Archive for June, 2010

Last night’s poorly attended Labour group meeting was a 1-1 draw for former Tower Hamlets council leader Lutfur Rahman, it seems. I hear that several councillors, including mayoral hopefuls Shiria Khatun and Siraj Islam, failed to turn up, so missing out on the chance to vote for how much they could be earning over the next few years.

Whereas Lutfur’s motion to limit the number of terms a directly elected Labour mayor can serve to two was rejected, elements of his proposals to cut councillors’ allowances in these austere times were nodded through. They will be put to the council’s cabinet on July 7 and then to a vote of the full council a week later. If councillors do vote to cut their pay (and subsequently the number of positions which attract take-home cash – see this story about patronage in neighbouring Newham for how the system is used elsewhere), then they will be applauded.

In other developments, the fall-out from the Great Labour Stitch-Up continues. Current council Helal Abbas is understandably upset, but there is not much he can do. His friends are urging him to declare for John Biggs and so put down a marker for the deputy mayor position, but he’s resisting that, preferring instead to keep his options open. Such prevarication could prove costly, but if the mood music coming from the John Biggs camp is anything to go by, he could be right. Sources close to John tell me that a feature of a Mayor Biggs regime would be meritocracy and not patronage: if you’re good and you can demonstrate you’ve been good and will be good, you’ll be rewarded with work. This would be a revolution in Tower Hamlets politics. Which means it’s unlikely to happen, of course.

Meanwhile, the grapevine is abuzz with a new potential spanner in the Labour works. Following the “anti-fascist” mark in the East End two weeks ago (reported in different styles by the Guardian here and the Evening Standard here), I hear that the organisers, London Citizens and United East End, are thinking of fielding their own candidate. (Some are wondering whether Lutfur might be tempted.) There’s a good chance this would be backed by Respect who would be able to dress up the campaign as a grass roots movement against the Labour machine.

In all likelihood, if Biggs is chosen for Labour, the United East End candidate would be someone from the British-Bangladeshi community and be supported by people keen on highlighting racial lines.

The irony would be beyond despair.

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Well, you have to admire his mischievous sense of humour. And his appetite for revenge.

On Monday, just a few days after Labour bosses told him to forget becoming a directly elected mayor, former Tower Hamlets council leader Lutfur Rahman will ask his comrade councillors to vote on a motion that they’ll find difficult to reject.

He not only wants them to limit the number of terms the mayor can serve to two (ie eight years), but also to cut the salary she or he will receive. He and his ally, Cllr Marc Francis, also want to limit the number of advisers the new mayor will be able to appoint.

Here’s the context. As town hall leader a couple of years ago, Lutfur, a partner in a law firm, voluntarily slashed his own council pay by around 25 per cent, from about £40,000 a year to something like £31,000. To show that community leaders are sharing the burden of public spending cuts, he wants the salary of the new mayor, who will be elected in October, to be five per cent even lower at just less than £30,000.

Over at neighbouring Newham, Labour’s Sir Robin Wales, who has just begun his third term as directly elected mayor, pays himself £81,029–approaching three times Lutfur’s allowance. As you can read in tomorrow’s Sunday Express, Sir Robin has also fostered much loyalty among his councillors by creating well-paid jobs for them. Lutfur says that practice should not be adopted in Tower Hamlets.

His proposals are partly designed to irritate mayor frontrunner John Biggs, who earns £53,000 as a London Assembly member, but there is much logic them. However, whatever one thinks of the role of directly elected mayor, it is a full-time job with far more responsibilities than a council leader.

And you can’t help feeling they would carry more weight if Lutfur hadn’t wasted £500,000 of our money by forcing out former council chief executive Martin Smith with a £300k pay-off, and, in 2008, hiring the obviously dodgy Lutfur Ali, who was eventually sacked from his £125,000-a-year post because he was caught moonlighting elsewhere.

I suspect the turkeys among Lutfur’s colleagues will decline to vote for Christmas and insist instead on having pay determined by an “independent” panel.

