Archive for May, 2010

Terror plot against Jim Fitz

Below is an article I’ve written for today’s Sunday Express. I’ve copied it in full. For legal reasons, I’m not allowing comments on this one.

A LONE “self-radicalised” Muslim scoured the voting records of four former Labour ministers as part of a plot to kill one of them, the Sunday Express has learned.

The Al Qaeda-inspired extremist examined the backgrounds of Stephen Timms, Jim Fitzpatrick, Margaret Hodge and Nick Raynsford before setting out on a planned attack.

A police examination of computer records showed the individual had also looked up the times when each MP, all of them based in east and south-east London, held their constituency surgeries.Computer records revealed that the individual used the website TheyWorkForYou.com to analyse how the MPs had voted on issues such as the Iraq war, the introduction of ID cards and anti-terror laws.

Police have offered all four MPs extra security as a result of the plot. The individual is in police custody.

The Sunday Express is unable to give more details for legal reasons.All four MPs represent constituencies with large Muslim populations and have close ties with the Islamic community. At least two of them, however, have been at the centre of controversies that have seen them targeted for verbal attacks.

Last year, Poplar MP Mr Fitzpatrick stormed out of a Muslim wedding because men and women had to sit separately. During the election campaign, his car was attacked.

In Barking, former culture minister Mrs Hodge was accused of inflaming racial tensions after she said mainstream parties were not “listening” to white working-class voters.

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Deciphering Abdal…

It takes time, but after a while you learn never to take things at face value when it comes to Tower Hamlets politics. Charming smiles are aplenty, straight talking a rarity. Despite having both those qualities in abundance and despite catching him out a couple of years back defaming me in a party email, I’ve always had a soft spot for Labour councillor Abdal Ullah.

He was first elected in 2006 after a six-year spell as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, a period which covered the July 7 bombings in 2005. Ever since his election he has served in the council’s cabinet taking responsibility for “community safety” issues. In short, he is the council’s main liaison with the Met and is what we journalists describe as “close to the police”.

Yes, he likes his own voice, but he’s rare in Tower Hamlets for being someone worth listening to in the council chamber. He has other claims to fame: in the Nineties, he attended Tower Hamlets College with Ed Husain, the famed author of The Islamist and co-director of the counter-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation. As Ed set out on his path to Hizb ut-Tahrir, entrepreneurial Abdal organised student parties.

With his party days over and with power and influence his new goal (and, of course, a deep desire to drive change in the community), he created networks among the East London Mosque hierarchy. Some in his own party said he was close to the Islamic Forum of Europe, but if he was (or is) I tend to think it was for political and not ideological reasons. Abdal is a survivor who swims with the tide, often ahead of it.

What’s certain is that for the last couple of years, at least, he has been a close ally of former leader, Lutfur Rahman. So imagine my surprise when I asked him at Wednesday’s full council meeting for his views on the forthcoming mayoral contest, he said: “I think John Biggs would be a very good for the borough.” When I then asked whether he’d support council leader Helal Abbas’s bid, he said: “I think John Biggs would be very good for the borough.” And what about Lutfur? “Others will make their own choice on that.”

On the face of it, that’s Lutfur out, Biggsy in. But there’s just tiny part of me which thinks there’s more to it than that. Abdal, me old mate, I know you’re reading this: care to comment?

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Bigging up Biggs

The annual full council meeting at the Palace of Tower of Tower Hamlets is always a fun affair; what with the new hats, the colourful clothes and the tax-funded feast laid on for the new mayor and his guests and family, it’s like a lavish version of Her Maj’s summer garden parties ‘up west’. Tomorrow night’s will have added spice.

As the last under the current system, it will be interesting to see how the main hopefuls for October’s directly elected Mayor contest cosy up to each other. Although the referendum in favour of this change was essentially a victory for Respect, whoever becomes the Labour candidate must be favourite. Until a few days ago, many thought the London region of the party would control selection over fears of gerrymandered votes among members of the Tower Hamlets branch, which remains in “special measures”.

However, I understand that London Labour is following the guiding principles of the new Lib-Con coalition and devolving power to locals. Surprisingly democratically, it will be the membership of the Tower Hamlets party which will decide…but with one caveat. Party bosses have ordered that only those who were members of the party before May 6 will be eligible to vote.

