahman’s Tower Hamlets offered a beacon of hope to impoverished constituents struggling under austerity. Rahman set about building 1,000 homes a year to tackle the housing crisis. He ring-fenced frontline services from cuts, and made Tower Hamlets the first London borough to pay the living wage. Tower Hamlets refused to walk the line of other Labour councils closing libraries and even opened a new one. Tower Hamlets’ schools were rated the best urban schools in the world. He kept social care free and universal. The council was ranked the best in London for Equality and Diversity by Stonewall. Rahman introduced universal free school meals in primary schools and introduced bursaries for university students. He commissioned a landmark new Town Hall in the elegant former Royal London Hospital, in Whitechapel town centre, which he purchased from the NHS for £8.5m, dwarfed by the £16m annual rent the council paid for its previous, remote headquarters.

But while Tower Hamlets won accolades as a high performing council, this municipal success story was not documented in media coverage. Journalists viewed Tower Hamlets through the prism of the ‘Islamist’ smears, which sold papers at the height of the post-9/11 era. Rahman’s council was always on battle footing: Dispatches, the then Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers among others mounted successive investigations into Rahman’s regime. A Panorama documentary was so racist that one of their own researchers leaked the program having previously never heard of Lutfur. But none of these ultimately found any proof of lawbreaking.

And then came the 2014 election. Rahman was sensationally re-elected on a high turnout along with 18 supportive councillors standing on his ticket, compared to his former party’s 22. A group of his political opponents (from Labour and UKIP) launched a challenge to the election in the civil courts. The legitimacy of Rahman’s election was not litigated in front of a jury of his peers; he was not permitted the opportunity to plead his case before a high court judge; instead it was a mere barrister, Richard Mawrey, who decided if the votes of 37,000 citizens would be allowed to matter.

The allegations of wrongdoing ranged from allowing party campaigners to bribe electors with lollypops for their children, to claims that Rahman’s criticism of his opponents’ racial insensitivity had been false. Mawrey’s report stressed that the civil court had ‘not heard a shred of credible evidence linking Mr Rahman with any extreme or fundamentalist Islamist movement.’ But as with one hand Mawrey eviscerated the raison d’etre of the pursuit of Rahman that had culminated in the case before him, with the other he birthed the new narrative.

Relying partly on law last used to suppress Catholic votes in 19th century Ireland, he claimed to find Rahman ‘personally guilty’ of election law breaches (the High Court would later clarify that the report ‘did not amount to a finding of criminal guilt against Mr Rahman’) and declared the election void, prohibiting him from standing for election for five years. Unblinkingly, the media dropped the discredited ‘Islamist’ narrative and instead branded Rahman ‘corrupt’, on the basis that the technical term for election law breaches is ‘corrupt and illegal practices’ (Rahman’s opponents have never accused him of self-enrichment, as corruption is most commonly understood). Rahman was struck off as a solicitor, and bankrupted, his reputation in ruins.

Local elections

The by-election that followed saw John Biggs succeed Rahman as mayor in 2015. One of his first acts was to hike the mayoral salary by £10,000, before he set about slashing services: consulting on closing libraries, scrapping meals on wheels and introducing charges for social care. Biggs’ ‘Liveable Streets’ road closures have led to perilous levels of air pollution for poor residents living above main roads. Whereas Rahman froze council tax to protect the poorest from the cost of living crisis throughout his seven years in office, Biggs has raised it the maximum amount every year apart from election years. He faced protests by trade unionists after using fire and rehire practices on council workers.

It is against this backdrop of suffering and neglect from the council which used to protect them that electors will go to the polls on Thursday. Rahman, who could not afford to pursue his appeal of the Election Commissioner’s report, has since been cleared by repeated police probes which brought no charges, and is once again permitted to stand and has put his name forward, standing on a radical and transformative platform, with his manifesto including reversing all the cuts to public services and bringing those services in-house, to introduce a law to seize empty properties and turn them into social housing, to use new national powers to double the council tax on empty property landlords, to expand a landlord licensing program that puts obstacles to rent increases, to refuse to collaborate or comply with the Home Office and Border Force anti-migrant laws, and much more.

To overcome such profound reputational damage and win would be a spectacular upset. But if anyone has form for pulling those rare beasts off, it is Rahman. John Biggs has stood twice against Lutfur Rahman in Labour Party selections, and once in a mayoral election. He has never yet beaten him. Could the Tower Hamlets electorate roar once again in the face of this flawed narrative? How this story ends is now in their hands alone.

Ashok Kumar is a senior lecturer of political economy at Birkbeck University

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