For your own amusement, I’ve copied below the email and motion Lutfur has sent out.

Dear colleague

As you will have seen from the agenda for Monday’s Labour Group meeting, i am bringing a motion introducing term limits on any Labour directly-elected Mayor and reducing the Special Responsibility Allowance for that post and other Cabinet positions.

This motion is itself fairly self-explanatory, but i will explain my reasoning in a little more detail on Monday.  I would obviously welcome your support for this motion, so please don’t hesitate to let me know if you any queries before then.



Motion – Directly-Elected Mayor

Proposed:            Cllr Lutfur Rahman

Seconded:            Cllr Marc Francis

This Labour Group notes:

  • The referendum result in support of a Directly-Elected Mayor and the election for this position will be held on 21st October;
  • That in other local authorities the introduction of an Executive Mayor in place of the Council Leader has resulted in an increase in the Special Responsibility Allowance (SRA) for that position;
  • That, as well as an Executive Mayor, Newham has 16 Cabinet Members and Mayoral Advisers, each in receipt of an SRA;
  • That some directly-elected Mayors are now beginning their third consecutive Term of Office;
  • The new Conservative / Lib Dem Coalition Government is expected to require around £10 million in “in-year” cuts from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, as well as significant additional savings thereafter.

This Labour Group believes:

  • That it is important for the Labour Party and its elected representatives to take on the burden of any necessary savings before considering imposing cuts in frontline services;
  • A Mayor, Deputy Mayor and eight Cabinet members is a sufficient Executive body for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets;
  • George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had it right in establishing the convention of a two-term limit for the President of the United States, now enshrined in law by the 22nd Amendment.

This Labour Group therefore resolves:

  • To peg the SRA of the Directly-Elected Mayor for 2010/11 and 2011/12 at the current level of the SRA to the Council Leader less 5 per cent;
  • To peg the SRA for the Deputy Mayor for 2010/11 and 2011/12 at the current level of the SRA to the Deputy Leader less 5 per cent;
  • To peg the SRA for Cabinet Members for 2010/11 and 2011/12 at the current level of the SRA to Cabinet Members less 5 per cent;
  • To require that the Mayor appoint no more than one Deputy Mayor and eight Cabinet Members to serve on the Executive;
  • That no Labour Mayor should seek a 3rd Term of Office.

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Among the Labour people I’ve spoken to about their party’s shortlist for the Tower Hamlets mayoral selection, two sentiments stand out: amazement and stitch-up. That the shortlist of three, which I blogged on last night here, includes neither the current council leader Helal Abbas, nor his immediate predecessor Lutfur Rahman, is striking. It really is a statement of intent from Labour HQ: they want to clean and control.

They realise any controversy over an all-powerful directly elected Mayor in an Olympic host borough would attract national headlines. Having the crony-loving Sir Robin Wales (read more about him soon in the Sunday Express) as Mayor of Newham is one thing, but to have two controversial figures in neighbouring boroughs would be too much. It’s clear that London Labour (for which read national Labour) want London Assembly member John Biggs as mayor.

Sirajul Islam and Shiria Khatun are in the race, in most people’s eyes (although anything’s possible), to provide the semblance of a contest. In their own ways, both are engaging politicians. In the meetings I covered at Tower Hamlets council, Siraj always struck me as someone who had a heavy dose of common sense: he was both thoughtful and practical. But he was not necessarily keen to speak his mind in public. He was a supporter of Lutfur Rahman in 2008, but a year later (a year in which although he was Lutfur’s deputy, he was regularly sidelined), he changed his mind and switched to the Abbas camp. (Correction: as Rachael points out in a comment below, Siraj supported Denise Jones in 2008, but there is a question mark over who he supported in 2009.)

Abbas-supporting Shiria, on the other hand, rarely suffered, or suffers, such afflictions. She is charismatic and media savvy to the core. Sadly, her outspoken and secular outlook also attracts unwanted attention. In the run-up to the council elections in May, she went public on the odd case of stalking phone calls: I reported it in the Sunday Express here.