This is significant. A senior Labour figure tells me that nationwide some 14,000 people have joined the party since the general election, with “several hundred” new names appearing on the Tower Hamlets list. The source tells me that the extra numbers could simply be a reflection of the national trend, but they’re not taking any chances. As I first wrote in the East London Advertiser here, then last year in the second half of this Sunday Express piece here, the upper echelons of the Labour hierarchy have long been worried about the alleged influence of the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) – fears deepened by Andrew Gilligan’s Channel 4 Dispatches documentary in March.

So who will be the contenders? Council leader Helal Abbas, for sure; also certain to stand is the man he’s just deposed as leader and whom Abbas’s friends say is close to IFE, Lutfur Rahman (Lutfur denies being under the influence of anyone). The third man is likely to be London Assembly member John Biggs, who, despite his bulldog demeanour and no-nonsense reputation, is seen as the sensible/unity candidate. He’s also the Labour establishment’s favoured choice. The last time these men went head-to-head was three years ago during the race to become the parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow. Back then, Lutfur scored more highly than they did, but less well than the winner, Rushanara Ali.

However, as bankers are fond of telling us, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future results, and so it is in this race, in which members from Poplar and Limehouse also vote. Pint-sized Biggs, who has been an irritating, but thoughtful, thorn in the side of both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, will draw significant support from those wards; and it’s likely he’ll also attract large numbers of “second preference” votes (Labour uses the single transferrable vote method) from followers of his friend, Lutfur, as well as from Abbas.

If he turns up tomorrow night, you can be sure it’s game on.

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Smearing the new MP


I first met Rushanara Ali, Labour’s new MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, three years ago when she was campaigning to become the party’s parliamentary candidate for the constituency. I was at the East London Advertiser at the time and we had printed her photo to illustrate the lead item on my column.

Days later, one of her rivals in that race, who is now an extremely senior figure at the council (I’ll let you guess), moaned that we had made her look “beautiful”. It was the first taste I had of the bitter jealousy felt towards her, just because she was a woman. 

In the time since, she has had to put up with all kinds of comments. Some relate to how the Gavron family supposedly helped her, first through Oxford University and more lately as a researcher at the influential Young Foundation. Others criticise her for accepting membership of the incredibly high-powered British-American Project, a group described by Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown as “modern-day freemasonry but without the silly rituals, dark secrets, and deep misogyny”

She’s also very close to both Miliband brothers and great things are expected of her. 

During the election campaign, she was also taken to task for keeping a low profile and ducking debates—a strategy devised by her former boss and predecessor, Oona King. I have some sympathy for her critics on this last point. If she’s going to be an effective MP for the area, then she has to be more willing to engage with the media; after all, she is extremely charming and gracious in company and comes across well.

However, I can also understand her reluctance to put her head too far above the parapet. For there can be no other MP who has to deal with the kind of vile personal abuse and smears that she does, again, just because she is a thoughtful and secular Muslim woman.

Comments posted here on a website operated by MPAC UK, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (it has to be stressed that they are users’ comments, not posts by the website itself), are grotesque.

No, she doesn’t wear a hijab: so what? And so what if she can’t speak fluent Sylheti—she left Bangladesh when she was seven! For the record, she doesn’t have any children. And whom she chooses to have a relationship with is her business, be they white, black or brown.

Here’s what her spokesman told me yesterday: “Ms Ali is aware of these untrue allegations. She has reported them to the relevant authorities [he declined to say which ones] and is awaiting their response. These types of remarks, while offensive, will not in any way detract from Ms Ali’s work as the new MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.”


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Moonlight over Ali

The scandal that is Lutfur Ali has yet to run its course. There’s an interesting piece on a fellow Tower Hamlets watcher’s blog here at Tower Hamlets Watch.

The writer makes reference to a letter I wrote to the East London Advertiser here in March, in which I asked whether Mr Ali continued to be paid during any “gardening leave” following his enforced resignation for moonlighting. I’ve been told by a senior council source that the answer to that is emphatically ‘no’. I’m told that chief executive Kevan Collins was seething about the issue and that it was made clear that Mr Ali should not drain taxpayers a single penny more.

