Archive for April 8th, 2012

I’ve written this in today’s Sunday Express. Readers of this blog, who will be well aware of more complex and subtle factors, should note it’s for a national audience. However, there is a lesson for other areas about the Tower Hamlets experience.

WITHIN hours of his breathtaking victory in Bradford West 10 days ago, George Galloway will have first taken something to calm his understandable excitement (a fat Cuban cigar, no doubt, although contrary to his “I’m a good Muslim” claim to be a teetotaller, it could also have been the glass of wine his aides once told me he occasionally drinks in private) and then sat down to plot his next moves.

Yes, he would have salivated over topping up the Parliamentary pension pot he lost two years ago and yes, he would also have thought about his maiden Commons speech in a fortnight’s time but those around him would have concentrated his mind on a far more important goal: the forthcoming local council elections.

For on May 3, thousands of councillors will be elected to positions that will give them control over hundreds of millions of pounds of public cash and community grants that are too often distributed to those who have helped them into power.

Forget the easy and frothy headlines of Rise in Council Tax, the real story of local government is the small “c” corruption of public cash for votes.

There is far too often a tendency to view councils through a simplistic Westminster bubble, that they are a test of national opinion on the state of Downing Street.

The big-hitters help sustain this because it allows them to create an easier-to- understand national narrative.

Last week, for example, David Cameron, the supposed champion of “localism”, launched the Conservatives’ local election campaign by pledging “a flat-out, full- throttle fight” for Britain’s town halls… only to highlight a range of policy initiatives such as high-speed rail, welfare reform and cuts to public sector pensions that are all controlled by Westminster.

No wonder turnouts at local elections are low when the message from the top is so mixed. Cameron’s words do local democracy a disservice.

THIS IS a tragedy: a lack of engagement at the local level leads to distortions in the democratic process and to a lack of scrutiny and accountability of those responsible for the collection of rubbish, the state of our roads and the cleanliness of our streets. Which leads us back to Respect and George Galloway…

I was deputy editor of the local paper in Tower Hamlets, east London, where Galloway was MP for Bethnal Green and Bow between 2005 and 2010. As such, I got to know his team and their tactics well.

Galloway himself was uninterested in local issues and increasingly shied away from even attending weekly constituency surgeries. However, he was aided by a brilliant assistant named Rob Hoveman who knew exactly how to tap into the grass roots: forge a good relationship with the local paper (and that means tip-offs about those in power) and use the resulting headlines to mobilise a small but influential opposition of disaffected activists.

By chance Rob, who lives in east London, always had a holiday home in Bradford and he was heavily involved in Galloway’s latest triumph. It is certain he will be co-ordinating Respect’s next targets there.

Due to a lack of time and resources the party is only fielding 12 candidates on May 3 but something else is also happening that day which could be more significant.

Bradford is one of 12 cities in England holding a referendum on whether to move from a traditional leader and cabinet style of local government to a powerful, directly elected city mayor.

This is the big prize (maybe Galloway himself might want it) and one that Respect effectively seized two years ago in Tower Hamlets, a borough Communities Secretary Eric Pickles now views as Britain’s biggest basket case.

Because this could happen in any area, it’s worth examining how Respect did it. All that is required under local government legislation to trigger a referendum for a directly elected mayor is a petition containing five per cent of an area’s electors. In late 2009 Respect, having toured dozens of grass roots community groups, housing estates and mosques, handed such a petition to the town hall. It contained 17,200 signatures, or 11 per cent of the electorate. 

However, almost 7,000 of those were ruled invalid, with entire pages written in the same handwriting according to observers.

Despite such huge doubts about its authenticity the petition was allowed and within six months Lutfur Rahman, a solicitor who had been expelled by Labour and then backed by Respect, was voted into an office in charge of a £1billion budget – on a measly turnout of 25.6 per cent.

Look what has happened since. Within a few months of victory Lutfur leased himself a top-of-the range Mercedes for £72 a day (to be chauffeured around a borough well served by Tube, buses and the Docklands Light Railway), then told the ceremonial council mayor to take minicabs to civic events, and then ordered a major revamp of his office suite at a cost of £115,000.

A whole new set of community groups are being established to take advantage of the millions of pounds of grants under council control.

In almost all of this, opposition Labour councillors are powerless to stop him, while the decline of a cash-strapped local media means little journalistic scrutiny.

In effect, a clever mobilisation of a small but concentrated number of activists has completely changed the way a borough is run and how taxpayers’ money is spent.

Tower Hamlets should be a warning to everyone: voter turnout is vital.

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