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Apologies for the lack of posts: I’ve been settling into a new job.

It’s full council tomorrow night and it’s likely that the two commissioners, Sir Ken Knight and Max Caller will be there for a bit of midweek comedy. I’m sure everyone will try to be on their best behaviour but at some point councillors are bound to visit the playground.

One subject which might provoke a reaction is Rich Mix, which is based in what traditionalists call Bethnal Green but which is increasingly known (incorrectly) as Shoreditch.

Rich Mix opened as a £26m arts and cinema centre in 2006 with a specific remit to tap into artistic interests in the Bengali community. From memory, I think it launched with a working display by an artist from Dhaka who was assembling an old car in full view of the public. Art can be a bit like that..

Rich Mix relied on various strands of public funding, including from Tower Hamlets council and the Arts Council. It was very much a Labour project, driven by the likes of Oona King, Michael Keith and Denise Jones…and a certain Mayor of London Ken Livingstone.

One of the early board members in fact was a certain Lutfur Rahman when he was cabinet member for culture under Denise. I don’t remember and I can’t find any record of him ever opposing or being critical of the project back then.

I did. The place was a management disaster in its early days. Its business plan was flimsy and it had bosses who loved spending other people’s money.

In fact Rich Mix was the subject of one of my early posts on this blog in 2010 when I quoted an article I’d written for the East London Advertiser in January 2006 about the initial teething problems.

It’s worth reading that piece from nine years ago again because it provides some background for a row that I think will feature tomorrow.

Here’s what I wrote in 2006:

SERIOUS concerns have been raised about the financial viability of a major new national arts centre that is due to open in the East End later this year.

The Advertiser has obtained a secret report revealing that the Rich Mix Cultural Centre, which is being built in Bethnal Green Road, needs extra taxpayers’ help to meet soaring costs. Tower Hamlets councillors have been asked to top up loans to the project and some are now deeply worried the borough’s £3.5m investment in the £26m centre is at risk.

They are angry that costs have spiralled and are concerned more money is being sucked into what could become a huge white elephant draining the public purse for years to come. One councillor has branded the project ‘scandalous’ and a ‘bottomless pit with no proper business plan’. But his claims have been angrily rejected by the centre’s bosses.

The prestigious arts complex, whose board members include former Bethnal Green and Bow MP Oona King, is seen as crucial for the regeneration of the deprived area around Brick Lane. Concentrating on ethnic cultural projects, it will house BBC London, a three-screen cinema, art galleries, a Sunday market place and music and dance studios.

Ms King dubbed it the East End’s ‘very own Tate Modern’ and it is Mayor Ken Livingstone’s flagship arts project.

With most of the six-storey structure completed, designers are currently working on the internal fittings with the centre due to open in the spring. However, the project, run by the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation and funded by backers including Tower Hamlets council, the Arts Council, the London Development Agency and the Millennium Commission, has been dogged by delays and cash problems.

A new management team was put in place last year and since then cost controls have improved markedly, but some councillors still fear a future financial crisis.

It is expected that by the time the centre opens, Tower Hamlets taxpayers will have paid into it some £3.6m. The council has also pledged a further £300,000 to contribute towards the annual £4.6m running costs in the first three years of operation.

Bosses at the centre are currently trying to attract sponsors but if crucial income from the centre’s cinemas fails to materialise, a council loan of £850,000 could be at risk.

In a confidential report for last week’s council cabinet meeting, Chris Holme, head of resources, wrote: “It will take robust cost and income management to prevent the centre falling into deficit on an annual basis.

“Failure to generate levels of income identified will have a significant impact on the sustainability of the centre.”

However, Lib Dem councillor John Griffiths said: “The whole thing makes me want to cry. Because the foundation itself is the accountable body for the project, there’s no proper scrutiny of the spending. They keep coming back to us asking for more money, but I’m really worried we’re walking right into a debt trap here.”

But Nick Kilby, chief operating officer for the centre, described the councillor’s remarks as political posturing. “There are no substance to them at all. This is a well-run project, costs aren’t out of control and there is no crisis. This is a terrifically exciting project and we look forward to persuading the councillor how it will benefit the East End.”

I’ve changed my mind about Rich Mix.

