Divide and rule: How race politics has poisoned Tower Hamlets

John Ware, the acclaimed broadcaster who has studied the London borough, explains the forces behind last week’s bitterly contested election

Overcome with emotion at winning a second term, in the early hours of last Saturday, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets broke down. Choking back the tears, Britain’s first directly elected mayor of Asian heritage said: “People say I’m a racist, I’m sectarian ... it saddens me ... I’m sorry I’m emotional ... I’m emotional because what I seek from you is fairness.”

Lutfur Rahman sees himself as the victim both of a relentlessly hostile media and his former party, Labour, which dumped him as its mayoral candidate in 2010.

He says he was never given the chance to disprove the allegations that he rigged his selection and that he became the willing servant of an Islamist entryist organisation based at the East London Mosque which, like the Militant Tendency of the 1980s, sought to infiltrate the party.

One thing is clear, though: the Mayor is not a racist. “I grew up with black kids and white kids,” he sobbed. “I grew up with Jewish kids, Christian kids, people of no faith.”

Read more
Tower Hamlets analysis by Mary Dejevsky: We take electoral integrity for granted  

Yet while Mr Rahman can’t take it when he’s accused of racism, some of his supporters seem happy to dish it out.

Here, for example, are comments from one supporter’s Facebook page, adorned with pictures of the Mayor: “Zionists are the root cause of all the evil on this planet right now Zionists are filthy animals with total depravity of any form of decent humanity.

“Behaviour of those who are descendants of Pigs and Monkeys (Zionist). Zionist filth!”

 

Most Jews see themselves as Zionists, including the many who accept that great damage has been done by messianic West Bank settlers to the founding ideal of Zionism as a mainly secular movement to liberate Jews from widespread European persecution.

The Mayor’s own Gandhi-like watchwords are “One Tower Hamlets” and “No Place for Hate”. Yet the divisive politics of Tower Hamlets are producing monsters.

And what of those who are directly part of the Mayor’s political machine – such as  key campaigner KM Abu Taher Choudhury? He edits the weekly Bangla News, whose front page railed against four Labour councillors, two of them Bangladeshis, for criticising the Mayor on the BBC’s Panorama: “Who is really uniting the borough? Tower Hamlets Labour leaders: they still think they rule an empire in which the Asians behave like the White man wants.”

Mr Choudhury has been a long-serving state school governor. The Mayor appointed him to sit on his Fairness Commission and he is also a winner of a “Community Diversity award” as “a best community leader”. What, one wonders, were the losers like?

Then there’s the Mayor’s right-hand man, Cllr Alibor Choudhury. Like the Mayor, he left Labour and during the campaign turned on his former mentor – the Mayor’s rival John Biggs – accusing Biggs of racism after he said that the Mayor’s “primary policy focus” had been the “concerns of one community – the Bangladeshi community”.

In the council chamber Cllr Choudhury also accused a Labour councillor who was wearing a black cardigan of being a fascist: “Oswald Mosley had the black shirts in the 30s; John Biggs has the black cardigans.” Cllr Jackson was wearing the black cardigan in mourning for her ex-husband whom she had just buried. Cllr Choudhury did at least apologise, saying he was “mortified” by his “ill-advised” remark.

There is a yawning gap between the Mayor’s rhetoric on the “oneness” of this very diverse borough – and the divisiveness of some of its politicians.

In his victory speech, flanked by his newly elected councillors – all Bengalis and all but one, male, the Mayor again emphasised he was Mayor for all Tower Hamlets. True, he will have won some non-Bangladeshi votes but his core vote remains the Bangladeshi community who represent only 32 per cent of the borough.

It’s hard not to suspect that the Mayor’s team played the race card in the hope that it would maximise his core Bangladeshi vote – through fear and also through seeing him as the victim of discrimination when he says he’s doing his best for everyone.

But the Mayor also resorted to the race card – accusing the BBC of having a “racist and islamophobic” agenda merely because we scrutinised his governance of Tower Hamlets. He insists the way he has run the borough is no different from other directly elected mayors.  But that is not so.