Where Mr Ali is now, I don’t know, but judging from the contents of a response to a Freedom of Information request that’s been winged my way, he can afford to stay low for a while.

For the National College for Leadership of Schools has disclosed that while he was supposedly carrying out his supposedly strenuous full time £120,000-a-year job as council assistant chief executive, he also earned up to £144,000 for 13 months’ consultancy work at their outfit.

I say “up to” because the college has declined to be specific about his daily rate, merely that it was between £450 – £900 plus VAT. In addition, from June last year, he was entitled to claim £80 a day for “travel and subsistence”. As the college is based in faraway Nottingham, it’s doubtful he did actually travel there, but with superhuman “mind like a sieve” Mr Ali, anything is possible. I mean, the man is clearly an energetic genius of the highest order.

Consider the following. He was appointed to the council (dubiously) on September 1, 2008. Yet despite the heavy workload that must have greeted him upon arrival, he managed that month 13 days of consultancy work at the National College. They were all weekdays. The next month, he squeezed in 15, in November 12, in December 14, in January 2009 13, and so it went on until his contract ended in September that year when he had amassed 156 beautiful moonlit days. That works out at an average of half his working week every week.

Where on earth did he find all that time? Were his contributions to council meetings so dull, laughable and lacking that he was able to quietly slope off without anyone noticing? Well, according to Mr Collins that couldn’t have been the case. Upon Mr Ali’s “resignation”, Mr Collins said he would “would miss working” him, that his “significant contributions” had been “considerable” and that he “leaves a legacy of achievements”.

As Tory opposition leader Cllr Peter Golds says: “This is beginning to appear a complete scandal.” He has demanded Mr Collins give an explanation.

Don’t hold your breath.

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It’s been more than 18 months since I had the regular pleasure of looking in detail at the press section of Tower Hamlets Council’s website. It retains its comedy value, I’m happy to report.

A section I’d not seen before is here, Setting the record straight. The introductory blurb explains that it exists because “in spite of our best efforts, media reports are not always completely accurate”. It goes on to say that all information provided by the council is subject to a statutory code of conduct and that “this means we are bound by the highest standards of propriety and accuracy in providing information”.

The section was developed under the regime of former assistant chief executive Lutfur Rahman Ali. Remember him? I first wrote about him in the East London Advertiser here. This was a man who back in 2002 had to resign as a councillor just a few days after he was elected because he failed to realise he held a politically restricted job at the London Fire Authority. Doh! This was a man who conveniently forgot to mention that fact from his error-riddled CV when he applied for the £125,000 a year town hall post in 2008. And this was a man who was effectively sacked when, following Andrew Gilligan’s Dispatches documentary in March (declaration: I was involved with that), the council realised he had been moonlighting at another organisation. See Andrew’s report here.

Yes, this was a man with “propriety and accuracy” at his core.

So let’s look at some of the things that Mr Ali and his communications/press department “set straight” during his tenure.

Golly, what’s this on October 3, 2008? A demand to the Evening Standard that it apologise to Mr Ali for reporting the doubts over his CV and appointment. “We want to make it absolutely clear that Lutfur Ali is not facing any investigation concerning his recent appointment as Assistant Chief Executive,” the council wrote. If only they had, they may have saved us Tower Hamlets taxpayers (Lutfur Ali isn’t one, of course) the best part of £200,000.

The latest entry on March 2 this year (two weeks before Ali’s departure) was a rather hastily cobbled together statement about the Dispatches documentary. The statement said the programme “presented a picture of Tower Hamlets which many who live and work in the borough fail to recognise” and that “supposition and innuendo replaced the facts”. What’s striking about this statement is that no name is attached to it. As it’s not attributed to a councillor, it was likely written by Mr Ali or someone senior in his team, none of whom actually live in Tower Hamlets. Instead, they work in a marble decorated office on a private estate in the middle of Docklands and as far removed from the streets of Tower Hamlets as is possible. Perhaps if they spent more time away from their palace asking searching questions like the journalists they try to discredit, their dubious attempts at rebuttal might be more credible.

