Here’s the piece I’ve written for the Independent today. I promise I will write more over the weekend!
In many ways I owe Lutfur Rahman a great deal of thanks. After his first election victory in 2010 I blogged he would, over the coming years, create the Nirvana sought by all reporters: Storyville.
He didn’t let us down. Within days of his election a fed up official at Tower Hamlets town hall leaked that one of Lutfur’s first requests as Britain’s first directly elected Asian mayor was to require a staff member to traipse across London to Covent Garden to buy him the new iPhone4. In fact, the staff member had to buy two because Lutfur’s new deputy, Ohid Ahmed, also wanted one.
Not long afterwards, he exercised his next executive order: a rather nice executive Mercedes car. With a chauffeur to boot.
He went on to make another extraordinary and significant decision early on in his mayoralty. Very quietly and without any genuine debate or consultation, he wrested control of the council’s grants system. I warned about it at the time.
Grants had previously been awarded to community groups via an open committee of councillors. That committee had for years published details of each decision, including the advice and assessment of council officers. That no one apart from anoraks like me read them was beside the point.
Lutfur sucked the scrutiny and transparency from the process and gave himself ultimate sole discretion on who got what. He then created a brand new grants stream: millions of pounds to “refurbish” faith buildings in the borough.
Now why would he want to do all that, we asked. As a result of yesterday’s judgement, we can now safely say the answer: as a targeted bribe for bloc votes.
Even some in his own team thought his actions on grants unwise. But Lutfur doesn’t like to be questioned. In fact, he declined to answer any questions put to him at council meetings, or at sessions of the crucial Scrutiny committee. During last year’s mayoral elections he even refused to attend a single hustings.
Why? Because he was concentrating almost entirely on the Bengali and Somali community for votes. That had been his re-election strategy from day one, all the while espousing a One Tower Hamlets theme…and labelling critics who dared challenge this ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’. Irony is not one of his strong points.
I must say, he personally never branded me that and, to his credit, when his supporters did, or when they verbally attacked my British Bangladeshi wife, he called them out.
In many ways, he was a victim of a toxic brand of politics that has festered in Tower Hamlets for decades. Many believe he learnt his tricks from Labour, his former party. Local Labour leaders also recognised this and they’ve been trying to clean themselves up.
There will always be rogue politicians who somehow make it to senior office. Invariably they will be found out. But for me there are two more far-reaching issues from yesterday’s judgment. Lutfur was found guilty of undue spiritual influence, a centuries old law rooted in pre-Home Rule Ireland. Some wanted it removed from the state book. Judge Mawrey advised it shouldn’t be. In fact, he suggested it be updated for a modern age when simple adherence to Islam by millions of voters can be exploited.
And lastly…I started my spare time blog in 2010 when I realised my former paper, the East London Advertiser, was no longer able or willing to keep an eye on the detail of the council administration. I kept plugging away where it should have been. For that, I received numerous legal threats from the town hall. None succeeded. But the retreat of so many local papers across the UK is deeply worrying. How many other Lutfur Rahmans are there out there?