Whatever their credentials, neither can really boast of genuinely concrete achievements in office. John Biggs, who has spent much of his political career either in opposition or scrutinising politicians more senior to him, is going to have a similar problems. And this is why former council leader Professor Michael Keith is said to be so deeply hurt and insulted that he failed his interview, so much so that he is considering an appeal.

That’s not the case with either Lutfur or Abbas as I understand it. Abbas is said to have accepted the decision, possibly with the promise that he will become a £60,000 a year deputy mayor. Lutfur, meanwhile, has, I can confirm, been approached by Respect, but his close friends in Labour have warned him they will perform painful below-the-waist surgery if he defects.

Tower Hamlets Labour members will submit their votes in about three weeks’ time. The Lib Dems, Respect and the Tories will then follow suit. As far as the Tories are concerned, we are likely to see someone new introduced. Neither opposition leader Cllr Peter Golds nor his deputy, Cllr Tim Archer, will stand. And neither will Zak Khan, the party’s defeated parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow.

Over the next three weeks, I’m inviting all the candidates to explain on this blog why they would like to be mayor. Shiria Khatun has promised the first contribution, which I hope to post here over the weekend.

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There’s a golden rule in journalism that you don’t run with single source stories. But at the risk of having a load of nasty eggs stuck on my face I’m going to take a punt on this one.

I’ve just been told by one senior Labour figure that today’s interviews for the party’s mayoral selection process in Tower Hamlets has resulted in a shortlist of three.

I’ve heard that 14 people applied for the contest, including council leader Helal Abbas, his predecessors Lutfur Rahman and Michael Keith, John Biggs, David Edgar, Shiria Khatun, Sirajul Islam and Rosna Mortuza.

While there seemed to be some doubt whether the party’s panel of NEC and London region leaders would select Lutfur Rahman, who was accused of being linked to the Islamic Forum of Europe, it appeared certain that Abbas would make the final cut.

Well, my source tells me that the shortlist to go forward to a ‘one member one vote’ ballot of Tower Hamlets party members next month numbers just three…and it is….Cllr Shiria Khatun (the only woman), London Assembly member John Biggs and Cllr Sirajul Islam.

A month ago, I wrote here that the London regional party would try to find a way of keeping Lutfur off the ticket, and if my source is right, that’s proved correct.

Two things: John Biggs now has to be favourite to win Labour’s choice, and therefore be Mayor come October. And secondly, we now have two mightily cheesed off Labour councillors in Abbas and Lutfur. If Labour’s interviewing panel has failed to back its two most recent council leaders, not only is that a huge embarrassment to them personally, but also a real vote of no confidence in the current cabinet system of local government that they strived so hard to promote.

Who Respect, which forced the mayoral contest, now picks will be fascinating. Previously, George Galloway, who his close friends once told me was desperate to leave the Bengali politics of the East End for the more “sophisticated” Pakistani politics of Jack Straw’s Blackburn constituency, had hinted he would back Lutfur if he were Labour’s pick.  Now Lutfur seems to have been sidelined, one does wonder whether Respect will try to tickle his fancy with a place on its unpredictable ticket.

Just a reminder…there’s a £1bn borough at stake here….

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United East End and division

For something that’s being heralded as a unifying event in Tower Hamlets, today’s “anti-fascist” march from Stepney to Altab Ali park near Brick Lane does seem to be creating a fair degree of division. Several senior political figures have now privately complained that the protest is actually little more than an exercise in fascist-style emotional blackmail: that if you don’t march, you’re not with us.

Part of the problem, they say, is that what seemed to be a wholly noble initiative is being sullied by a series of press releases from Respect that want to whip things up to boost their directly elected mayor campaign. Respect has always been good at this: they spot someone else’s initiative then shout loudly to try and try to mark it with their own brand. Of course, this is how politics works, but in this particular case their rhetoric has somewhat spoiled things.

