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The following is a guest post by Tower Hamlets deputy mayor Cllr Oliur Rahman about his trip to Greece last month. He went with fellow Tower Hamlets First councillors Shahed Ali, Mahbub Alam, Shafiqul Haque, and various trade union activists. I wrote about it at the time here. The verdict in the Lutfur Rahman trial is expected next week, according to my latest information. Should that judgment go against Lutfur, Oli could be acting mayor for a short period. Clearly there are discussions even among Lutfur’s Tower Hamlets First party about who might stand in any mayoral by election in the event of a ‘guilty’ verdict. They’re only human after all.

oli rahman, mahbub alam

Deputy mayor Oli Rahman is wearing the hat

 

As the General Election draws closer, this should be a time of excitement and interest in politics. But for many, the opposite is the case. Huge numbers of people feel alienated from the political process, cynical with politicians, and don’t see any real difference between mainstream parties united on wanting to slash public spending. As the rise of the SNP and decline in Labour in Scotland demonstrates, people want to shake up the political order. And not just in Britain.Nowhere is this more evident than in Greece which has recently seen the election of the left-wing Syriza party on a programme of tackling austerity. A few weeks ago I decided to lead the first ever British local authority delegation to Greece. I did so because I am committed to build European solidarity against the austerity that is destroying the lives of fellow EU citizens. But I went for another reason. I wanted to see up close what this new kind of politics that Syriza stand for actually meant in practice.

On arrival our delegation – comprising of councillors, trade unionists and community activists – was taken into the Greek Parliament to meet with representatives of the International Aid Department. This was timely. The government was in the news for sticking to their pre-election commitment that they would not slash their international aid budget and ignoring demands from EU finance bureaucrats. It was refreshing to come across politicians who don’t actually pay lip service to humanitarianism, but put their words into practice.

The message from the Syriza representatives was loud and clear: for the peoples of Europe to defeat austerity we need a strong European-wide anti-austerity movement. This message was repeated in our meetings with activists in our visits to two social centres – these are citizen-run health clinics, food centres and legal aid hubs which have emerged to fill the gaps left by austerity.

The activists in the centre were at pains to emphasise that the aims of the centres is not about charity and just about helping people in desperate need. They are also about empowering citizens so that they can exercise power to shape and influence the political decisions affecting their lives. I was really impressed by the social centres and the representative from the Unite community centre on Cable Street agreed to look into twinning their centre with one in Athens.

As we travelled around Athens it had the appearance that all is well. The cafes were full, there seemed to be a buzz in the shopping malls. You see people sleeping in the streets but you do so in London too. However underneath the surface the figures tell a level of crisis much more severe than here. It is estimated that half the population are below the poverty line. Household incomes have fallen by a third since austerity hit. Many of those queuing at food banks belonged to the upper middle classes not so long ago.

Politicians with reactionary politics and simplistic solutions have done well in response to the crisis, and none more so that Golden Dawn, an openly neo-Nazi party that has scored up to 15 per cent in the opinions polls and whose members have been complicit in racist assaults and murder. They have made their gains on the back of trying to scapegoating migrants.

The reality of the impact of racism was brought home to us in a meeting we had with the anti-racist and anti-fascist organisation KEERFA which gathered together African, Pakistani and Bangladeshi members of migrant rights organisations. Their plight had been highlighted recently over the case of 35 illegal strawberry pickers who were shot at by their farm guards for asking for pay that was five months overdue.

Shockingly, when the case went before a court the guards were responsible were acquitted. We were privileged to meet with one of the leaders of the fruit workers, Tipu Chowdhury, whose testimony about their plight was very moving. We agreed we would organise a fundraising dinner in support on our return.The issue of the lack of basic rights for migrants was one that came up a lot on our visit. The local Bangladeshi community organised a dinner in our honour with over 200 people crammed into a tiny restaurant and we met members of the Greek Bangladeshi community who have been living in Greece for decades but still had not citizenship rights. As with all the Greeks we meet on our visits, the warmth of their welcome was overwhelming.

Hearing that we were in town we received a call on the eve of our departure from Athens from Zoi Konstantopoulo, the most senior woman in Greek politics, a human rights lawyer who sued Britain over the Iraq War, and Syriza’s President of Parliament asking us to come see her. We were honoured to meet her and were all impressed by her easy, relaxed style – she insisted we address her by her first name – and her lack of the airs and graces.

Zoi talked about how five years of austerity had strangled the Greek economy, the importance of building an international solidarity movement and the new government’s commitment to tackling racism. The Greek parliament has already made commitments to improving rights and Zoi affirmed the government’s commitment to redress this issue.

I know I am speaking for everyone on our delegation in writing that our trip to Greece was a really positive experience. It demonstrated the determination of the new Greek government to challenge the austerity agenda wreaking havoc in the EU.

