This is a guest post by Kazim Zaidi, Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s adviser who was Political Assistant to the Tower Hamlets Labour group when Lutfur ran the council as a member of the party between 2008-10. He lives in Bethnal Green.
*NOTE: Thursday, May 29, 4pm: Kazim Zaidi has asked me if he can clarify that while he continues to advise Lutfur Rahman on a voluntary basis, he has not been a paid adviser (in receipt of public funds) since March.
In 2010 it was the infamous “dodgy dossier” submitted by his 3rd placed rival that claimed Lutfur Rahman had been “brainwashed” by fundamentalists. These claims led to Rahman’s summary deselection as Labour’s candidate but have never been investigated.
Then there were claims of electoral fraud in two by-elections in 2012. Over 160 separate reports were investigated in one of the most comprehensive investigations ever conducted by the police and the Electoral Commission. Not a single one was found to have merit.
Not long after came claims that Rahman had been using “bogus” canvassers pretending to be from Tower Hamlets Homes. Another investigation was instigated at public expense and once again no evidence was found.
And then there was Panorama, aired just two weeks before the purdah period. Panorama claimed dodgy dealings with grants; it cited the Mayor’s car as an example of his profligacy and highlighted his apparent reluctance to attend scrutiny meetings and answering questions in council, failing to point out that Rahman has attended more scrutiny sessions and answered more questions in council than his Labour counterparts in Newham and Lewisham.
As for the car (now scrapped) it is a shame it was a Merc, but Mayors and Council leaders across the UK use similar transport. As for the rest, police found “no new credible evidence” of fraud and there are serious questions as to the process followed by the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles in sending in the inspectors.
Pickles claims to have had long-standing concerns about Tower Hamlets but chose to act weeks before an election. Not only that, these concerns were never raised with Rahman directly and repeated offers to meet went unanswered.
And now, despite securing 36,000 first preferences to Labour’s 27,000 on a high turnout, Rahman is again under the cosh with his beaten opponents claiming voter intimidation, harassment and fraud. Their hook for the story is the delayed European Election count – delayed, it appears, by the stringent Electoral Commission protocols put in place at the behest of opposition candidates to ensure the count was absolutely accurate and fair.
Those complaining in such lurid terms are beaten opposition politicians with a direct and vested interest in the story they’re selling to the national media. The fact they are complaining to the media, not the authorities, speaks volumes as to their motivation.
As Labour Group Political Assistant from 2008-10 I witnessed first-hand the party’s descent into civil war. The racial element has been massively played up, but for me it was a battle between Old and New Labour, between ex-student politicos, lobbyists and machine politicians on the one side and grassroots local campaigners who could actually mobilise a the vote on the other.
The fact that the middle class Blairites were almost exclusively white and the working class activists mainly Bangladeshi is an accident of history, as is the fact that Rahman came to power at a time when fear of Muslims and “Islamisation” is at an all time high.
It is these accidents, not his policy achievements that have dominated the narrative of his time in office, along with a resolute refusal by the Labour and the Tories in Tower Hamlets to work with him.
Lutfur’s not perfect by any means but all he’s asked is to be judged as any other local politician, with fair comparison to his fellow mayors and for people to judge him on his record. That has never happened or come close to happening.
In May 2010 as Leader, Rahman led the Labour Party to buck the national trend and gain councillors. He then won the Labour selection by a landslide. He won again as an Independent in the mayoral election in October of that year and last Thursday 37,390 people voted for him to be Mayor.
Rather than trying to ignore these facts or blaming the electorate or the system or making common cause with the Tories that are our natural foes the Labour Party needs to think hard on why that many natural Labour voters have consistently supported a man they so vilify.
One thing I can say for sure is that it isn’t an ethnic thing. I’m not a Bangladeshi and neither are many of the “Lutfurites” I know. I’m a middle-class north Londoner with Pakistani parents, a degree from a good university and a social conscience. I came to the East End wanting to work for the party I loved. I wanted to do some good. I wasn’t expecting a civil war, but when it happened, I went with my conscience. I’m still a party member and put my X next to the rose for the Euro ballot.
The last six years in Tower Hamlets has been nothing more than a civil war that got out of hand; it spilled out of the Labour Group room and into the Council chamber. If those who still seem unable to accept the result continue as they are, it will spill out onto the streets where even the cleverest machine politicians will not be able to manage it.
Lutfur has again said he’ll work with anyone who will work with him. One side in this ridiculous conflict has paused to stop and think.
It is time for the other to do the same.