The idea for the march came as a direct result of an Islamic conference at The Troxy that was eventually called off, directly because of grass roots pressure. It was called off for one main reason: because it was to feature two controversial Islamic clerics who are banned in other countries. When the English Defence League got wind of this, they threatened to turn up, en masse, in their usual charming way and thus attract a crowd from Unite Against Fascism.

Watching all this was Glyn Robbins, a former chair of Tower Hamlets Respect. Glyn has been in political retirement for a few years now, ever since, in fact, he fell out with George Galloway and his team over the direction the party was heading. That direction was headlong into a split.

Among other issues, Glyn was concerned about the influence of the Islamic Forum of Europe within the party he had helped build up. The split demoralised Glyn, who is a born and bred East Ender with deeply held socialist beliefs. The unpleasant briefings against him from Galloway’s circle didn’t exactly help.

But when he saw that the EDL wanted to target Tower Hamlets, the activist instincts spurred him once more. He spoke to various faith leaders and set up a new group called United East End, which he hopes will nip racist feeling in the bud.

However, he knows the problems in Tower Hamlets are neither one-way nor black and white. As well as attacking the EDL in his speech this afternoon, he will also rail against the homophobia and hate peddled by Islamofascists—the kind of bile espoused by those who would have attended The Troxy, in fact.

Contrast this with Respect. They say everything is the Labour run council’s fault. By putting pressure on the Troxy management to cancel the conference, Respect says Labour has emboldened the EDL.

They then go further: they say the real reason why the EDL is targeting Tower Hamlets is the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary that contained allegations about party bigwig Abjol Miah and the activities of the IFE. The IFE have been involved in drumming up support for tomorrow’s march and they’re the reason why many sane people, including Jim Fitzpatrick and Ansar Ahmed Ullah are declining to take part.

Now, I may be living in cloud cuckoo land, but it is Bow. And I just don’t hear anyone saying that the EDL would be welcome in any guise. Wouldn’t they be here by now if so?

Abjol, of course, wants to be mayor. You can’t help but wonder whether it suits the like of Respect, Abjol and the IFE to stir this up. Glyn, who recognised much of what was in the Dispatches documentary (but disagreed with more), I know, is aware of that danger.

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Slightly off-topic from the world of east London politics, but this needs getting out there….

A PANEL of 13 “faith advisers” appointed by former Labour Communities Secretary John Denham is to be scrapped by the new coalition Government. His Tory successor Eric Pickles wants to move away from a “cronies-based” approach to faith issues and instead tackle problems by direct “face-to-face” contact with ordinary people themselves.

Within days of becoming minister, Mr Pickles ordered a review of the panel which was set up by Labour in January. I’ve been told by a senior Government source that the unpaid panel is “highly unlikely” to meet again.

The panel has met twice, the last time in March. Although a spokesman for the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) said its membership and remit was “under review”, sources close to Mr Pickles said: “It’s unlikely to meet again. We’re going to end this habit of Labour appointing its mates and then kicking issues into the long grass. We very much want to engage with faith groups, but we’re going to do it face to face and not through panels.”

Panel members included Canon Dr Alan Billings, a former director of the Centre for Ethics and Religion at Lancaster University, and Rosalind Preston, the president of the Jewish Volunteer Network.

The panel also included Cheshire dentist Wakkas Khan, who was president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies from 2004-2006. The Department of Communities and Local Government press release at the time of the announcement gave a misleading impression of his background. Specifically, it stated that as well as being a founder member of the Government-backed Radical Middle Way, he was director of the Exploring Islam Foundation.

I learn from Carter Ruck libel lawyers (who contacted me when I was researching a possible story on this last week) that, contrary to widespread belief, this is NOT the same Exploring Islam Foundation that last week launched an advertising campaign on the side of London cabs. Here’s the Times report detailing that. Instead, Mr Khan’s lawyer at Carter Ruck tells me that “at university, and subsequently while he was from 2004-6 President of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies in the UK and Ireland, ‘Exploring Islam Foundation’ was one of the concepts Wakkas Khan initiated and sought to develop as a discussion forum”.