I suppose it was inevitable that such a politically driven project would become a political football but there does seem to be something spiteful and illogical in the way that Lutfur’s administration appears to be hounding the organisation to a point where closure is a real risk.

For the past four years, the council has been pursuing legal action (at an undisclosed cost: maybe we’ll be told tomorrow night how much) to try and force Rich Mix to repay that initial £850,000 loan. In that legal process Rich Mix argued it was in fact owed another £1.6million by the council as part of an agreed s106 planning gain fee from a nearby development.

The parties went to court and a judge ruled partly in favour of the council late last year on what some might say was a technicality. Because the wording of the s106 agreement deal was so vague, it was unenforceable.

The upshot is that Rich Mix has offered to repay the £850k in instalments. For whatever reason, Lutfur has demanded it be repaid in one go.

The East End Review, an offshoot of the Hackney Citizen, wrote a decent piece about the issue here.

That article was based on an interview with Rich Mix’s chief executive Jane Earl. Jane is a former chief executive of Wokingham Borough Council who has strong views on good governance. She’s the reason I’ve changed my mind about Rich Mix (and I’d have her as one of the Tower Hamlets commissioners).

She’s made Rich Mix sensible, popular and relevant.

The area has changed massively and maybe this part of the problem. As I said, it’s no longer regarded as the old Bethnal Green; this is now hipster country and it will eventually spread into the southern stretches of Brick Lane. Maybe it’s better to embrace and accept than be a bunch of King Cnuts.

Here’s one event that’s worth seeing next month, for example.

Rich Mix

Perhaps Lutfur should attend.

Or perhaps his “cabinet member for culture”, Cllr Shafiqul Haque (another former Rich Mix director when he served under Denise), should go. He’s paid an extra £13k a year on top of his £10k a year basic allowance for doing that job.

But apart from pocketing his cash and posing in the odd photo looking at a book, I have absolutely no idea what he does or what he’s done. I can’t wait to see him explain that tomorrow.

Culture? What culture? Is there actually a council culture strategy?

Here’s a thought for the council: get Rich Mix to write one for the borough. I bet they could easily do it for £850k… .

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This is cross-post from Democratic Audit, a public policy group based at the London School of Economics. It was published two weeks ago and was written by Professor Michael Keith, the former Labour leader of Tower Hamlets council, who is now the Director of COMPAS at Oxford University.

This precis was written by Democratic Audit’s editors: “The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government recently appointed commissioners to run the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, following the publication of a Government-commissioned PWC report which was damning about the failings of the current adminstration, led by Mayor Lutfur Rahman. Michael Keith, a former Leader of the Council, argues that the affair highlights some inherent tensions in local and municipal government, which the Mayoral structure is ill-equipped to deal with.

By Michael Keith

Competent bureaucrats commonly believe they protect the public interest by delivering transparent decision making in public institutions. This is commendable. Politicians normally believe that they are elected to carry out the wishes of their voters. This is forgivable. But these imperatives rub against each other when politicians try reshaping things in an image they prefer and the bureaucrat wants to preserve an order they recognize. This is difficult.

This tension is not new. Recent events in the east end of London exemplify an old problem. Max Weber’s thoughtful and commonly misunderstood discussion identifies this tension as one of the diagnostic features of bureaucracy. The bureau is in and of itself without politics. In a vocabulary anachronistic in its use and counterintuitive in its usage it might even be argued that Weber suggested bureaucracy was fundamentally anti-political.

The bureaucrat could serve the Chinese despot, the papal machine or the liberal democratic reforming state equally well. But at its best s/he personified a particular kind of stasis, a performative form of repetition without difference.

The bureau reproduces a specific social, moral and political order; dispassionately and without fear or favour or individual exception. This predictable repetition is at the heart of the bureau’s strengths.  At its best it makes visible transparent process. But our conception of the ‘political’ is at heart about change, the juxtaposition of one moral order against another.

The politician – whether or not democratically elected – is for Weber a personification of the will to advance a preferred moral order and social settlement. A ‘conservative’ appeals to a particular set of pre-existing values threatened by social change, an alternative politics actively promotes a new moral order against an old one.

