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Tower Hamlets: a victory for democracy or a neocolonial coup

The ousting of Lutfur Rahman suggests that we expect different levels of behaviour from Bangadeshi politicians and those of the general white British political culture.

Now the general election is over, it’s worthwhile trying to understand the nature of political consent in Britain by looking into recent events in Tower Hamlets. In late 2014, Eric Pickles, then communities secretary, took over administration of the borough through commissioners, pending a judicial report on electoral corruption. The majority party in the most recent mayoral election was declared dissolved and banned from standing in future elections.

None of the four commissioners – Sir Ken Knight, Max Caller CBE, Chris Allison or Alan Wood – is Bangladeshi, the largest ethnic group in the borough representing one third of the inhabitants. They are all white English men. Does this not have the air of a neocolonial coup?

I have been living in the borough for 14 years and it seems to be very well run. Its schools, which 20 years ago were among the worst-rated in the country, are now among the best.

The library service, which most London boroughs are closing, is expanding in use through computerised Idea Stores. The streets are kept reasonably clean, refuge collection well managed. The parks are beautiful and Victoria Park has been acclaimed by a national vote as the most popular park in the UK.

Despite all the handicaps imposed by government, social housing is being built. The mayor was condemned by the election commissioner Richard Mawrey for focusing re-housing programmes in wards with a higher proportion of Bangladeshis – but that is precisely where there is the most poverty and overcrowding.

The mayor has led an excellent new plan for redeveloping Whitechapel with a new square and the redundant old Royal London Hospital buildings becoming a new Town Hall. The council’s weekly magazine (which Pickles tried to close) has a strong emphasis on community service and inter-ethnic activities.

A judgement based on Victorian legislation

The recent judgement by Mawrey does provide an interesting disquisition on the Victorian legislation which is the basis of much of his declaration that the twice-elected Mayor Lutfur Rahman has been “corrupt” and must be banned from standing in future elections. He also gives a useful local history review of how the political dissensions in the borough developed.

These go back to the 1990s, when one wing of the local Labour Party was trying to change local practices (especially in terms of council employment) to give more chance for the under-represented but growing Bangladeshi section of the population. From that time onwards accusations have been made that those who resisted these changes were “racist”. In a structural or institutional sense there is a case for this, but it was also inflammatory for local white politicians who were not racist in a personal sense.

These dissensions came to a head around five years ago, when elected mayors had been introduced. Lutfur Rahman was the Labour candidate, but there was a coup against him, for accusations which he was never allowed to answer. On this point Commissioner Mawrey shows a rare case of sympathy to Rahman, saying that he was treated badly. Rahman then stood as an Independent in 2010, and was elected by a substantial majority.

Rahman is clearly charismatic, and he can evoke great enthusiasm among his sup-porters. But he also can be very divisive. His victory left the former Labour group, led by John Biggs, very disgruntled.

Rahman faced extreme hostility from some opposition councillors, who continually criticised his new proposals as personal “vanity projects” and continued to resist the adjustment of grants so that they fitted more proportionately to different elements in the population.

In response, Rahman (who Mawrey says has never been a racist) unwisely retreated into a bunker situation, relying on a “cabinet” of Bangladeshi supporters he could trust. They made it impossible to question any of his decisions through council meetings. For this he was accused of “cronyism”. I am not clear how “cronyism” differs from working through other social networks (e.g. going to Eton rather than having a Bangladeshi surname).

In order to run in future elections he and his supporters also formed a new par-ty, Tower Hamlets First. They did this in a surprisingly shambolic and careless fashion, and the party has no constitution or bank account. One reason seems to be that Rahman always saw it as a temporary organisation. He saw his own political position as left-wing Labour, and his model Ken Livingstone, who was able to come back from standing as independent to becoming London’s Labour Mayor. Nevertheless Rahman was re-elected under the Tower Hamlets First banner at the next mayoral election in 2014. It is this election which has been annulled.

A disgruntled group of locals (including some Bangladeshis) brought complaints against Rahman and Tower Hamlets First in the election court. It is through this case that Richard Mawrey has adjudged Rahman “corrupt”, banned him from standing either for mayor or as a councillor, as well as dissolving Tower Hamlets First. Even before the judgement was made public, Pickles sent in his first commissioners to take over the borough.

It is said that the Election Court reaches judgements on the same level as a criminal court. I find this hard to understand. Firstly, there is no jury. Secondly, as in this case, guilt seems to be determined by association rather than through evidence of direct involvement. In April 2014 complaints against Rahman for electoral fraud and corruption were investigated by the police and they found no evidence against him.

Mr. Rahman was however been declared”guilty of corruption” by the Election Court in April for the following reasons.

1. Using religious influence through a letter of support from 100 local imams

Mawrey adjudges this “corrupt” under the terms of an act drawn up in the Victorian period to undermine Roman Catholic influence. This never was a just law. We all know that the Church of England has long been known “the Conservative Party at prayer”, and the Labour Party was founded out of Christian socialism and Nonconformist support.