He is the first mayor to fund faith directly from local taxes, which some Bangladeshis themselves believe is potentially divisive.

Although money is going to synagogues and churches, so far most applicants have been mosques since Muslims are by far the most active faith group in the borough.

Lutfur Rahman is also the only mayor who has given grants to the media – over £50,000 to Bangla TV stations and newspapers whose coverage has been flattering; and to run a weekly council newspaper which the Government says has constantly promoted him and his party; and to create a logo using not just his name but also his photo – even on council dust carts.

He’s also employed more advisers than other mayors, whilst also being the least willing to submit to questioning from the Overview & Scrutiny Committee – despite claiming to uphold “highest standards of probity and transparency”. This forum was intended as a check and balance against a directly elected mayor’s greater personal power.

In particular, the Mayor refused to appear before the committee to answer questions about his large increase in grants to Somali and Bengali voluntary organisations at the expense – overall – of other voluntary organisations.

The Mayor has categorically denied opposition claims that he skewed the grants to help him maximise his core vote, insisting he awarded them solely on the basis of need. Our evidence on how these grants were awarded is now the subject of an investigation by government-appointed auditors who are also probing the award of contracts and the sale of council property.

Some of the Mayor’s largest grant increases went to organisations linked to the Islamic Forum of Europe which has said it wants to change the “very infrastructure of society, its institutions, its culture, its political order and its creed ... from ignorance to Islam”, but which the Mayor has described as having a “progressive social  agenda.” 

As the Government’s independent reviewer of its strategy to counter extremism, Lord Carlile thought the opposite, believing it divisive and reactionary. And while the IFE’s opposition to violent jihad in Britain is firm, the same cannot be said about its approach to some foreign violent jihadist campaigns, judging by some unprogressive preachers hosted by the East London Mosque – the IFE’s base.

There is no suggestion that the Mayor is himself a fundamentalist. But he remains largely reliant on a fairly narrow and significantly faith-based core. Professor Michael Keith, former Labour leader of Tower Hamlets, says the Mayor’s popularity “speaks more to the strengths of community networks, Sylheti ties and the mobilising forces of his political machine.”

There are credible reports that this political machine intimidated voters at polling stations and council staff at the count. The Electoral Commission is investigating but a Mayoral adviser warned that the civil war that started in the borough’s Labour group will “spill out  onto the streets” if the result is not accepted.

Alarmed at just how divisive politics in Tower Hamlets has become,  Professor Keith – now Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society at Oxford – fears for the future of the East End. As he says, politics there are not a pretty sight.

John Ware reported and presented ‘The Mayor and Our Money’ for the BBC’s ‘Panorama’ on behalf of  Films of Record

An East End upbringing, heritage and acromony

Lewis Smith

Luftur Rahman was the Labour candidate in the 2010 Tower Hamlets mayoral race until the party deselected him in acrimonious circumstances. A matter of weeks later, he won as an independent with more than half the vote.

Deselection had followed a series of allegations about vote-rigging and claims he had links to the Islamic Forum of Europe, accusations that persist today. The 2010 campaign, like this year’s, was marred by claims of mud-slinging and dirty tricks.

Before standing as mayor he had been a councillor from 2002 for Spitalfields and Banglatown and before that he had been active in the local community in other roles. He was a founding member of the Phoenix Youth Project and the Keen Students School.

His Bangladeshi heritage, he has said, is what gave him his “sense of collective responsibility and stability, and the importance of being part of a community, a society”.

Having been born in the city of Sylhet in what was then East Pakistan but became Bangladesh in 1971 after a brief war of independence, most of his childhood was spent in Tower Hamlets - at a time when racial abuse for the Bangladeshis living there was pretty much routine.

Mr Rahman went to East End primary and secondary schools before studying law at City University. He qualified as a solicitor but gave up his job at a local practice to stand for mayor.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
News
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee / Experienced Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

Science Teacher

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are currently recr...

Supply teachers needed in Wigan!

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Due to the...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Soho

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40000: SThree: As a Recruitment Consultant, y...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments