The politics of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has been a cesspit for some time. The latest development is a judgment in the High Court of Justice that the Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, and his agent, Alibor Choudhury, were guilty of corrupt and illegal acts during the 2014 election; the election is therefore void and Tower Hamlets no longer has a mayor.
Twenty years ago, the borough was a mess, with school standards very low, and the Ocean Estate claimed to be one of the worst sink estates in Britain. (Though I do have to say that, living there for sixteen years, I never met a drug dealer, the worst thing was noisy and cheeky schoolboys in the park. Once we had an attempted burglary, but the burglar was so incompetent that he couldn’t open the window and went off empty-handed.) The borough elected the first BNP candidate anywhere in the country.
Things have been better recently. The council has been under the control of Lutfur Rahman since 2010, and in that time schools have got much better and crime has been significantly reduced. Lutfur had a little temper tantrum when, despite being an official Olympic Borough in 2012, not a single event of the Games was held in Tower Hamlets; but that was soon forgotten. He also made Tower Hamlets a laughing-stock when he put in an application for the borough to be made a city (which, of course, failed). But other improvements, not within the Borough’s control, are on the way, such as a Crossrail interchange station at Whitechapel and a segregated cycleway on the Mile End Road.
Lutfur Rahman was elected a Labour councillor in 2002, and became leader of the Labour group (and hence council leader) in 2008. But a row erupted in the Labour ranks. Lutfur pushed for the borough to have a directly elected Mayor, a possiblity brought in by new legislation. There was a referendum at the same time as the 2010 council election, at which the proposition was approved. At the following mayoral election, Lutfur stood as an independent, since the Labour party failed to select him as their official candidate; he won easily, and became the first member of the Bangladeshi community to be elected Mayor of anywhere.
A number of other councillors declared themselves to be independents, and Lutfur was able to set up a new party – Tower Hamlets First – and run the borough for four years.
At a certain point, the Government were sufficiently worried about aspects of the financial management that they sent in Price Waterhouse Coopers to look at the books. PwC concluded that there had been malpractice, especially in the distribution of grants to charities: some charities which had not applied, and some which had been ruled ineligible by council officers, were given money; and in general, recommendations of council officers were ignored and the Mayor made up his own mind. It was further said that the money had gone disproportionately to the Bangladeshi community, who make up about 35% of the population of the borough, rather than to areas of greatest need. The Government sent in a team to run the borough’s finances. Fairly clear evidence that something was amiss.
But after the 2014 election there was so much disquiet that four members of the public took a petition to the High Court that the result should be void. This was a very brave act. They could not afford proper legal representation, so a single lawyer argued their case; the defendants had a QC and team of solicitors. Had the petitioners lost, they would have been liable for costs running to hundreds of thousands of pounds, and would have been bankrupted. But in fact they won. After hearing the evidence and a lot of argument, the judge concluded that Lutfur Rahman and his agents had been guilty of corrupt and illegal electoral practices, including bribery, personation, vote fraud, undue spiritual influence (101 imams in the borough signed a letter suggesting that it was the duty of good Muslims to vote for Lutfur Rahman), and making false statements about his rival (specifically, accusing him of being a racist).
The judgment brought the sort of complaints you would expect, but all of them had been foreseen and rebutted by the judge. No less a figure than Ken Livingstone (who might be regarded as a role model for Lutfur Rahman) was quoted by the BBC as saying that it is very worrying when a democratically elected politician can be removed from office by an unelected bureaucrat. Early in his report, the judge gives two counter-arguments:
- first, the power to make such decisions was given to the judiciary by act of Parliament, despite the fact that the judges didn’t want this power and had at first fought against it;
- and second, someone who is guilty of corrupt and illegal electoral practices cannot be said to have been democratically elected.
There are also, inevitably, cries of “racism”. (It is reported that there will be a National Front demonstration in Tower Hamlets the day after the national election.) But Lutfur Rahman has brought this on himself, for his only answer to any criticism seems to be that his critics are racists and Islamophobes.
The judge’s decision is available here. It is 200 pages long, and I never imagined that I would read 200 pages of legalese; but it is a gripping story, and very well written (though apparently in a hurry, since it is full of misprints). As well, it is full of fascinating information about the history of British elections and the political history of Tower Hamlets, among other things.
Alas, Tower Hamlets. The East End of London over the centuries has had a proud record of inclusiveness to immigrants, including Flemish, Irish and Jewish; people have stood together against fascism. This spirit has now been poisoned by Lutfur Rahman and his associates. Their attitude has made their community more inward-looking and fearful. Whoever takes over as Mayor (the election will probably be in June) will have an enormous job putting things right.