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The unlikely return of Lutfur Rahman

Lutfur Rahman visits the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, east London, on 23rd March 2015. A month later he was removed from office by an election court judge

Lutfur Rahman visits the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, east London, on 23rd March 2015. A month later he was removed from office by an election court judge. Photo: EL pics / Shutterstock

In the end it wasn’t even close. On 6th May, Lutfur Rahman was elected mayor of Tower Hamlets after winning more first-preference votes than his Labour, Tory and Lib Dem opponents put together. His Aspire party won a majority of seats and control of the council of the east London borough, with its population of 320,000. Rahman’s margin of victory over the incumbent, longtime Labour rival John Biggs, was even greater than it was at their last face-off in 2014.

That victory had been declared void a year later when Rahman was found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices by a special election court. The 57-year-old former solicitor – who consistently denied any wrongdoing – was removed from his post, ordered to pay around £250,000 in costs and banned from holding public office for five years. He was later declared bankrupt and barred from practising law. The political obituaries were written; his name rarely appeared in print without ‘disgraced’ as a prefix.

And yet here he was on 6th May, giving a victory speech at the town hall in front of his ashen-faced Labour rival, being handed responsibility for a council budget of more than a billion pounds. The responsibilities of London councils include social care, transport, housing, education and some taxation; executive mayors such as Rahman have greater powers than traditional council leaders.

“I have complete faith in the people of this borough,” a jubilant Rahman told reporters after being confirmed as the borough’s new mayor. “They understand right and wrong. Despite the propaganda against me, despite the smears against me, despite the insinuations… the people of this borough gave me another chance.”

The stark contrasts of Tower Hamlets are on full display in Cubitt Town, a working-class neighbourhood on the Isle of Dogs in the shadow of skyscrapers bearing the logos of HSBC, Barclays and JP Morgan. England’s most densely populated borough, Tower Hamlets has a larger economy than Birmingham or Manchester, and yet 56 percent of children here live in poverty, the highest rate in the UK.  At Cubitt Town Library, one of the few buildings here to have survived the Blitz unscathed, the only Tory councillor in Tower Hamlets flicks through a ring-binder labelled ‘Fraud Folder’. “I’ve got 20 more of these at home,” says Peter Golds, who has served this area since 2006. For much of that time he’s been a dogged opponent of Lutfur Rahman.

 Residential developments in Tower Hamlets photographed in February 2013. The east London borough has one of the highest levels of inequality in the UK

Residential developments in Tower Hamlets photographed in February 2013. The east London borough has one of the highest levels of inequality in the UK. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

From his ring-binder he produces a well-thumbed photocopy of an ad placed in the London Bangla newspaper in 2010. It was placed by a campaign group that didn’t exist, promoting a rally that never happened – and it declared that Helal Abbas, Lutfur Rahman’s Labour rival in the inaugural mayoral election, was a ‘wife-beater’ (Abbas went on to win a four-year legal battle – the paper’s editor paid damages and admitted there was ‘no truth to the allegation’). “A week before the election London Bangla suddenly upped their print-run and the newspaper [including the advert] was delivered to every home in Tower Hamlets,” says Golds. While it is likely to have helped his campaign, Rahman denied any involvement.

Before they were rivals, Rahman and Abbas were colleagues in the local branch of Labour, but the former was expelled from the party by its National Executive Committee (NEC) in September 2010 in the aftermath of the broadcast of a Dispatches film for Channel 4 entitled ‘Britain’s Islamic Republic’. It alleged that Rahman had links to a fundamentalist Islamic organisation and that he was involved in an entryism campaign to infiltrate the local Labour party with religious extremists. Abbas had also submitted a dossier to the NEC containing allegations that Rahman had been “brainwashed” by fundamentalists. In the wake of the allegations in the documentary, which he has vigorously denied, Rahman ran for mayor as an independent candidate in October 2010. In a humiliation for Labour he won, becoming Britain’s first Muslim executive mayor in the process. His campaign was aided by endorsements from two left-wing heavyweights with experience of being expelled by Labour – former London mayor Ken Livingstone and George Galloway. In 2005, fuelled by anti-Iraq War sentiment, Galloway had embarrassed Labour to become a Respect Party MP in the borough.

By the time of the May 2014 mayoral election, Rahman had established his own party, Tower Hamlets First – and Golds’ ring-binders were starting to fill up. The Conservative councillor had complained of men intimidating voters at polling stations and alleged electoral fraud in the 2012 by-elections.