In cities of flux, characterized by high levels of demographic ‘churn’, migrant urbanisms and processes of regeneration and gentrification the social order is constantly on the move, generating particular challenges for the bureau.

Translated into local government, the most conscientious political actors become engaged in representative democracy for a reason. Councillors normally want to change things in the ward and the local authority they represent. They identify needs, community organisations they believe are doing good things unnoticed, campaigns they want to champion. Such interests sometimes can be advanced through the bureaucracy.

But such interests at other times have to be championed against the bureaucracy. Domestic violence only becomes an ‘object’ of local governmental gaze when community organisations campaign for it to be recognized. The consequences of an ageing population with multiple challenges are only recognized by welfare departments after a lot of knocking on doors at city hall.

And in multicultural settings both entrenched forms of systemic racial disadvantage and a politics of recognition of cultural difference depend on changing the local state to recognize properly the different needs of cultural groups and evolving and at times banal demographics.

In my own experience the mums’ clubs based in certain locations and the provision for the elderly that once appealed effectively to a past East End tradition of gathering, music and alcohol based conviviality worked accidentally to exclude those who did not gather in pubs, did not socialize around a cup of tea and a cigarette after dropping the children at school.

So the bureau only recognizes and changes with pressure. Multicultural realities challenge and change the bureau, belatedly some times, proactively when politcians advance in good faith an understanding of the complexities of new social formations through the architecture of city hall.

But such change is never without friction.

Such tensions can be constructive. But in British mayoral systems we are unsure what the proper checks and balances should be.

In Tower Hamlets when the will of a people so diverse, so rich and poor, so much a mix of different cultures is personified by one man, the challenges are particularly acute.

Price Waterhouse Coopers last week reported to Secretary of State Eric Pickles a situation that led the Secretary of State to suggest that the report “paints a deeply concerning picture of obfuscation, denial, secrecy, the breakdown of democratic scrutiny and accountability, and a culture of cronyism risking the corrupt spending of public funds.”

The report highlighted that in Tower Hamlets the three most senior bureaucrats are all on temporary contracts. The boss (head of paid service), principal lawyer (monitoring officer) and head of finance (section 151 officer) are insecure. They depend on political whim for their pay cheque.

The checks and balances for a mayor in one of the most socially polarized parts of Britain are diminished. As PWC suggest and illustrate by one example after another the result in today’s east end is potentially catastrophic.

This is why we need to think carefully how checks and balances for elected mayors should work, in the east end and elsewhere.

On the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 13th November (and in other media) reports on recent events in Tower Hamlets have focused on whether or not there has been criminal behavior reported by PWC.

Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone and former MP for Bethnal Green and Bow George Galloway, both supporting Mayor Lutfur Rahman, curiously mirrored the framing of BBC journalist Zoe Conway in focusing on the issue of criminality and fraud.

But this is a chimera. If the report is judged by whether criminality or fraud is eventually proven, if the mayoralty is judged by convictions in court, misses the point.

The true message of the PWC report and the lesson for putative mayoral innovations, in Tower Hamlets, in Manchester and elsewhere is that if the proper checks and balances on deliberative democracy are not in place then the result is dysfunctional, opaque and – most importantly – to the detriment of democracy and the disadvantage of local people.

It is why most people will welcome the potential role of three commissioners in east London that might mitigate the questionable deployment of democratically elected but executively absolute power in today’s Tower Hamlets.

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This is a guest post by Professor Michael Keith, the former Labour leader of Tower Hamlets council

Michael Keith(This post has been amended following later election results: see * and update at bottom)

Following a conversation at the vote counting, Ted Jeory asked for a personal reaction to the outcome of last week’s local elections. It followed what I think was a sense shared that regardless of party affiliation the divisive politics of Tower Hamlets had reached a particularly worrying moment.

Occasionally boisterous, too frequently threatening, the scenes at the Tower Hamlets mayoral count prompted a storm. Shut inside the Troxy venue when supporters of the independent mayor Lutfur Rahman and his party Tower Hamlets First began pre-emptively celebrating his re-election, the mass surge to access the vote count prompted anger amongst council officers and campaigners alike.