Carter Ruck tell me that he submitted his CV to CLG in September 2009 and listed the directorship under “past positions…2006…”. He has never had any connection with the current campaign group.

It was therefore the Government and Mr Denham who misled the public into believing that Mr Khan was a current director of something called the Exploring Islam Foundation. It’s not the first error CLG has made in this area.

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On Saturday, I wrote this post suggesting that Tower Hamlets council leaders deliver an ultimatum to the owners of The Troxy in Commercial Road. I said that if The Troxy allows its venue to be used on June 20 for a conference featuring controversial Muslim clerics (an event that is likely to attract violence involving the English Defence League), then the council should refuse to put any of its (ie our) money their way for future bookings.

Well, good for council deputy leader, Cllr Josh Peck, who reads this blog. Here he is quoted in today’s East London Advertiser:

“This Islamic conference is not supported by the council and we call on the Troxy to call it off in the interests of public safety and social cohesion. If necessary, we will review our working relationship with the Troxy.”

As mentioned in my last post on this, The Troxy has signed up to the council’s No Place For Hate campaign. Here’s Will Poole, the venue’s operations manager, quoted in the latest edition of the council paper East End Life:

“To strengthen the Troxy’s commitment to the campaign we have added additional clauses to our venue hire contracts, with specific reference to hate crime.”

I’m trying to contact Mr Poole now for their latest position.


Will Poole tells me the event has been scrapped. He said: “We have cancelled the booking because we had signed up to the No Place For Hate campaign and we felt that some of the speakers did not fit in with that. We have lost the booking so we lose some money, but this was the right thing to do.”

Persuasion does indeed work.

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Terry Fitzpatrick charged

Anyone familiar with the politics of Tower Hamlets and Hackney more than likely knows Terry Fitzpatrick, a long time campaigner on various issues.

Today, he appeared at Thames Magistrates’ Court on Bow Road charged with racially aggravated harassment.

He was arrested on May 5, according to the Metropolitan Police. I understand that it followed a complaint by Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote.

Details about the charge in general, and not the specifics to Terry’s case, can be found here.

For legal reasons, I’m not allowing comments.

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Mayoral muck-raking

A quick update on the directly elected mayor contest for Tower Hamlets, which is due in October…

Labour has now (almost) decided how its candidate will be chosen. The deadline for applications is June 17 and a week later they will be interviewed by a four-strong panel of party apparatchiks. Two of the panel will come from the National Executive Committee and two from the London regional party. The current thinking is that the panel will then select a shortlist of six – three men and three women. However, this depends on how many people, and particularly women, actually apply. The final choice will be made by a ballot (using the single transferrable vote system) of the party’s Tower Hamlets membership on July 17.

Clearly, this raises a number of questions. Firstly, who is applying? Names that I’ve so far heard include current council leader Helal Abbas, his predecessors Cllr Lutfur Rahman and Michael Keith, London Assembly member John Biggs, Cllr Sirajul Islam, Cllr David Edgar and Rosna Mortuza – she’s an “equalities and diversity” director at Tower Hamlets Primary Care Trust. That makes five men and one woman.

Now, remember that for many within Labour the name of the game is to Stop Lutfur at all costs. There’s a feeling that he has strong support among the party’s paid-up membership, so I would be amazed if more women don’t apply, if only to force a three man/three women shortlist and thereby reduce Lutfur’s chances of making it. Cllr Shiria Khatun is certainly ambitious, so she could be one; and from what I’ve seen of Cllr Rachel Saunders, who has the makings of a being a good future MP, she should be another. Will Cllr Denise Jones ride to the rescue one more time?

The second question is who will be on selection panel and who chooses them? Labour is trying to keep this a secret because they don’t want the panellists being lobbied. The board of the London Region will pick its two names. As London Assembly member Len Duvall chairs the board, it’s a good bet that he will be one of its two picks. In the same way, it would be unusual if the chair of the NEC was also not on the panel. The current chair is Ann Black, an activist from Oxford. The other NEC pick is likely to be Keith Vaz: as one Labour source put it to me, “they can’t just have white folk judging Bengalis”.

