Andrew Gilligan, Telegraph (London), May 31, 2014
As dawn broke over the Troxy, the converted cinema where they count the votes in Tower Hamlets, Sanu Miah, one of Labour’s candidates in the east-London borough, looked forward to becoming a councillor.
It had been a tense, chaotic wait. As the count dragged all through Friday May 23 and deep into the night, 2,000 supporters of the borough’s extremist-linked mayor, Lutfur Rahman, gathered outside, effectively barricading Mr Rahman’s Labour opponents in the building.
The shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, was told by police that he could not leave for his own safety.
By the middle of the next morning, almost 36 hours after voting closed, Mr Miah’s count had finished. He was top in his ward with 2,270 votes, 149 more than his nearest Rahman-supporting rival. But then things started to go wrong.
“The returning officer was about to announce the result,” said Mr Miah. “Then the mayor in person came down and said you must recount.”
The recount, with five other wards, took place the next day. “When we went to the new count centre, we saw Lutfur talking to his candidate, saying, don’t worry, you will definitely win.” According to many witnesses, last Sunday’s count was even worse than the day before.
“There were far fewer controls over who got into the building. Lutfur Rahman supporters were everywhere, leaning over the count staff, shouting at them, intimidating them, jabbing fingers,” said Peter Golds, the leader of the Conservative opposition.
Rachael Saunders, deputy leader of the Labour group, said: “At one point senior council officers had to act as bouncers to protect the count staff, putting up a rope to hold the Rahman crowd back.”
The mayor himself, according to a senior Labour figure present, was “visibly throwing his weight around” and being “overly familiar with count staff, some of whom were telling him they had voted for him even as they counted the votes”. Mr Golds, another subjected to a recount, found his vote had changed by more than a fifth overnight, from 1,098 to 1,345.
And Sanu Miah? In the recount, his vote dropped by a quarter from 2,270 to 1,722 and he fell from first place to sixth. Two of the three seats in his ward went to Mr Rahman’s Tower Hamlets First party. “I think this election was stolen from me,” said Mr Miah.
Not everyone agrees with that. One of Mr Miah’s opponents had the same surname: the counters could have got them mixed up. But he might be right. The normal rules do not apply in Tower Hamlets. It was Britain’s most troubling election in Britain’s most troubling borough.
For more than four years, The Telegraph has been following the extraordinary career of Mr Rahman, a man thrown out of the Labour Party after this newspaper exposed his close links to a Muslim extremist group, the Islamic Forum of Europe.
Yet Mr Rahman has gone on to win two mayoral elections as an independent, his latest, last week, even though his council is under a police investigation for corruption and a government investigation for misuse of funds. How did he manage it? Khales Uddin Ahmed, another Labour councillor, claims he knows part of the answer. “There are so many fake voters,” he says. “I keep finding houses where there are people registered for postal votes who do not live there.”
In Bow, The Telegraph found two flats where postal votes were obtained, and cast, by people who did not live there and had never lived there, according to the real residents.
Helal Rahman, a businessman and former Labour councillor in Spitalfields, says that “several hundred postal votes” in that one ward alone were cast on May 22 by people “who used to live here but have moved out to the suburbs. They rent their properties to eastern Europeans but keep their electoral registrations and convert their votes to postal,” he says. This is, of course, illegal.
No evidence links any of this to Mr Rahman at this election, but there has been clear evidence of postal vote malpractice involving his close allies in the past. In April 2012, on a suspiciously high turnout, Gulam Robbani, Mr Rahman’s agent in the 2010 mayoral contest, narrowly won a council by-election.
Only 14 per cent of people in Tower Hamlets then had postal votes, but 36 per cent of votes at the by-election were postal.
Days before polling, the number registered for postal votes in one large council block doubled. Seventy-seven per cent of those votes were cast.
Residents and their families told The Telegraph that Mr Robbani’s supporters blitzed the building, signing them up for postal votes, then returned a few days later to collect the blank ballot papers. Mr Robbani has repeatedly refused to deny it.
If you wanted to vote in person on May 22, things were often a little more difficult. Large groups of Rahman supporters picketed polling stations, remonstrating with some voters who refused to take Rahman leaflets. The council has received 20 complaints of voter intimidation.
Twenty-one of the borough’s 74 polling stations–disproportionately those in non-Rahman wards–were moved to new, unfamiliar and sometimes harder-to-reach locations.
One, in the not very pro-Rahman territory of Canary Wharf, was placed on a traffic island in the middle of a four-lane road. Turnout there was 19 points behind the Rahman stronghold of Shadwell, where the polling stations were not moved.
Mr Rahman’s winning margin, after second preferences, was 3,250 votes, or 4 per cent. “My gut feeling is that there were enough [fraudulent votes] to have affected the outcome,” says one senior figure in the Tower Hamlets Labour Party. “But I don’t know whether we will be able to evidence it.”
In reality, though, the campaign was only the last phase. For several years, with the untrammelled power of a directly-elected mayor, Mr Rahman has been buying votes with public money. Almost uniquely, his council publishes a weekly newspaper, delivered to every house, each issue containing as many as a dozen pictures and articles praising the mayor. Thousands of pieces of direct mail have been sent to voters at public expense.
Mr Rahman pays tens of thousands of pounds to Channel S, a London-based Bengali television station influential with his Bangladeshi base. It gives him fawning coverage. He pays £50,000 a year from council funds into the personal bank account of Channel S’s chief reporter.
But it is the mayor’s politics of racial and faith favouritism which are doing most to poison the atmosphere. Tower Hamlets is a genuinely mixed borough, 45 per cent white and 32 per cent Bangladeshi, and no part of it is a ghetto.
Yet of Mr Rahman’s 18 councillors elected last week, all are Bangladeshi (and 17 are men). He has never appointed a non-Bangladeshi to his council cabinet, though he says that is because none will join.
For the cabinet post of finance, he chose Alibor Choudhury, a former employee of an IFE front organisation with a long track record of encounters with the police.
Under the two men, there has been a clear diversion of council funding away from secular groups serving the whole community towards race and faith-based bodies serving largely the Muslim community, including millions of pounds to front groups for the extremist IFE. Political allies and vote-getters have been rewarded not just with money, but with valuable council property sold at below-market rates.
Officially, Mr Rahman is an apostle of “One Tower Hamlets,” champion of East End tolerance. In practice, his supporters vilify all those who oppose him as racists. Council meetings have often been toxic, with Mr Rahman’s supporters in the gallery chanting homophobic abuse at his main opponents, who happen to be gay, as the mayor looks on.
For years, the authorities have essentially looked on too. Ofcom regularly censures Channel S, but it appears to make no difference.
The Electoral Commission refuses to act on suspect voting, despite its own report admitting it happened in 2012. The police broke their promise to stop crowds outside polling stations. The race card has worked its usual magic; many officials are afraid of being branded racist for criticising Mr Rahman.
In his first interview since the election, Mr Rahman told LBC radio yesterday that the atmosphere on polling day was “fantastic” and the misconduct allegations were the claims of “sore losers”.
His strategy and delivery adviser, Kazim Zaidi, said that if the result was not accepted, “civil war” would “spill out on to the streets”.
In the next few weeks, after its investigation is complete, the Government must decide whether it continues to look on, as a borough at the heart of London, in other ways an improving place, declines into a political slum.