Some with a longer memory may cast their minds back to similar scenes outside York Hall that greeted the success of Peter Shore in 1987 and 1992 and fairly protest that mainstream parties commented on this less at the time.

But in 2014 it followed a day, a night and a campaign in which the sense of polarisation between camps was particularly disturbing, confrontations and intimidation of voters on the polling stations and a level of abuse that was particularly fractious.

It was hard to avoid a sense that tensions that border on worrying divisions were on show.

As with much in Tower Hamlets, geographical proximity and cultural distance may be inversely related.

The ability of Lutfur and his candidates to appeal to 30-40,000 voters across the borough is impressive. But it might be more worrying if the demographic of his support is as monochrome as that of his successful candidates.

The East End has seen the outcome of a polarised politics before and it is not pretty. The claim that Lutfur’s regime speaks to an agenda of the left is confounded by the policy agenda that he has followed.

His popularity instead speaks more to the strengths of community networks, Sylheti ties and the mobilising forces of his political machine.

The strengths of these solidarities represent much of what is both best and worst about East End politics.

The ability of strong family ties and community links to generate both a sense of a communal collective identity and an overbearing sense of peer pressure is long recognised.

And it would be foolish to ignore the numbers of non (British) Bangladeshi voters that supported an incumbent mayor with an established publicity machine.

But the results are stark. It is doubtless possible for the Tower Hamlets First group of 20 councillors (as as May 28) and one mayor–all but one men, all of Bangladeshi heritage–to represent the rich diversity of the borough. But it will be challenging to do so.*

The 2011 Census counted that 17 ‘minority ethnic’ identities had populations over 1,000 and 33 per cent of households have more than one ethnicity represented at home.

And just as it was widely considered unrepresentative to have diverse parts of London represented by old white men over the age of 50 in the 1980s and 1990s, the same logic might be thought to challenge the newly elected members of Mayor Rahman’s party.

Trotsky allegedly suggested that if people voted the wrong way it might be necessary to abolish the electorate, an option open to few democratic parties. And so the challenges for the Labour Party are also enormous.

As well as losing the mayoral vote by a narrow margin there are fewer elected Labour councillors in Tower Hamlets than at any time since the borough was founded in 1964.

Quite simply, this is the worst election result for the Labour Party in Tower Hamlets in 24 years.*

More women will be elected by Labour, but proportionately significantly more of the successful Labour councillors are white than was the case after the election four years ago.

The collapse of the Liberal party nationally and locally has left easy pickings in parts of Bow where candidates were barely opposed but across the rest of the borough the outlook was bleaker.

In the longer term things will probably balance out as people mix, things move on, old people move out and new people move in. Indeed it is at times alleged that some of the councillors move to the suburbs before they let on about it to the returning officer.

Party politics is a minority sport and council life just one aspect of East End life. But in the shorter term it cannot bode well for the borough to have social divisions paraded in this way.

For the new mayor a challenge that sits along with the result is whether his party and his rule can reach beyond his core electoral base.

For the Labour party there is a question of whether it can learn again to understand and connect with the dynamics of community life that underwrite Lutfur’s appeal.  It has to do more than tell the voters they made the wrong choice.

But for all of the borough’s residents, the hope has to be that all concerned identify the danger of the present moment.

People need to recognise that diverse roots that bring people to the borough must be respected whilst building a future that is shared.

To do so it will be imperative to develop a politics that transcends racial, religious or ethnic division or else the consequences for the East End could be serious.

UPDATE, Weds May 28

Following the late count result of the Bromley South ward last night, Labour now have 20 seats, an increase of two councillors from the 18 stated in the original piece. Accordingly, Prof Keith says this is the worst result for the local Labour party since 1990, ie 24 years, not the 50 as originally stated.

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UPDATED AT 5PM, APRIL 25 WITH MICHAEL KEITH’S COMMENTS AT BOTTOM

Mayor Lutfur Rahman issued this press release yesterday:

Labour Mayoral hopeful John Biggs was facing mounting criticism today on his questionable record on race issues as a leaked internal memo from the Labour Party revealed that concerns had been raised regarding Mr Biggs’s apparent prejudice as early as 1995.

