The mayor of a diverse London borough was stripped of his office after a judge found he had committed multiple electoral fraud and corruption offences in a political career defined by playing the “race card” to secure power.
Lutfur Rahman could face a police investigation after his victory last May to become the directly-elected mayor of Tower Hamlets was declared void by a judge, who ruled he had “cynically perverted” the solidarity of Bangladeshi voters and made repeated claims of racism to silence critics.
Scotland Yard said last night senior officers were considering whether further enquiries should take place into Mr Rahman, who was told to immediately vacate his position and barred from standing in a fresh election ordered for the East End borough.
The dismissal of the 49-year-old represented vindication for four voters who had brought a rare petition to have an election overturned and faced vilification as well as a ruinous legal bill if they had lost.
Mr Rahman, a former Labour councillor who formed his own party, Tower Hamlets First (THF), to stand as mayor, was instead ordered to immediately pay £250,000 towards the £1m cost of the ten-week inquiry at London’s High Court.
In a withering judgment, Richard Mawrey QC, sitting as an Election Commissioner, said Mr Rahman had “driven a coach and horses through election law - and didn’t care”.
The judge said the former mayor, who was elected to a second term last year, had focused his electoral machine on the borough’s large Bangladeshi community - effectively bribing voters by targeting them with generous grants and using the influence of a senior cleric to tell Muslims it was their duty to vote for him.
Mr Mawrey said: “The evidence laid before this court has disclosed an alarming state of affairs in Tower Hamlets. This is not the consequence of the racial and religious mix of the population, nor is it linked to any ascertainable pattern of social or other deprivation. It is the result of the ruthless ambition of one man.”
The former mayor, who had denied the allegations against him as “invention” and “exaggeration”, said the judgment was a “shock” and suggested he was considering seeking a judicial review of the findings. In a statement, THF said: “This result has been surprising to say the least.”
Mr Rahman, a solicitor specialising in family law, had emerged from the vexed politics of Tower Hamlets, where George Galloway’s Respect party scored a number of notable victories over Labour in the wake of the Iraq War, as an urbane and independent mayor after falling out with Labour himself in 2010.
But his critics complained that rather than uniting one of Britain’s most diverse boroughs, Mr Rahman had surrounded himself with a “clique” of THF councillors. Along with his allies, Mr Rahman was accused of securing a second term with the help of measures including the doctoring of postal ballots and intimidatory tactics on election day which left one young woman in tears.
Mr Mawrey said Mr Rahman, whom he described an “evasive” witness, was a man who “perceives racism everywhere” and along with his lieutenants had repeatedly used accusations of racial prejudice or Islamophobia as a stock response to criticism.
The judge found that the former mayor had run a “ruthless and dishonest” campaign to portray his Labour rival in 2014, John Biggs, as a racist and also worked “hand in glove” with the head of the borough’s council of mosques to ensure that Muslims were told they had a duty vote for Mr Rahman.
A key tool in Mr Rahman’s electoral armoury was “bribery by grant”, under which he and a small number of aides took control of deciding the sums to be donated to community groups, the judge found.
Mr Mawrey said grants were substantially increased for some groups in defiance of recommendations by Tower Hamlets’ officials and other grants, such as that to the Alzheimer’s Society, slashed to free up funds for previously ineligible recipients. In one case, grants totalling £100,000 were handed out to ten Bangladeshi or other Muslim groups for lunch clubs when none had even applied for funding.
Noting that the “lion’s share” of grants went to Bangladeshi organisations, the judge found: “The main thrust of Mr Rahman’s political campaigning... was to target the Bangladeshi community and to convince that community that loyalty to the community meant loyalty to him.”
The controversial mayor lost his powers over grants last year when Communities Secretary Eric Pickles sent in commissioners to take over a number of functions in Tower Hamlets council. Mr Pickles said yesterday’s judgment was a “vindication” of that decision.
Andy Erlam, one of the quartet of voters who brought the case and whose “exemplary courage” in doing so was praised by Mr Mawrey, said: “It is a fantastic result for democracy. There will have to be a new election for mayor. Mr Rahman cannot stand.”
A new ballot may be held as early as June.
One of Mr Rahman’s closest aides, Alibor Choudhury, was also found guilty of corruption and illegal practices.
Mr Mawrey said the case proved the need for those in authority to challenge wrongdoing even when there were concerns it could lead to counter-allegations of racism.
He said: “Mr Rahman and Mr Choudhury… spent a great deal of time accusing their opponents of ‘dividing the community’, but if anyone was ‘dividing the community’, it was they.”
The judgment: ‘ruthless ambition’
“The evidence laid before this court, limited though it necessarily was to the issues raised in the petition, has disclosed an alarming state of affairs in Tower Hamlets. This is not the consequence of the racial and religious mix of the population, nor is it linked to any ascertainable pattern of social or other deprivation. It is the result of the ruthless ambition of one man.
“The real losers in this case are the citizens of Tower Hamlets and, in particular, the Bangladeshi community. Their natural and laudable sense of solidarity has been cynically perverted into a sense of isolation and victimhood, and their devotion to their religion has been manipulated – all for the aggrandisement of Mr Rahman. The result has been to alienate them from the other communities in the borough and to create resentment… Mr Rahman and Mr Choudhury… spent a great deal of time accusing their opponents, especially Mr Biggs, of ‘dividing the community’ but, if anyone was ‘dividing the community’, it was they.
“The Bangladeshi community might have thought itself fortunate to have been the recipient of the mayor’s lavish spending but in the end the benefits were small and temporary and the ill effects long-lasting. It was fool’s gold.
“Central government has already had to intervene once, and, on 4 November 2014, the Secretary of State, Mr Eric Pickles, announced the appointment of commissioners to take over a number of functions of the mayor and council, particularly in relation to grants. It is obviously not for this court to… recommend any further course of action but it seems likely that the governance of this borough will have to be examined in the not too distant future.
“On past form, it appears inevitable that Mr Rahman will denounce this judgment as yet another example of the racism and Islamophobia that have hounded him throughout his political life. It is nothing of the sort. Mr Rahman has made a successful career by ignoring or flouting the law (as this petition demonstrates) and has relied on silencing his critics by accusations of racism and Islamophobia. But his critics have not been silenced and neither has this court.
“Events of recent months in contexts very different from electoral malpractice have starkly demonstrated what happens when those in authority are afraid to confront wrongdoing for fear of allegations of racism and Islamophobia. The law must be applied fairly and equally to everyone. Otherwise we are lost.”