The Rotten Borough Lutfur Rahman Built

A court has confirmed what many Londoners knew: the deposed mayor’s reign in Tower Hamlets was divisive, dishonest and corrupt

Features UK Politics
Lutfur Rahman: He promised a progressive, unifying politics but delivered the opposite (photo: LNP/Rex Shutterstock)

Mr Richard Mawrey QC, the election commissioner who kicked Britain’s first directly-elected Asian mayor out of office for winning his re-election by cheating, predicted he would be denounced as a racist and Islamophobe.

That is perhaps the only aspect of his judgment that we can be certain Lutfur Rahman, now ex-mayor of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, will not be appealing.

Soon after the judgment, some 2,000 of Rahman’s Bangladeshi supporters and their godless allies on the Left renewed their anti-racist vows with righteous fervour at the Waterlily conference centre in Whitechapel which promotes itself as an “ideal” venue for “Islamic (segregated) wedding parties”.

The court found Rahman personally guilty of making false statements about his main opponent in the 2014 mayoral election, Labour’s John Biggs; bribery; undue spiritual influence; and also guilty through his agents of personation (votes cast by someone other than the registered voter); postal voting fraud; illegal voting after falsely registering as an elector; and illegally paying canvassers. The judge said Rahman had proved himself to be “almost pathologically incapable of giving a straight answer” and was “caught out in what were quite blatant lies”.

The judge also found that Rahman’s “hatchet man” — his bull-necked pitbull election agent Councillor Alibor Choudhury — was “personally guilty of corrupt and illegal practices”. Both men have now been banned from office and a new election for mayor will be held this month.

Addressing Rahman’s supporters at the Waterlily, his mentor Ken Livingstone dismissed the judgment as “a political rant by a judge” who had failed to make “any serious assessment” of the allegations brought by four petitioners. Really? Some 85 witnesses, including Rahman and Choudhury, were questioned over seven weeks in the longest election trial since 1945.

Salivating with self-satisfaction at his own oratory, George Galloway said a “vicious Islamophobic racist coup” had been mounted against the mayor. The now ex-MP for Bradford West thinks Rahman’s fate is to do with appeasing the “the ravenous dogs of UKIP and the Tory Right”.

Full-on blasts from a familiar bunch of highly-politicised characters with minds as narrow as the Socialist Workers’ Party followed. “We are going to take that judgment and shove it straight back down your throat,” said Glyn Robbins, the failed socialist parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow.

“In Tower Hamlets we ethnic minorities are in fact the majority and Islam is the main religion, so black people and Muslims should be running this borough,” said Aaron Kiely, Black Student Officer for the National Union of Students. In other words, anyone who doesn’t see the promotion of an ethnic group as their primary goal is by definition a racist. The BNP and English Defence League would, of course, agree. “This is a fight against Islamophobia and racism,” said Kiely, which “every single progressive . . . should support.” A regressive vista of bearded male faces, vastly outnumbering a tiny, separate enclave of women, stretched out before him.

To Unite’s Chief of Staff, Andrew Murray, the judgment was a “work of unabashed megalomania by a preening puppet of the ruling elite”. Then, his voice rising to an hysterical crescendo: “Yes! You [the judge] ARE an Islamophobe! Yes! You ARE a racist!”

I, like others, had assisted the four Tower Hamlets petitioners who took Rahman to the election court with information and leads, gleaned from having made a BBC Panorama programme called “The Mayor and His Money”. Four days later, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles sent in the consultancy firm PwC to investigate. Their report led Pickles to send in Commissioners to oversee the mayor and his administration. The final ignominy was the election court.

For two hours, under the banner “Defend Democracy In Tower Hamlets”, we were told that Rahman had been unseated by an “unelected Panorama”, an “unelected PwC”, then “unelected commissioners” and finally by an “unelected judge”, ignoring the fact that the task of resolving election disputes had been given to judges by parliament. Why? Because politicians can’t be trusted to resolve them impartially.

Judging by the applause for all 30 speakers, few if any of the audience seemed open to evidence, or had come to their belief through reasoned argument. So hysterical and zealous has the hard Left’s anti-racist crusade become that Muslims have been brainwashed into seeing the world through the prism of Islamophobia, unable to distinguish between imagined prejudice and the real thing. Islamophobia has become the new racism, and precisely because real racism is wicked and stupid, no one likes to have this label hung around their necks. That is why the relentless cry of “Islamophobia” has so successfully stifled debate about one of the most important public policy issues facing Britain: how to nudge ethnic minorities into the mainstream of British life, and especially those most resistant to this. By most indicators, these are British citizens of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage. Around 80,000 of the latter live in Tower Hamlets, the biggest Bangladeshi community in Britain.