I am came back from my trip more committed to the idea of a European Union, but one that is a Europe committed to the interests of all its citizens.

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At first sight, this one is straight from Comedy Central. Greece is in a bit of a pickle. It’s had a bit of a problem with corruption, and with how its politicians spend public money.

So who better to call in for a bit of advice than a special hit squad from Tower Hamlets?

Here’s a tweet from Stepney’s Tower Hamlets First councillor Mahbub Alam.

Yes, that’s Deputy Mayor Oli Rahman, two of his cabinet colleagues, Shahed Ali and Shafiqul Haque, as well as Mahbub, sitting there facing Greek MPs in Athens two days ago. Thanks to Alam, here are some other photos from their trip: CBBS0BmWQAAgzYe CBCwM2UWQAA-hr0   CBB0OnlWAAAXolu       CBDX7FOUQAAqWe-

CBGAlNMW4AAvkXj   CBGAlNQWwAEbUns

Where to start? As Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs editor Tim Minogue remarked on Twitter last night….wtf. First, the hat. In the first picture above, it’s resting on the head of the deputy mayor, Oli Rahman. He says it was a gift from George Galloway. George_galloway_011 Indeed, he does look like a mini-George and Oli was once upon a time one of his Respect councillors in Tower Hamlets. In fact I’m told that Oli, like George, has also taken to cigars. I’m not sure if he’s started wearing leotards yet, but you never know. galloway-big-brother There are other links to Galloway with this trip as well. In that fourth picture above, showing a tasty meal in Athens on Thursday night, you can see sitting at the far end of the table on the left hand side as we look at it, Kevin Ovenden. A socialist philosopher mathematician, he was for very many years the left hand side of Galloway’s brain (the right being the slightly more creative Rob Hoveman).

Kevin has been in Greece for some time and is no doubt excited by the rise of the Syriza party there, but I’m assured this Tower Hamlets delegation was not his doing. It was all Oli Rahman’s idea, Oli told me this morning. He called me from a Greek train slightly distressed after one of their wider group had just been robbed of their wallet.

So why are they out there and who’s paying for it? When asked about the latter on Twitter last night, Mahbub (who has a fondness for travel, especially if it’s supported by public money..), had this to say:

HaringeyThey flew out on Thursday and are due back tomorrow. Also with the four Tower Hamlets councillors is Haringey’s Labour councillor, Isidoros Diakides (left), who is co-chair of the London-based Greek Solidarity Campaign. There are also officials from the NUT and Unison with them, including the Tower Hamlets council branch secretary John McLaughlin

Yesterday, they all met a group of Syriza MPs in Athens, the party’s head of international affairs, a local mayor and a member of the Greens. As one Tower Hamlets politico said to me yesterday, it’s difficult to understand who exactly is advising who.

However, while it’s easy and perfectly reasonable to mock and laugh, there is a serious side to this. Greece has a serious problem with racism and a growing one with fascism. Golden Dawn are neo-Nazis.

Last year, there were cries of “scandal” after a Greek court acquitted two farmers of shooting 28 Bangladeshi migrants who had been claiming back pay for their strawberry picking work. Very good accounts of the story are here and here.

Oli told me this morning there are some 700 Bengali businesses in Athens alone, many of which are struggling with the austerity measures. Oli thought that most of the Bengalis in Greece did not have Greek passports, merely indefinite leave to remain there. I asked whether any those he had met there wanted to come to the UK. He said if some were “given the possibility to, they would come”. However, he added many others simply wanted to pursue a life in Greece.

He said the Greek MPs and the Greek Bangladeshi Chambers of Commerce wanted to hear about how the racism of the Seventies and Eighties in the UK had been defeated. Oli said the MPs were amazed and impressed that people of an Asian immigrant background had conquered such prejudice and were now running a major London authority. “They were fascinated about that,” Oli said.

I asked Oli what he’d been most impressed with so far and he highlighted a movement set up by Syriza MPs called ‘Solidarity for All’. Each Syriza MP donates 20 per cent of their salary to it for humanitarian causes such as food distribution.

That’s wonderful, I said. I asked him whether he and other councillors in Tower Hamlets would do that, ie donate 20 per cent of their allowances to such causes. At first he said the deprivation in Tower Hamlets was nowhere near the scale of Greece. I pointed out there were food banks crying out for money. I said he’d be setting a fine example.

And then I think he got it. He said he would add a line to a motion he’s already submitted on the issues in Greece for the next council meeting. That should be an interesting vote.

So something good might well come from their diplomatic efforts. Overall, good on them for going.

On a lighter note, I asked Oli if he’d heard anyone using the word “malaka” around him. “I don’t speak Greek, mate,” he said, “but I think so, yeah.”

This is what it means.

Bless.

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