Weeks before the 2014 poll, a BBC Panorama programme contended that Rahman had attempted to gain the loyalty of voters from particular ethnic groups by more than doubling the public funds allocated for Bangladeshi and Somali organisations in the borough (‘Bangladeshi’ refers to the nationality, ‘Bengali’ to the ethnicity; the terms tend to be used fairly interchangeably in Tower Hamlets). There was an intriguing sub-plot – a Bengali researcher at the production company of the Panorama programme leaked some internal documents, including the names of confidential sources, to the mayor’s office before broadcast. The BBC denied the researcher’s claims that the programme-makers had an Islamophobic agenda. Rahman denied the programme’s allegations about him.

I thought Rahman would just go away, but he was lying in wait”

Not for the first time, a high-profile TV broadcast accusing Rahman of wrongdoing didn’t damage him electorally. If anything it galvanised his supporters. He defeated Labour candidate John Biggs by a comfortable margin, although election night was tainted by multiple reports of voter intimidation. There were “rumours of impersonations, people turning up to vote who found they’d voted already,” Biggs claimed after his defeat.

Rahman’s second term only lasted a year, and for some of it his powers were stymied by an extraordinary intervention from Westminster. Then-communities secretary Eric Pickles commissioned a report on Tower Hamlets from PwC based on a “worrying pattern of divisive community politics and alleged mismanagement of public money” by the mayoral office. After receiving a damning report, Pickles sent commissioners to take over some of the embattled mayor’s powers.

Meanwhile, four Tower Hamlets residents took Rahman to court for electoral fraud. In their submission to the court, they claimed that the mayor had “a long history of abusing his power, inciting his supporters to intimidate his opponents, including through threats of violence, and corruptly funding organisations to promote him politically.” After a ten-week hearing in an election court, on 23rd April 2015 Judge Richard Mawrey delivered his judgement. The “alarming state of affairs” of politics in Tower Hamlets was the result of the “ruthless ambition of one man”. Rahman’s 2014 victory was aided by “corrupt and illegal practices” including the casting of invalid votes (votes were double cast or cast from false addresses), the false portrayal of Biggs as racist, the payment of canvassers and the use of ‘undue spiritual influence’ – local Muslim religious leaders pressurising residents into voting for Rahman. Mawrey described the “real losers in this case” as local Bengalis, whose “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 election was declared void; Rahman was removed from his job and banned from running for office for five years.

Candidates including Lutfur Rahman (third left), John Biggs (third right) and Peter Golds (right), waiting for the results at the Tower Hamlets election count in London, 6th May 2022

Candidates including Lutfur Rahman (third left), John Biggs (third right) and Peter Golds (right), waiting for the results at the Tower Hamlets election count in London, 6th May 2022. Photo: PA Images / Alamy stock photo

“I thought he would just go away,” says Golds. “But everybody said he was lying in wait.” In 2018 Rahman formed the Aspire party and it wasn’t long before the ideal opportunity for a comeback presented itself. The four main parties – Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and the Greens – jointly campaigned to replace the mayoralty in Tower Hamlets with the more common ‘leader and cabinet’ system (in which the council elects a leader who appoints the cabinet, and who has less power than an executive mayor) in a May 2021 referendum. John Biggs, who won the rerun 2014 election and was reelected three years later, argued that executive mayors, who can approve plans without the backing of elected councillors, were too powerful, and in 2020 he voluntarily surrendered some of his powers. While he was trying to persuade the public to vote him out of a job, Rahman became the de facto leader of the ‘Yes for Mayor’ campaign, releasing ads with the slogan, ‘Don’t take us back 10 years’. The referendum saw fewer than 18,000 people vote for changing the system, and more than 63,000 vote to keep the mayoralty. When Rahman launched his 2022 campaign, he accused his rivals of being hypocrites for seeking a job they had argued should not exist less than a year earlier.

Golds says that Biggs made other errors that Rahman could happily exploit – he says his low-traffic neighbourhood (LTN) schemes, which limited traffic through some residential streets, “pandered to the white middle class” and “incensed working class white people and Bangladeshis”. But much of Golds’ ire is reserved for the Metropolitan Police. Rahman was charged in a special election court – much closer to a civil court than a criminal court – over the 2014 election, and has never faced any criminal prosecution. In March 2016 an initial Met investigation into alleged electoral fraud and malpractice in the 2014 election found “insufficient evidence”, but a year later the London Assembly uncovered “major failings” in the police’s actions, or lack thereof.

In 2017 the Met committed to a reinvestigation, but the result was the same – the following year the force concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. Golds contends that the Met ignored evidence and failed to interview “anybody of note”. Other Conservative critics of Rahman, including Eric Pickles, have accused the police of turning a blind eye to Rahman due to over-sensitivity to religion and ethnicity. “What appears to have happened in Tower Hamlets is similar to what happened in Rotherham,” Pickles told the Spectator in 2015, referring to a child exploitation scandal in the Yorkshire town which saw the police fail to protect vulnerable girls, who were mostly white, from being groomed and abused by men who were mostly of Asian descent. “As with sexual exploitation, people just turned a blind eye because they were worried about community cohesion and the same seems to have happened in Tower Hamlets,” Pickles said. On the 2022 campaign trail, Rahman described the Met decision not to prosecute him as “vindication”. “He made the argument that he was badly treated, that he wasn’t given a fair trial,” says Golds. According to Golds, Rahman emphasised that “this was a vendetta against him.”

