Outside the Wellington Way polling station in Tower Hamlets yesterday, as at many other polling stations in the borough, people had to run a gauntlet of Lutfur Rahman supporters to reach the ballot box. As one Bengali woman voter went past them, we heard one of the Rahman army scolding her for her “immodest dress.”
That incident is perhaps a tiny taste of the future for Britain’s poorest borough now it has elected Mr Rahman as its first executive mayor, with almost total power over its £1 billion budget. At the count last night, one very senior figure in the Tower Hamlets Labour Party said: “It really is Britain’s Islamic republic now.”
For the last eight months–without complaint or challenge from Mr Rahman–this blog and newspaper have laid out his close links with a group of powerful local businessmen and with a Muslim supremacist body, the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE)–which believes, in its own words, in transforming the “very infrastructure of society, its institutions, its culture, its political order and its creed . . . from ignorance to Islam.” Mr Rahman has refused to deny these claims.
We have told how the borough’s change from a conventional council leader to a mayoral system came about as a result of a campaign led and financed by these two groups–and how the IFE, in its words, wanted to “get one of our brothers” into the position.
We have described in detail, again without complaint or challenge by Mr Rahman, his deeply problematic two years as council leader until he was removed from that post six months ago, partly as a result of our investigations. After he secured the leadership with the help of the IFE, millions of pounds were channelled to front organisations of the IFE, a man with close links to the IFE was appointed as assistant chief executive of the council despite being unqualified for the position and the secular, white chief executive was forced out. Various efforts were made to “Islamicise” the borough. Extremist literature was stocked in Tower Hamlets’ public libraries.
We have described, once more without complaint or challenge from Mr Rahman, how he signed up entire families of sham “paper” Labour members to win the party’s mayoral nomination–acts which caused him to be sacked as the Labour candidate by the party’s National Executive Committee.
Now, however, Mr Rahman has won as an independent–getting more than double the number of votes of the Labour candidate imposed in his place, Helal Abbas. As mayor, he will have far more power than he had as a council leader. And unlike a council leader, no-one can sack him, except the voters in four years’ time.
We should be clear what this result was, and was not. It was a decisive victory. But it was not much of an endorsement by the borough’s people. Turnout, at 25.6%, was astonishingly low, with most voters (particularly the white majority, and they still are a majority) unaware of, indifferent to or turned off by the process. Lutfur’s 23,000-odd votes are only about 13 per cent of Tower Hamlets’ electorate.
It was not a victory for any sort of democracy. It was the execution of a careful and sophisticated plan by a small, well-financed and highly-organised cabal to seize control of a London borough. It deployed not just volunteers from the IFE and other bodies but also people paid to campaign by Lutfur’s business backers. Someone also paid for tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of copies of the most pernicious literature ever seen in a British election, in which Mr Abbas was falsely smeared as a wife-beater, a bankrupt, a racist and and an insulter of Islam.
Yet even this would probably not have worked without a series of astonishing unforced errors by the Labour Party. Something else this was not, or not really, was Lutfur’s win; it was Labour’s own goal. For the last nine years, there have been deep concerns about IFE and other infiltration, and membership fraud generally, in Tower Hamlets (the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency Labour party more than doubled in size between 2006 and 2008, at a time when Labour membership nationally was sharply falling. Many of the new members have the same names as people we can link to the IFE.)
As a result, Tower Hamlets Labour members are not allowed to select their councillor candidates: it is done centrally, by the London regional office. Yet this safeguard was torn up for the far more important mayoral selection, despite the warnings on this blog and elsewhere that Lutfur’s vote bank would see him selected, as he indeed was.
Having then bravely crossed the Rubicon of sacking Lutfur as their candidate, Labour failed to follow through. Its campaign was slow out of the stocks, allowing him to present himself as a victim, with all the emotional advantage that brought. Above all, Labour seemed afraid clearly to explain why he had been sacked.
I knew the election was lost for Abbas when I saw him on the BBC last week, three times refusing to say why Lutfur had been ditched. The reporter, quite understandably, along with a lot of the Bengali and white electorate, ended up concluding that it was little more than a personality clash between the two men. Most Bengali voters didn’t back Lutfur because they support the IFE–they don’t–but because they believed he had been unfairly treated.
If Labour had spelt out to people the reasons why Lutfur’s sacking was entirely justified; told voters that this election was actually about the continued health of democracy and secularism in Tower Hamlets; and said that it was about the interests of the whole diverse borough versus the interests of Lutfur’s puppetmasters, it might have galvanised enough of those elusive white and Bengali secularist voters to outweigh Lutfur’s block. It wouldn’t have needed many–a few thousand would have done it.
Again and again, Labour people asked me why this story was not playing bigger in the media. I said it was simple: they weren’t giving the media anything to play with. I am confident in writing what I have done about Lutfur because I’ve been working on this story for more than a year. Most journalists, however, aren’t allowed the time to do in-depth research; they have to go with what people are prepared to say in front of their TV cameras or at their press conferences. But though senior figures in Tower Hamlets Labour were happy to speak on background, virtually none would ever go on the record.
The saving grace of last night is as follows. Now that Labour is in opposition on Tower Hamlets, it has at least been given the chance to oppose. The one gain for the party is that it can dissociate itself from, and campaign against, the slow-motion car-crash which Lutfur’s mayoralty is likely to become. Lutfur may well be the Derek Hatton of the 2010s, but unlike Hatton he is no longer Labour’s responsibility. Any thought of making up with Lutfur needs to be resisted–there’s only pain, not gain, there.
Finally, something else which Tower Hamlets is not. Some of my commenters are fond of saying that the borough is an example of “Third World” politics in the UK. There are indeed similarities–but actually the claim is an insult to the Third World. Bangladesh has got to grips with Islamism; the IFE’s Bangladeshi parent, Jamaat-e-Islami, gets about two per cent of the vote in elections there. No Islamist sympathiser in Bangladesh has unfettered control over a £1 billion budget. Bangladesh, in short, has less of a problem with Islamic radicals than Tower Hamlets.
[The full transcript of the Channel 4 dispatches program on the Tower Hamlets can be read here.]