I’m not quite sure where to start with my thoughts on last Wednesday’s Tower Hamlets council meeting. In the years I’ve covered the goings-on at Mulberry Place, I’ve seen some pretty tawdry and comical moments, but Wednesday’s affair suggested the amateurs had well and truly taken over the asylum. Judging by the horrified expressions on the faces of the council’s senior management team, they thought so, too.
Firstly, allow me to get the important admin details out of the way. I arrived at about 8.20pm – an hour after the meeting had started – and was greeted at the town hall doors by someone who looked like a cop, talked like a cop, but who is paid far more than a cop. He was a Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officer, or better known to many as a THEO. I first wrote about them in the Sunday Express last year, here. Unbelievably, they’re paid £35,000 a year. “Are you here for a reason, sir?” he asked me. Yes, I said, I was there for the council meeting. I told him I was a resident and a member of the press. “Well, I don’t think we can let you in, sir. It’s full.” I smiled and walked past him while he sought advice from a proper policeman. I was let in.
I then had to deal with Amateur Number Two. For some disturbing reason, the council has got rid of the press desk (ie a table) that used to be placed right at the front of the public gallery. There is no legal requirement for the council to give the press a desk, but it is considered best practice. It allows journalists to remain apart and neutral from any barracking in the public gallery; it identifies journalists to the public and to other journalists; and it allows us to see and hear the proceedings so that we can report the meeting to the wider world. All this seems to be lost on the council’s £100,000-a-year head of communications Takki Sulaiman. For the moment, I’ll be generous and assume it’s because he can’t grasp that concept, rather than suggest he is deliberately trying to hinder the work of the press in the interests of the new regime (because, shurely, he wouldn’t do that would he… .)
So when Takki told me there was “plenty of space” for me to sit at the back of the gallery, I smiled and then ignored him. Another far more helpful council officer understood my point and found a seat for me in the second row.
Which is where I had the lovely privilege of witnessing Amateurs Numbers Two and Three. Directly behind me was millionaire housing association tenant and main Lutfur Rahman supporter Shiraj Haque, who, because council chairman Cllr Motin uz Zaman was too weak or terrified to control, spent the entire evening: a) eating crisps; b) playing with and talking into his mobile phone; c) insulting me, Andrew Gilligan and everyone bar Lutfur and his supporters; and d) displaying the kind of political naivety that I’m sure made even Lutfur cringe.
Here are just a few of the things Shiraj bawled out:
“One Mayor, one borough, he will do anything he likes”; “Peter [Golds], get out of the borough, you can rent one of my flats”; “Peter, are you going on a honeymoon with Jim Fitzpatrick?”; and heckling during a discussion on investment strategies, “I can give you a better rate of interest if you invest in me”.
At no stage was he told to shut up. Respect chair Carole Swords may have an opinion on this: she’s currently banned from the public gallery for one heckle too many.
In contrast, Lutfur himself, sitting on the dais next to chief executive Kevan Collins, maintained a semblance of dignity – even as his young four-strong cabinet displayed a mixture of embarrassing inexperience and bungling incompetence. Lutfur needs to have a word with his kindergarten crew and tell them to dodge Labour’s poison bullets, stop the childish name-calling and forget the threatening finger-wagging: they’re meant to be in charge now and they need to earn respect.
But what of the politics, you ask….
1. Lutfur began his opening speech by addressing the large number of his supporters in the public gallery with: “It’s a pleasure to see so many members of my community here.” That raised the eyebrows of more than one councillor.
2. As my fellow blogger TowerHamletsWatch highlights in an accurate post here, Lutfurite cabinet member Oli Rahman revealed he knew other councillors had been submitting supposedly confidential members’ enquiries (ME) on a particular issue. Stupidly, Oli said MEs are not confidential and now his remarks are to be fully investigated. Again, inexperience and incompetence.
3. Labour councillor Carlo Gibbs and Mayor Lutfur engaged in a momentary but intriguing love-in. Both praised and smiled at each other during a Q&A session. Even Shiraj gave Carlo the Emperor’s thumbs-up. Carlo
used to work for Jim Fitz and is very much and up-and-coming politician. It might be that he is playing half of the good cop/bad cop routine and wooing Lutfur in, but I doubt it. I think he’s being more sincere. On Lutfur’s election night, Carlo was overheard saying that Labour should work with the new mayor, but he was then shouted down. This is a relationship to watch, I reckon.
4. Abbas does not seem to be suited to the role of Opposition leader. He’s just too quiet and not forceful enough in the council chamber. Labour need to address this problem.
5. A Lutfurite motion calling on all councillors to work with the mayor was soundly defeated. To me, this was a fairly pointless motion, but I’ve no doubt it will be reported widely in the pro-Lutfur sections of the absent Bengali media as a major snub.
6. A brilliantly insightful and important question on council investment strategy by Labour’s David Edgar, who is a highly respected accountant, to Deputy Mayor Ohid Ahmed, who is not, comprehensively exposed the latter’s lack of grasp on finance and his inability to think on his feet.
7. A motion proposed by Labour’s Josh Peck on the over-exploitation of Victoria Park for summertime music events was passed unanimously. (There were 10 gigs there this year, blocking off almost half the park for entire weekends and causing mayhem for locals who were subjected to revellers vomiting and urinating on their properties.) However, the following comments by Lutfur’s cabinet member for culture, Rania Khan, were later described by one Labour councillor as “dog whistle” remarks: “We need to maximise income [and]…I would urge councillors to think about the whole community not just those who are lucky enough to live around the park.” The demographics of the park perimeters are mostly white and Afro-Caribbean.
8. A motion on Bancroft History Library and Archives provided the most dramatic moments of the night. I’ll save my observations on that for another post, except to say here that it exposed deep rancour between former council leader Denise Jones and her party colleague (just) Marc Francis. He spoke against her with such passion that his voice at one stage faltered and then broke the party whip by voting against a call for Deputy Mayor Ohid to apologise for defaming her and questioning her integrity. Marc lost that vote, but helped secure a council investigation into the Bancroft/Rich Mix affair. As I said, more another time…