Professor Michael Keith, now Director of the Centre for Migration Policy and Society at Oxford University and a former Labour council leader in the borough, wrote to Labour Councillors and MPs saying:

“In short, I would accuse John Biggs of racism” after Biggs was apparently involved in the production of an inflammatory election leaflet.

This is not the first time Biggs has been mired in a race row. In 1998 he campaigned against the creation of Banglatown to be added to Spitalfields Ward, and in 2013 his Labour Group made false claims that housing allocations were being targeted to Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s supporters – claims that were gleefully used as propaganda by the EDL.

Recently, Biggs caused controversy with irresponsible remarks on the Sunday Politics show claiming Mayor Rahman was only serving the Bangladeshi community, at a time when the EDL were planning to march through Tower Hamlets.

Cllr. Alibor Choudhury of Tower Hamlets First, who reported Biggs to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for the remarks said:

“John Biggs’ 20 year record of dubious racially-charged remarks is there for anyone to see. This latest revelation shows that he doesn’t have the cultural sensitivity to run a diverse borough like Tower Hamlets.”

I’ve asked Lutfur’s camp to produce the leaflet that was at the centre of the row between Michael and John, but they say they don’t have it.

Context is everything, so let me try and give some. If you thought politics in Tower Hamlets was poisonous now, it was a different matter in the Nineties. The characters now act like dim kids in a playground; back then it was proper adult hooliganism.

Race and racism was genuinely the major issue then. Derek Beackon had been elected as BNP councillor in Millwall in 1993 and was kicked out a year later. The Lib Dems were at the centre of an inquiry by their own party leader, Paddy Ashdown, who was deeply concerned that activists had been engaged in racist campaigning.

Pretty much everything was evaluated in terms of race. As now, back then it was also used as a political stick.

We don’t have the leaflet, so we can’t evaluate it, but my understanding is that Michael Keith is appalled that something taken completely out of context 20 years ago is being used now as a smear. I’m sure we could all look back at things we’ve said 20 years ago and wish we’d phrased differently. I’m also sure Alibor will look back at his own behaviour now in 20 years and feel disgust with himself.

I understand Michael Keith might be issuing a statement on this today. My understanding is there was no way he thought John racist, either then or now. In fact, he is one of the people who has signed John’s nomination papers.

As for Alibor’s complaint to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission…well, what he doesn’t disclose is that they’ve told him it’s not one for them. The EHCR has in fact written to him twice to warn him against using misconstruing any of their replies to him on the matter.

If he feels so strongly about John’s words on the BBC Politics programme (when he pointed out that Lutfur’s cabinet was exclusively Bengali and appeared to be focusing too much on one section of the community – a statement of fact and fair comment, actually), then he has the option of going to the police. But he won’t because even he would know that’d be wasting police time.

After all, the police have drug dealers and gang members to catch on Alibor’s Ocean estate, don’t they.

However, back to Lutfur’s press release. I asked John for his thoughts. There are two camps on how to react to these attacks. One wants him to ignore them, the other wants him to punch back.

His statement to me below is measured and dignified in my view and straddles both camps.

This endless mud slinging and negative messaging demeans the mayor and shows both a desperation and that he has given up trying to reach across the borough and is working a ‘core vote ‘ strategy in which he clearly hopes that most people will stay at home and that his supporters, galvanised by repeated spurious  allegations against me will get them back into the town hall.

There is of course a danger it will work but it shows that their cupboard is pretty bare. 

The repeated use of the racism smear both insults real victims and diminishes them. I am proud of my record attacking  intolerance. Ironically they are defining themselves as the next obstacle to the sort of tolerant community we need. It helps me to understand quite how important it is to defeat them. 

I hear they are announcing their manifesto today. It will be interesting to see how many of our policies they will steal!

UPDATE:

Tower Hamlets Labour have issued the following statement from Michael Keith:

To dredge up out of context comments that were made almost twenty years ago to smear someone’s character scrapes the gutter. I’ve known John Biggs for decades and, while we have had our differences at times, there is no doubt in my mind that he works for the benefit of the whole community in Tower Hamlets. To try to paint him as a racist is a cynical act of electoral dirty politics.

He is the best candidate to represent all the communities of the borough in these difficult times and I am happy to support him.

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