As I left the rally, I had a taste of this zealotry. “Are you John Ware?” asked an angry man in his late thirties. “You need to seek your morals. We find you in places where you want to dig up dirt and manipulate the truth.” As I tried in vain to get a word in edgeways, a crowd gathered. “Are you in UKIP?” a young man demanded. “I’ve been hearing you are.” Then another: “I fink you’re a bit bias and a bit racist, that’s my personal opinion.” Fingers were being jabbed, minds whipped into righteous fury, blind and deaf to the evidence that had unfolded before the election court. It was time to go.

When he became mayor, Rahman’s vision for Tower Hamlets, the most ethnically diverse borough in Britain, sounded laudable. He said his priority was to create harmony across the borough’s diverse ethnicities and faiths through a community plan which he called “One Tower Hamlets”.

Many gave him the benefit of the doubt, ignoring evidence disclosed in a 2010 Channel 4 Dispatches programme by the Daily Telegraph reporter Andrew Gilligan of Rahman being partly beholden to the Islamic Forum for Europe. The IFE is the power behind the East London Mosque, fêted by princes, politicians and policemen who have “ooohed” and “aaahed” at its welcoming embrace.

Both Rahman and his election agent Choudhury described the IFE as “progressive”. It is, in fact, socially regressive, its members having been recorded as favouring theocracy over democracy. Muslims who have abandoned extremism say the IFE is actually an entryist organisation which seeks to counter moderate and secular voices in Islam.

Nonetheless, bien pensants on the Guardian and on the BBC’s “Thought for the Day”, such as the Rev Giles Fraser, saw Rahman as a worthy successor to the East End’s legacy of facing down racism, going back to Sir Oswald Mosley and his Jew-baiting blackshirts.

In truth, Rahman is neither an Islamist nor an extremist. Two residents of Tower Hamlets stand out for exposing him for what he actually is — a shallow opportunist who learned a trick or two from Labour, the party that abandoned him, about how to cosy up to the wrong sort of people to get votes.

The journalist Ted Jeory subjected Rahman and his acolytes to relentless scrutiny on his aptly named blog “Trial by Jeory”. Witty, brave, but always fair, Jeory’s blog has become the model for citizen journalism. Likewise, little escaped the gimlet eye of Peter Golds, leader of the small Conservative group on the council. To Golds, those responsible for ensuring Rahman played by the rules seemed blind to rampant abuse of power and corruption. Council officers, the local police, the Electoral Commission and Ofcom — all were in regular receipt of long and forensic letters raising valid questions. For this Golds (who is Jewish) was likened by one of the mayor’s supporters to a Klu Klux Klan leader, taunted by one of the mayor’s financial backers for being gay and falsely accused by Rahman’s office of having a criminal record.

To me, as an outsider, Rahman cut a preposterously self-aggrandising figure in the manner of autocrats in certain parts of the world. Sitting haughtily aloof in the council chamber he rarely deigned to answer questions, the opposition having been advised by the council lawyer that forcing him to do so would breach his human rights. At public expense, he plastered his face all over the borough, even on dust carts, unlike other mayors who simply promoted the office, not the person. Yet devotion to a single autocratic figure — rather than a political party — seemed to suit his fellow defectors from Labour, an all-Bangladeshi band of brothers, who had swung between up to four parties, including the Conservatives and Socialist Workers.

Rahman was unlike any other directly-elected mayor. None employed so many advisers; none had such a cosy relationship with the local media, in his case local Bangladeshi TV stations and newspapers which seemed infatuated with him; none had reserved to themselves all of the decision-making powers which it was legally possible for an executive mayor to reserve. Rahman exercised more power than any other elected executive mayor in Britain.

I suggested to the BBC that we take a closer look. He was standing for election in May 2014 but Rahman had little appeal beyond his core Bangladeshi vote which made up only 35 per cent of the electorate. Sources told me that for all his talk of “One Tower Hamlets” he seemed to be pursuing a core vote strategy by treating Bangladeshis as if they were the most important community, in the hope of maximising their turnout.

Rahman had given taxpayers’ money to faith organisations because, he claimed, “faith and religion continue to play a prominent role in the lives of the majority of our residents”. He said that the 2011 census showed that “80 per cent of local people have a religious belief”. It showed nothing of the sort. Moreover, the sections of the population for whom religion played a “prominent role” were overwhelmingly Bangladeshis and Somalis. So while the mayor did give money to some churches, two synagogues, and Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu temples, the lion’s share went to mosques.

He also dished out grants to the Bengali media, who repaid this largesse with fawning interviews in the run-up to the election. “Lutfur brother before we go on a break we want to know what you will say to the viewers regarding housing?” asked one interviewer (later jailed for fraud) on the largest Bengali station, Channel S. The mayor obliged, uninterrupted for several minutes. Channels S’s chief reporter was also paid £50,000 a year to advise Rahman on “community media” — meaning the Bangladeshi media. He didn’t have a media adviser dealing with any other community.

