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Artillery Row

Lutfur Rahman and the future of localism

A new and dangerous kind of local politics is emerging in Britain

Would you believe me if I told you that the Mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is the most effective politician in Britain today?

I doubt it, but it’s absolutely true — no other political actor in the country has used the tools at their disposal as effectively as Lutfur Rahman, the Bismarck of Banglatown. As news broke this week that the Department for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) had launched an investigation into Tower Hamlets Council, citing concerns over financial mismanagement and hiring practices, now is an opportune time to familiarise ourselves with Rahman’s remarkable record.

A potted history of his political career tells the story of a man who has managed to achieve results time and time again, enriching his community against the odds. Between 2008 and 2010, Rahman served as Labour’s council leader in the borough, before being replaced in May 2010 following an investigation which linked him to the fundamentalist Islamic Forum for Europe (IFE), which has previously called for the implementation of Sharia Law in Britain.

Naturally, Rahman was not to be deterred by this minor inconvenience; it takes more than accusations of Islamist extremism to keep a good man down. In October of the same year, he stood as an independent candidate in the borough’s first ever mayoral elections, winning out with a respectable 52 per cent of the vote — but why did Tower Hamlets switch to a mayoral system in the first place?

Under the local government regulations of the time, councils were obliged to conduct a referendum on switching to a mayoral system if 5 percent of registered voters signed a petition supporting the change. In mid-2010, IFE activist Abjol Miah successfully organised such a petition; 99.3 per cent of the signatures were Asian names, half of which were reportedly found to be invalid by council officers, with entire pages of names and addresses written in the same handwriting. Still, the people — some of them at least — had spoken.

In his first term as mayor, Rahman spent more than £115,000 on office extensions, and was driven around in a Mercedes Benz E-Class, at the cost of £72 per day — all as his administration forced through budget cuts of £70 million. He also provided character references for convicted sex offender Zamal Uddin and for Mahee Ferdhaus, a Bangladeshi businessman who was later sentenced to three years in jail for money laundering. 

Ahead of his re-election campaign in 2014, BBC’s Panorama alleged that Rahman had diverted over £3.6 million of grants to charities run by Bangladeshis and Somalis in return for support, while also paying money to Channel S, a TV channel targeted at the British Bangladeshi community, for favourable coverage. Nevertheless, the police found no evidence of criminality and Rahman came out on top in that election, running under the banner of “Tower Hamlets First”.

His re-election was challenged in court by local residents who suspected foul play and was eventually overturned in April 2015. Rahman was personally found guilty of bribery, slandering opponents via accusations of racism, and “undue spiritual influence”, following the publication of a letter signed by 101 imams which urged Muslim voters to back the mayor’s re-election campaign. For this, he was barred from seeking public office for five years. His election agents, meanwhile, were found guilty of personation, postal vote tampering, providing false information to a registration officer, making false statements about a candidate, payment of canvassers, and bribery. 

No matter — there was plenty of life in the old dog yet. In 2018, Rahman helped to launch the Aspire Party, which was composed chiefly of former Tower Hamlets First councillors. In 2020, his ban on standing for election expired and in 2022, he was re-elected as Mayor of Tower Hamlets. Aspire won an outright majority on the council with 24 seats, all of which were occupied by men of Bangladeshi heritage. In a borough that was recorded as 35 per cent Bangladeshi at the last census, rising to around 50 per cent in areas like Limehouse, Shadwell, and Whitechapel, Aspire’s monoethnic candidate slate should raise eyebrows. 

Old habits die hard. In 2022, Rahman appointed Alibor Choudhury, who was also found guilty of corruption and electoral malpractice in 2015, as his Deputy. In February 2023, he announced plans to hire nine freelance consultants, who were each to be paid £58,000 a year. All the while, the borough has failed to deliver basic services for residents. It’s a shame that none of those consultants were able to advise him in managing relations with refuse workers last September, as rubbish piled high in the streets during a two-week strike. 

The story of Tower Hamlets is not just a story of petty corruption, but of kleptocratic, sectarian politics conducted along ethno-religious lines. Rahman has used his links with the borough’s close-knit Sylheti Bangladeshi community to maintain power, manipulating local government systems in the process. The fact that the mayor surrounds himself almost exclusively with Bangladeshis is no coincidence. 

Rahman is the most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon, but he is by no means the only example. Across the country, we are reaping the rewards of three decades spent mishandling immigration and integration — increasingly, vocal minority groups are part and parcel of British democracy.

In the past few weeks, we have seen beleaguered Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle change Parliamentary protocol in response to threats from Islamist extremists. Last Friday, a council meeting in Walsall was interrupted by a pro-Palestinian mob calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, while a similar group attempted to intimidate Conservative councillors at a fundraising dinner in Stoke-upon-Trent. Yesterday, George Galloway came out on top in the Rochdale by-election, a contest marked by openly sectarian appeals to the town’s Muslim voters.

The finely tuned machine that is British democracy was designed for a high-trust culture, in which good faith could be taken for granted. Local government officials could be afforded remarkable flexibility, because ours was a country in which basic standards of conduct in public office were important to most voters. It certainly wasn’t designed to cope with sustained pressure from minority groups who care more about their in-group interests than about the democratic process. In most of the world, the former attitude is very much the norm.  

Unfortunately, it will also mean Westminster becoming much more muscular in its relations with local government

A change in circumstances necessitates a change in approach. We can no longer take good faith for granted, and so we must adapt our systems in order to combat this new threat. That means greater scrutiny of charitable grants, and harsher sentences for those who subvert local democracy. Unfortunately, it will also mean Westminster becoming much more muscular in its relations with local government. 

That process starts with clear identification of the issue at hand. DLUHC now has an opportunity to recognise the problem of Tower Hamlets for what it is: a single ethno-religious group has been able to monopolise power in the borough by manipulating our local government structures and charities legislation, neither of which were designed with sectarian politics in mind. Fail to act now, and we can expect to see the same pattern emerge elsewhere. I hope, for all of our sakes, that the Department chooses to sound the alarm.

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