Mohammad Lutfur Rahman was born in 1965 in Sylhet, the northern region of Bangladesh where many Bengali residents of Tower Hamlets have their roots. As a child his family moved to London and they lived in a council estate in Bow – his father, he says, worked in factories and as a porter at the Savoy, while his mother, who didn’t speak much English, raised the children at home. His desire to serve the people of the borough, he says, comes from a sense of gratitude that his family was treated so well and given the opportunity to start a new life.

The events of 2015 hit him hard. Shortly after his 2022 victory, Rahman spoke to journalist Aaron Bastani of Novara Media about being removed from the mayoralty. “It was a very dark period in my life,” he said. “I had a young family, I lost my job overnight, I lost my earnings, I was living on handouts from my extended family… I lost everything.”

In the Novara interview – and in a column published by The New Arab, a news site run by Qatari company Fadaat Media – Rahman describes himself as the victim of an Islamophobic smear campaign. He believes that the political establishment, aided by a hostile news media, is determined not to allow an independent, left-wing Muslim politician to succeed. Aside from not “exercising enough oversight” over some supporters who went too far at polling stations in 2014, for which he has apologised, he insists that he has done nothing wrong. To his mind the four citizens whose petition led to the court judgement were people bearing grudges, and the trial was a “miscarriage of justice”. The police decision not to prosecute him, meanwhile, “cleared [him] of wrongdoing”.

“Islamophobia was deployed to stop my political career, and undo all the good I had tried to do for my community,” he wrote in The New Arab. On the 2010 Dispatches documentary he wrote: “It portrayed me as some sort of ‘mad mullah’ presiding over an Islamic dictatorship. This couldn’t be further from the truth… I believe in democratic values, I respect the secular nature of the country I live in.” The journalist who made the programme, Andrew Gilligan, has denied being part of a racist smear campaign against Rahman.

Rahman was consistently trying to push the envelope of what’s possible”

A distrust of the news media may explain why Rahman rarely grants interviews to anyone other than left-wing outlets such as Novara, or the Bengali-language media, viewed by his opponents as uncritical bordering on subservient. When my emails and calls to the mayor’s office went unanswered I went to a mayoral surgery to request an interview in person from his officials. At a library in Poplar, one of the most deprived areas in the borough, I watched Rahman, besuited and bespectacled, work the room – clasping hands, patting shoulders, giving greetings in both English and Bengali. I spoke with the deputy head of the mayor’s office, who suggested I put in an interview request through the mayor’s political advisor. He didn’t reply to me.

I did, however, meet Ashok Kumar, an Aspire supporter who has volunteered for Rahman in the past. In 2014 he co-wrote a Guardian comment piece in which he claimed there was a “concerted effort by the media and political establishment to smear Rahman” and to “depict a democratically elected politician as a sort of Asiatic despot.” In his flat on Hackney Road, on the northern edge of Tower Hamlets, the Marxist politics lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, recalls his delight back in 2010 to find a local politician so committed to radical anti-capitalist reforms. “Under Rahman, Tower Hamlets became the only place in the country with free universal elderly care, and the first place to make free school meals universal,” Kumar says. “He was consistently doing policies that involved structural changes, trying to push the envelope of what’s possible.”

Some of the mayor’s critics have put forward the view that his electoral success is largely down to an overwhelmingly Bengali base for whom ethnic loyalty trumps other concerns. Kumar, however, believes that Rahman wins elections because of his policies, and that his radical agenda offers people hope in a borough beset by inequality. Another factor aiding Rahman, Kumar says, is that many voters believed that Biggs had “no legitimacy”. “Biggs had run roughshod over the agency of people who elected someone with an overwhelming majority,” says Kumar.

Was Rahman the victim of an Islamophobic plot in 2015? “Of course,” replies Kumar, who says that Rahman was victimised because he refused to play the role expected of politicians of colour. “He’s a politically principled, very charismatic guy, and everybody likes him,” he says. “The Labour party establishment knew that, and he was slated as someone who would be an important politician and Muslim leader in this country. But he’s not the type of person of colour you get in positions of power; you get the David Lammy-type bootlickers and the Sadiq Khans who don’t do anything. That’s the only kind of representation you get in politics from people of colour, and if they’re not that, they get thrown off a bridge.”