Despite claiming a commitment to the “highest standards of probity and transparency”, Rahman had taken the process by which he awarded grants to the borough’s thriving third sector behind closed doors. Our spreadsheet analysis of grants totalling £9 million and involving many hundreds of calculations showed the mayor had doubled the share to Bangladeshi and Somali organisations recommended by council officials.

Grants were supposed to be awarded on the basis of need. Yet officials had already factored need into their recommendations. Moreover, in the confidential audit trail, we could find no rationale for this enormous change beyond just two words: “local knowledge”. Our findings have since been confirmed by PwC and adjudged as bribery by the election court. So when I told the mayor I wanted to interview him, I was surprised that he agreed, not least because he so rarely presented himself for cross-examination. As he greeted me he smiled broadly.

What’s he got to smile about, I thought? He knew I was going to ask him whether he’d been buying votes. Looking back, I should have guessed something was up.

What I didn’t know then was that he thought he had a trump card: a young Bangladeshi researcher we had hired at the start of our research had defected to his office. Concerned over her reliability, we had asked her to leave. She had run to the mayor, saying we were “Islamophobic bullies”.

Armed with her fantastical claims and at a cost to the public purse of £127,000, the council had hired a City law firm and a PR agency which Rahman hoped would persuade the BBC we were indeed racists, so they would pull the programme.

Four days later, on a Friday night, Rahman made his pre-emptive strike. Into the weekend email inboxes of the BBC’s editorial high command came letters from the City law firm, the council’s legal department and from the mayor himself. These letters accused me and my colleagues of racism and Islamophobia. They called on the BBC to withdraw the programme.

Rightly, the BBC takes such accusations extremely seriously. The BBC’s own legal department was tasked with combing through our files of emails and source notes to see if there was any basis to the claim. They satisfied themselves that there was none. When the mayor realised the BBC was not going to cave in, he and his office resorted to dirty tricks. Before even a frame of Panorama had been transmitted, he fired off a salvo of statements, threatened a Twitter storm against us, and launched a glossy — and defamatory — counter-documentary about us on the internet which his team had obviously been preparing for weeks.

Beside “One Tower Hamlets”, Rahman’s other Gandhi-like watchword for the borough was “No Place For Hate”. That, too, was put on hold. A series of hate-filled tweets screamed hysterically from his closest supporters that the BBC licence fee had been “used to preach hate”, to “demonise Muslims” and to “peddle racism and Islamophobia”.

Rahman also issued a statement falsely claiming the BBC was under “criminal investigation” for a “racist and Islamophobic programme” — before he’d actually seen it. He had the chutzpah to protest that the programme would “reduce the chances of a free, fair and credible election” — while he and his agent were themselves engaged in cheating.

The election court found that a plot to portray his Labour opponent John Biggs as an out-and-out racist was already under way — even though Biggs had been a long-standing campaigner against the far Right.

To generate the idea that Biggs was a racist, Choudhury used a forthcoming EDL march through Tower Hamlets which the EDL had planned on the same day as Labour happened to be holding their annual summer barbecue. From the mayor’s office came a statement accusing Labour of preferring to “let their hair down over nibbles” instead of joining a “diverse community coalition” to show the EDL that “Tower Hamlets is no place for hate”. In other words, Biggs and Labour were portrayed as being half-hearted about racism, allowing Rahman to adopt a “more anti-racist than thou” posture.

What was so cynical about this ploy was that it was well known that Labour’s barbecue been arranged long before the EDL march, which Biggs had urged the Home Secretary to ban. The mayor was also the lead signatory to a Guardian letter demanding a ban. According to the judge, the mayor organised the letter but “took good care . . . to ensure that Mr Biggs was neither informed of the letter nor asked to be a signatory”.

Biggs had also told the BBC that the mayor was pursuing a core Bangladeshi vote strategy. While Bangladeshis were a “very important community in Tower Hamlets” they were not “the only community”. Biggs’s vision was for a “more outward-looking borough where different communities work together, live together and maximise our opportunities”.

He had a valid non-racist point. With little affinity to anyone outside the Bengali community, the mayor’s all-Bangladeshi group was unlikely to inspire fellow Bangladeshis to move away from self-segregation towards more social mixing with the mainstream. Some 44,000 Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets still use Bengali as their main language, an insularity reinforced by Bengali TV stations. Lack of fluency in English reduces job prospects and social mobility, and reinforces deprivation.

Nonetheless, Rahman and Choudhury claimed there was “outrage” over Biggs’s comments — even though no evidence of outrage had surfaced either in social media or even in the Bengali media. Rather, this “outrage” was timed for the start of the mayor’s re-election campaign.