So how does this affect Lutfur’s chances? Well, Ann Black is an unknown quantity, but I’m told that Vaz is on record somewhere as having previously declared support for Lutfur. In fact, here they are pictured together at the opening of a restaurant last December:

Lutfur also knows Len Duvall well: Len was assigned to be Lutfur’s “mentor” when he became Tower Hamlets council leader in 2008. During the time that Len acted as grandpa, Lutfur was the subject of press and party investigations, most notably Andrew Gilligan’s Channel 4 Dispatches documentary which detailed allegations about the Islamic Forum of Europe. Quite what Len made of all that is not officially known.

But what is a fact is that Len and John Biggs are very good friends.

Labour party politics…don’t you just love it…

PS we mustn’t, of course, forget that other Mayoral contest, ie the one for London. Although Ken Livingstone appears to have the backing of several London borough council leaders, I can reveal that Tower Hamlets boss Helal Abbas is not one of them – he’s backing Oona King.

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A week next Sunday a beautiful art deco venue that was once a favourite gathering place for the old East End community could well become a flashpoint for violent divide.

My old friend Caroline Merion, the veteran local historian and Labour activist who is currently recovering in Mile End Hospital after a fall (get well soon, Caroline), predicted three years ago that the former Troxy picture palace was falling into the wrong hands after decades of decline. Built with an ornate staircase and dazzling chandeliers, it opened in 1933 and locals loved the Hollywood glamour it brought to Stepney’s Commercial Road. The first film shown there was King Kong; the last, in 1960, was, aptly perhaps, The Siege of Sidney Street.

From 1963, it was used as a rehearsal venue for the Royal Opera House, then, from the Eighties until 2005, as a Mecca bingo hall.

Now fully restored, it is an event venue for all seasons. Its current owners, Deepak and Mohit Sharma of Walthamstow-based Ashburn Estates Ltd, have invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in their business venture.

And they make no bones that that is exactly what it is. For over the past three years, the Commercial Road venue has played host to weddings, cage fighting, a Miss England contest and a Ukip party conference. As long as guests are willing to pay up, they’ll hire it to anyone, it seems.

Even, sadly, to the organisers of a conference on June 20 featuring these lovely open-minded chaps: Bilal Philips and Hussein Yee. I urge you to read this link on Harry’s Place for a detailed background.

As well as attracting their own hordes and, no doubt, secret squirrels from the intelligence services, there’s also likely to be another couple of groups mingling outside. One will be the thugs from the English Defence League (who are reportedly sizing up Tower Hamlets for their next demonstrations), the other from Unite Against Fascism. They don’t like each other very much and the mingling is most unlikely to be of the “How nice to meet you” variety.

Those worried about what could happen have written to the Troxy’s owners to ask them to cancel the booking, so far without success.

As businessmen, they’re only likely to listen with their wallets. According to the latest accounts for Asburn Estates, they made a profit of £96,000 in 2008/09. Its turnover is below the £5.6million threshold required for disclosure to Companies House, but its bank balance as at March 31, 2009, was £38,765. Clearly, the owners like money and I’d imagine they’d need more to satisfy their appetites.

So here’s an idea: why don’t our council leaders, who profess to be deeply committed to the concept of a harmonious “One Tower Hamlets”, simply tell them that if this conference goes ahead, they will not attend any other event at the Troxy?
And that includes the Tower Hamlets Muslim Staff Forum gala dinner that’s held there every year and which is partly funded with public money.

That way our leaders show leadership and our businessmen show they care a little about the area in which they operate.


Thanks to a comment below by TowerHamletsWatch regarding his post here, we learn from the current edition of East End Life (that’s the council’s free-sheet; it’s never delivered to my corner of deepest Bow) that the owners of the Troxy, supported by Cllr Abdal Ullah, have signed up to the borough’s No Place For Hate campaign. The words “put”, “money”, “mouth” and “or not as the case may be” spring to mind.

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