There’s another entry in the council’s comedy vault of “accuracy” here on September 17, 2009. “Despite recent reports to the contrary, the cost of East End Life has not gone up and remains at 2.3p per copy.” That’s a lie. And a senior accountant at the council has admitted as much to me. Not only does the council include ghost advertising revenues to make the cost appear lower, but it also excludes the cost of its team of press officers who spend much of their week writing for the rag.

Those press officers include £55,000-a-year “acting communications manager” Kelly Powell, who is named as the contact point for anyone wanting to “set the record straight”. With massive public spending cuts on the way, if I were Kelly I’d be wanting very much to set the record straight and tell anyone who’d listen how much East End Life really costs. Because if it is really so cheap, they won’t cut there will they….

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The Assassin Returns

As predicted, the new leader of Tower Hamlets Council is Helal Uddin Abbas after he was elected unopposed last night when Lutfur Rahman realised he did not have the numbers.

Abbas’s deputy is Josh Peck and he will play a major role in the cabinet, which will be selected by Abbas and the group members on Thursday.

It remains to be seen whether Labour can, after the bitterness of the past four years, draw a line – albeit a short-lived one, since a directly elected Mayor will be voted in come October – and maximise the talent it has available among its new intake.

With the likelihood of vicious spending cuts being imposed by the new Government, Tower Hamlets is going to need all the experience it can muster.

Abbas would do well to at least appear to be forgiving and include in his team the likes of the returning England football fanatic David Edgar (oh what fun it will be to see him scrutinised in the public glare by his Lib Dem wife Stephanie Eaton: will she be submitting Freedom of Information requests about his meetings?), former leader Denise Jones, and yes, Lutfur and his lieutenant Marc Francis.

After all, they only have to live with each other for five months.

Among the other posts decided last night are the smiling Motin Uz-Zaman, who becomes the last ceremonial mayor of Tower Hamlets, and Royal London hospital nurse Anna Lynch, who, despite having only just been elected, is catapulted into the slot as deputy mayor. If Motin falls ill at any stage, then Anna will have to chair the infamously rowdy full council meetings: a terrifying thought!

Ps …friends of former Labour MP Oona King are touting her name for the directly elected mayor…now that would be a comeback.

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There aren’t many times when events at Westminster mirror the comedy in the murky pit of Tower Hamlets politics, but as Labour begins the process of choosing a new national leader, so too do the party’s councillors in the East End.

Tonight, its new all-powerful group of 41 councillors, elected last Thursday after crushing George Galloway’s Respect party, meet to elect their next boss.

The election was a triumph for former council leader Helal Abbas, who has spent the past two years plotting the downfall of his old friend and now sworn enemy, Lutfur Rahman. In this quest, he allied with his his former nemesis Michael Keith and his band of supporters such as Denise Jones and, more silently, Josh Peck. Together, they accused Rahman of being too much under the influence of the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), allegations partly designed to scare Ken Clark, the director of the London Labour party, into keeping the Tower Hamlets Labour branches in special measures.

This meant Abbas and co effectively controlled the selection process for candidates. And so it has come to pass that his supporters are now a majority in the new group.

Soundings taken last night suggested that Abbas can command 26 votes against the 15 who are either Lutfur Rahman diehards or waverers.

I expect Abbas to be elected tonight and Josh Peck to be named his deputy.

However, just as there is a time limit on Gordon Brown, there will be on Abbas. For in October, voters will again go to the polls in Tower Hamlets to choose a directly elected mayor who will have wide-ranging powers.

This is the next big prize and although Respect lost heavily last week – it now has just one councillor and even he, Harun Miah, may defect to Labour – it will fight until the death to get its person in place.

Rumours abound that the defeated George Galloway may stand, but he considers himself too big for the job, and, in any case, he wouldn’t win. Some town hall insiders think Ken Livingstone might even throw his hat into the ring, but that too is rubbish: besides anything else, he neither lives nor works in the borough, so he doesn’t actually meet the criteria. Abjol Miah, who is no longer a councillor and who lost for Respect in Bethnal Green and Bow, is more likely.

As for Labour, one name doing the rounds is Michael Keith. Though he missed out in St Katherine’s and Wapping last week, he is still popular with the regional HQ, which is likely to oversee the selection procedure.

But Abbas also wants the job. Tonight’s faction fight will be nothing as compared with what’s yet to come.

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