Five months after Biggs’s comments, out of the blue came an announcement from Choudhury that he had reported Biggs to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, claiming his comments were “untrue and inflammatory and are doing lasting damage to community cohesion in the East End”. Next, Choudhury likened Biggs to Sir Oswald Mosley. Small wonder younger voters were coming up to Biggs and saying, “You’re a racist. Why should I vote for you?” Associating Biggs with the National Front, the BNP and the EDL, one of the Mayor’s key councillors tweeted: “Different face, same message . . . NF, ‘you fucking Paki’, BNP, ‘you Paki’, EDL, ‘you f’ing Muslim’, now John Biggs, ‘You Abdul’.” In a kind of reverse racism, the editor of the London Bangla ran a headline: “Labour’s Hate Campaign . . . Labour leaders still think they rule an Empire in which the Asian thinks like the white man wants.”

Choudhury told the judge that Biggs had started “this race war”. The judge found that Rahman and Choudhury had broken election law by falsely stating that Biggs was a racist when neither had a reasonable belief that he was.

Besides the race card, the mayor also played the faith card in what the judge described as a “double act” with Tower Hamlet’s most influential imam — Mauluna Shamsul Hoque, chairman of the Council of Mosques, which represents the borough’s 45 mosques. At a rally with Rahman at his side as the “chief guest” Hoque urged his religiously observant Bangladeshi audience to vote for him “in order to retain truth, righteousness and practice belief”. Truth? In the witness box Rahman denied Hoque had said any such thing, or that it was an election rally. Hoque, also on oath, said likewise. Unfortunately for both Hoque and Rahman, the court had a near-contemporaneous Facebook account of the rally from the organiser — himself a supporter of Rahman.

A week later, Rahman and Hoque attended a Bangladeshi wedding. Again Rahman was guest of honour and again both he and Hoque on oath denied that Hoque had urged the guests to vote for him. Again, unfortunately for Hoque and Rahman, there was a record of what both men had said — this time a video (as is the custom at weddings) which recorded Hoque as having said: “We have decided to nominate our mayor again . . . we will elect the mayor again and celebrate his victory . . . We have to forget ‘win or lose’; this election is to sustain our own existence and asking you to prayer.”

On the last Friday before the election — presumably, said the judge, intended for discussion at Friday prayers — a letter signed by Hoque and no fewer than 100 imams was published in a Bengali weekly paper, the Desh, with a readership of 20,000. It condemned the mayor’s opponents for “spreading jealousy and hatred in the community. We consider these acts as abominable and at the same time condemnable.”

The letter continued: “. . . for the sake of truth, justice, dignity and development, we express our unlimited support for Mayor Lutfur Rahman and strongly call upon you, the residents, to shun all propaganda and slanders and unite against the aforesaid and injustice.” Labour and Panorama were singled out.Since the letter was published only in Bengali, it was clearly directed at Bengali-speaking Muslims.

On oath, Rahman insisted he had never read the letter, a claim the judge said “beggars belief” given that he had enlisted the support of the borough’s most influential imam to tell his fellow Muslims it was their religious duty to vote for him.

While a priest or an imam has every right to implore his congregation to vote for X or Y, what election law does not allow is to “appeal to the fears, or terrors, or superstition of those he addresses”. The judge found that this was what Rahman and Hoque had done. As he himself acknowledged, this will likely be controversial verdict for it depended on finding that their Bangladeshi audience would have accepted the word of their religious leaders as authoritative because they were traditionalist, conservative, strongly religious and not fully integrated. In court both English- and Bengali-speaking witnesses gave evidence that on election day voters ran the gauntlet of Rahman’s supporters, shouting that it was the religious duty of faithful Muslims to vote for him.

As Britain transitions into an increasingly multi-faith and multi-ethnic society, so faith is intruding ever more into politics and public life. How do we guard against the divisive misery that religion has brought to other parts of the world when it gets mixed up with ideology? Parliament saw the danger as recently as 1983 when it decided we still needed a law to prevent the misuse of religion for political purposes. Yet the outcry from Rahman’s many Bangladeshi supporters and no doubt many other Muslims shows that this law is double-edged. Should we keep it? It is a question that Mr Commissioner Mawrey has invited us to ponder.

His judgment speaks volumes about the urgent need for a much more open conversation about how this country accommodates the rapidly growing variations in ethnicity, faith, values, outcomes and performance — the entire multicultural and multi-faith gamut — to avoid sleepwalking into some kind of Balkanised disaster. This conversation can’t happen unless we feel free to talk about these things in the same way we talk about, say, social class — free from the emotion whipped up by real racists and by those who use anti-racism to define the limits of what is acceptable even to debate.