According to Mawrey’s thinking, Christian intervention in elections is OK because voters are mature enough to make up their own minds, while Bangladeshis, being a largely Muslim population imbued with its traditional social framework, are less able to be able to come to independent decisions. “It would be wrong, therefore, to treat the Tower Hamlets Muslim community by the standards of a secular and largely agnostic metropolitan elite.”

In fact, of course, the Muslim religious community is very divided in terms of its views. This aspect of the judgement seems to me extraordinarily condescending in a classic colonialist style, if not straight “racist”.

2. Bribing local voters by giving more funds to Muslim charities

Rahman argued that proportionate to population he has been giving more to Christian charities. I did not see anything in the judgement which attempted to weigh up whether this was true. Obviously at elections there are often proposed changes in policy which financially benefit one group rather than another – if this is “bribery”, how do the Tories and Labour get away with all their general election promises?

3. Branding John Biggs as a racist

This may be so but I didn’t notice any sign of this in the election literature. In any case, it is not illegal to accuse politicians of racism. Isn’t a slander/libel action a better way of dealing with such a complaint?

4. Other electoral malpractice

There was certainly some evidence of this – some councillors entered false addresses, a few people voted more than once, and there was evidence that postal votes were tampered with, according to a handwriting expert. But I have not found any evidence that Rahman participated in this or encouraged it.

I think the most likely explanation is that such activities were carried out by misin-formed and over-enthusiastic members of Tower Hamlets First. Apparently this guilt by association is sufficient in an Election Court to condemn Rahman. This seems to me the one point on which there may have been genuine electoral corruption, but the newspaper reports don’t reveal any evidence of a connection with Rahman.

A heavy handed response

In short, I am not at all happy with some of Rahman’s and Tower Hamlets First’s electoral behaviour, or with the behaviour of both Labour and Tower Hamlets First in not encouraging genuine cooperation at council meetings. But it seems very unfortunate that rather than trying to take measures to counter these particular activities, for example through a Commission of Enquiry, Pickles and the Tories decide to kill them off their whole political movement.

Rahman was clearly elected and re-elected, and there is no reason to think that these infringements made a significant difference. It is also clear that Rahman’s votes came from well beyond the Bangladeshi population. In fact he mobilised a lot of young people, many of whom had no idea of the limits which ought to be put on electoral behaviour.

This was shown at its worst in the crowds who came to two or three polling stations and were later accused of “intimidation”. A much better long-term solution would have been to encourage that unusual participation of young people, but to explain to them what behaviours are accepted or not under British electoral law.

No doubt it didn’t help Rahman’s position that he is a left-wing socialist and an admirer of Ken Livingstone. Livingstone himself said in the Guardian that he was “distinctly uncomfortable” at a court’s ability to remove an elected mayor. “If there is any illegality surely that’s a matter for the police. I’m uneasy that a mayor who has taken on the political powers in a borough can be removed by someone who is essentially a bureaucrat,” he said.

Pickles’ solution has been to smash Rahman and his administration. No matter that it is an effective administration. No matter that for once a lot of young people have been enthusiastically involved in a political struggle here in Britain, rather than – as some of their peers certainly have – dreaming of fighting for their beliefs in the Middle East.

We need to ask, how can such over-enthusiastic mobilisation be regarded in itself as “corruption” – unless you think it is wrong for an ethnic minority to become independently politically active? Are there not some resonances here in the suspending of elected government and banning of political parties of the tactics used to sustain white supremacy in other historical situations (e.g. South Africa)?

Conversely, we might note that there was never such a savage reaction to the corruption which was well-known to be endemic in boroughs like Hackney (a more straightforward kind of financial corruption of which Tower Hamlets is not being accused) or of Westminster’s gerrymandering, the “homes for votes” scandal, which was so much more extreme an instance of electoral corruption.

Why was the Westminster Conservative Party not similarly banned from standing again? How was Dame Shirley Porter allowed to evade all but £12 million of the £27 million penalty which the High Court adjudged that she owed as leader of this corrupt policy, by claiming that she had only £330,000 assets! She remains a DBE and a very substantial donor to Israeli causes.

The House of Commons still includes many MPS who have been found guilty of fraudulent claims for expenses, but allowed to continue their careers.

Most recently, it has been announced that the Liberal Democrats see no reason to inquire into the case of Alistair Carmichael, who has admitted to a particularly clear instance of electoral corruption in terms of his attack on Nicola Sturgeon, which he now says he knew was false, and that he lied about it during the election.

On 11 June the mayoral election was re-run, without Rahman and without a successor Tower Hamlets First candidate. I tried to understand the policies promised by all the candidates, and was particularly impressed by the breadth and detailed coherence of Rabina Khan’s manifesto.

But with all the press on his side and the only well-organised party in the borough backing him, John Biggs was elected. Surprisingly, given that he is an old Labour hand, he claimed his “experience and integrity” would be a way of getting out of “this difficult past”.

Andy Erlam, one of the leading complainants in the electoral court case, claimed on television that his aim “to restore democracy to Tower Hamlets… has been achieved”.

We shall see. Maybe Biggs will prove a peacemaker and “serve everyone in our community” as he promises. But one is driven to feel that there are substantial differences in the standards expected between Bangadeshi politicians and those of the general white British political culture.

About the author

Paul Thompson is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Essex.

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