By Andrew Williams
The Mayoral election in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets on 22 May is of national significance because of the concerted campaign to unseat Britain’s first and only Muslim directly elected Mayor. Lutfur Rahman is also the first and only Black directly elected Mayor. In the context of the current intensive media and political campaigns against Muslims and migrants, this is the most high profile fight defending diversity in British politics.
The demographics of this London borough suggest that in a representative Tower Hamlets’ council Muslims and Black people would play principal roles. Islam ranks as the borough’s top religion (34.5 per cent, followed by Christianity at 27.1 per cent: 2011 census) and ‘ethnic minorities’ together make up the majority of the population (Asian/Asian British 41.1 per cent, Black/Black British 7.3 per cent, Other ethnic 2.3 per cent, Mixed 4.1 per cent, White 45.2 per cent : 2011 census).
The policies of the Lutfur Rahman led administration are those of a progressive Labour council, which should be no surprise given he is a former Labour Leader of the Council. This past three years his Mayoralty has been doing its best to protect the local population from the effects of the government’s austerity attacks. Obviously this is difficult; Tower Hamlets is an inner city area where deprivation is widespread. It has the largest proportion of children living in poverty in Britain. Also the Council has been severely hit by government cuts, losing 24.9 per cent of its funding over the five year period from 2010/11. Despite this Rahman can claim significant achievements, including: building the largest number of new homes in the country for three years running; remaining the only council in the country to offer free homecare for the elderly; and introducing free school meals for primary school children.
Rahman became the borough’s first directly elected Mayor in 2010. His election was an important victory for the borough’s Bangladeshi population which for decades has had to fight for meaningful representation within Tower Hamlets politics. The local Labour right-wing, in particular, has consistently intervened in the party’s selection procedures to exclude representative candidates, including by manipulating the procedures.
In 2010 Rahman overwhelmingly won the local Labour Party’s selection to be its candidate for Mayor, with more than double the first preference vote of the candidate who came second. Labour’s right-wing whipped up an Islamophobic smear campaign to overturn his selection. A ‘dossier’ was submitted to Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) alleging he had secured the selection through voting fraud and made the wild claim that he had been ‘brainwashed by [Islamist] fundamentalists’.
Despite no evidence Rahman had abused Labour’s membership and the nonsense about Islamic brainwashing clearly being ridiculous, Labour’s NEC went along with the right-wing and replaced him as the party’s candidate.
Rahman ran as an independent in October 2010 and decisively won the Mayoral election, again with more than double the vote of his nearest rival.
Because of his progressive and inclusive policies, Lutfur Rahman has retained considerable support from within the Labour Party, including amongst its Black members and on the left. Left Futures, for example, consistently carries material opposing Rahman’s exclusion from the Labour Party, with informative pieces here, here, here and here.
Ken Livingstone, alongside Labour National Executive Committee member Christine Shawcroft, have fought for Rahman to be treated fairly by the Labour Party and recently publicly appealed in a letter for an end to the ‘muckraking’ against him, drawing attention to his administration’s significant achievements. The letter was also supported by TUC President Mohammed Taj, Unite Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner, President of East London Central Synagogue Leon Silver and the Director of Operation Black Vote Simon Woolley.
The policies of Rahman’s administration are to try to ensure the whole local population, in its full diversity, benefits from the Council’s resources. That requires addressing the exclusion of the borough’s most oppressed. Rahman’s framework has wide local support, as indicated by the praise he recently received in a letter published by the local community groups network, TELCO (The East London Citizen’s Organisation), signed by local religious leaders including from the churches.
Locally Labour’s right-wing is in a de facto pact with the Tories, seeking the latter’s second preference votes should the election count go to a second round.
The current campaign being orchestrated against Lutfur Rahman is more toxic than previously. Its core appeals to Islamophobia and racism are very direct. There is the continuing barrage of smears suggesting Rahman is a corrupt extremist, who buys votes and is imposing a sinister Muslim agenda on the Council – false claims, made without presenting evidence, because there is none.
Plus there is the innuendo and dog whistle politics suggestion Rahman only serves the Muslim / Black / Bangladeshi community. Labour’s right-wing fan this pernicious campaign with claims that Rahman ‘favours’ particular communities.
The BBC broadcast a Panorama programme, crudely attacking Rahman for increasing public funds to the most deprived communities (Bangladeshi and Somali) in the borough. In response the Mayor’s supporters produced their own documentary, but that has not had television coverage and can only be seen on the internet.
The Panorama intervention was used as a pretext to call in various authorities to investigate Lutfur Rahman. The government sent in auditors, in the hope that a ‘review’ of the Council’s financial decisions will denounce him. Meanwhile the Metropolitan Police, looking into alleged fraud and mismanagement, concluded there is ‘no credible evidence of criminality’.
The vilification campaign in Tower Hamlets is encouraging a rise in Islamophobia within the area. Metropolitan Police figures report, in the year to March 2014, Islamophobic crime rose by 194 per cent in the borough, compared with a rise of 65 per cent across the whole of London.
The national context of this Tower Hamlets electoral battle is a growing racist offensive. Attacking migration is the right’s main agenda, to which a host of Islamophobic campaigns have been added. In addition to the attacks on Lutfur Rahman there are the fake claims that Muslims are plotting to take over Birmingham schools (reported on here), renewed tabloid hysteria about halal food and the government’s review of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The re-election of Lutfur Rahman on 22 May would be a significant riposte against this racist offensive.
After the elections, on 14 June the Stand Up To Racism and Fascism Conference will provide an opportunity for progressive activists to discuss how to strengthen the fight against Islamophobia, details below.
Stand up to racism and fascism
No to Scapegoating Immigrants – No to Islamophobia
9.30 – 5pm Saturday 14 June
Trade Union Congress
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3LS
£12 / £6 (students and concs)
Themes include: ● No to Islamophobia and Islamophobic attacks ● Challenging racist scapegoating of immigrants ● Celebrating diversity ● Busting the myths on immigration ● Responding to racism and fascism in Europe ● Stand up to UKIP
Download Stand Up To Racism and Fascism Conference leaflet here.