Fatima Rajina is an academic at the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre at De Montfort University specialising in British Bangladeshi communities. Tower Hamlets has played an outsized role in her research since it has the biggest Bengali/Bangladeshi population in the UK – 32 percent of its residents according to the 2011 census, making it the largest single ethnic group in the borough. She believes that much of the media coverage of Rahman has been Islamophobic. The Dispatches programme that accused Rahman of links to fundamentalist Islam unfairly portrayed ordinary Bengali Muslim life in Tower Hamlets as sinister, she says.

“People forget that he’s a product of Brick Lane [traditionally the heart of the British-Bangladeshi community] and then he was a councillor for Spitalfields and Banglatown,” she says. “So naturally he attended the mosques in the area, and after school he would have gone to madrasas, which is what we all did, to learn recitation of the Qur’an… Naturally he will have particular affiliations with particular mosques… This idea that he is this Islamist figure is absurd.”

In his 2015 election court judgement, Mawrey said he had not heard a “shred of credible evidence” linking Rahman with fundamentalist Islam; the judge also criticised Labour for its “utterly shameful” decision to expel him from the party in 2010. “But [Mawrey’s ruling] doesn’t mean the accusation doesn’t stick around because when this language is utilised against a Muslim it’s very difficult to get rid of,” says Rajina.

Rajina, who has written extensively about the case of Shamima Begum – the 15-year-old of Bangladeshi origin who left Tower Hamlets with two friends to join Isis in Syria, and who has since been stripped of her British citizenship – is keen to point out that many in the Bengali community in Tower Hamlets dislike Rahman. “There are major splits,” she says. “Plenty of Bangladeshis don’t like him and they were the ones who pretty much instigated the movement against him… Some really despise him and some are very loyal to John Biggs.” She says that the notion that the Bengali community in Tower Hamlets is something close to a monolithic bloc backing Rahman is “simplistic” and “bizarre”. It should be noted that the majority of Labour councillors in Tower Hamlets are Bengalis.

The most contentious aspect of Mawrey’s judgement was the finding that Rahman exerted “undue spiritual influence” over Muslim voters – a letter from 101 imams and religious leaders had been published in the Bengali-language media a week before the 2014 election and appeared to instruct Muslims to vote for Rahman. In his ruling Mawrey drew upon rarely-cited 19th-century legislation originally introduced to curtail the influence of the Catholic church on Irish voters. He made the legal case for why it should be relevant in 21st-century London – adherents to a religion with an “emphasis on loyalty and obedience” could be exploited by politicians, he said. Journalist and former priest Giles Fraser, who was hired by Rahman to lead a commission on inequality in the borough in 2012, wrote in the Guardian at the time that the ruling echoed “the racist assumptions of the 19th century” and that Mawrey applied “the trope of the ‘thick Irish’ to Muslims”.

Sensitivity over race and ethnicity in Tower Hamlets makes reporting on the borough’s politics a “tinderbox”, according to Ted Jeory, whose Trial by Jeory blog forensically chronicled alleged corruption in Tower Hamlets throughout Rahman’s first spell as mayor.  “The problem with Tower Hamlets is that it’s deeply layered, deeply complex, and relatively few people understand it,” says Jeory over coffee at a former pharmaceutical factory-turned-trendy workspace in Bethnal Green, Galloway’s old stomping ground. “Unfortunately there’s an element of national newspaper journalism that forgets about the different shades of grey in the borough,” he says.

With Tower Hamlets there’s a kind of politics that leaves you thinking ‘FFS’”

But while some reporting on Tower Hamlets has drawn upon negative stereotypes about Muslims, around the time of the 2014 election Rahman’s team had a strategy of “tarring people with an Islamophobic brush”, Jeory says, echoing Mawrey’s judgement that the mayor was a person who “perceives racism everywhere” and increasingly dismissed all criticism as inherently Islamophobic. A toxic mix of bad journalism and bad politics helped create a false dichotomy – could it not be the case that Rahman was both a victim of Islamophobia and a corrupt politician? “Well, quite,” Jeory replies.

Jeory loved reporting on the “madness” of Tower Hamlets politics, and when he left his job at local newspaper the East London Advertiser, he continued his column on his blog. He spent his evenings at council meetings, cultivating contacts, scouring documents, making Freedom of Information requests – and chronicling some of the allegations of corruption that would ultimately lead to Rahman losing his job. The work was time-consuming, unpaid and occasionally unsettling – he received abuse and threats, and in 2012 the council unsuccessfully attempted to get him sacked from his job at the Sunday Express. After he moved to the neighbouring borough of Newham it was time to leave the unpredictable world of Tower Hamlets politics behind – he now helps to run Finance Uncovered, a non-profit that investigates corruption in Africa and Asia. However, he couldn’t resist tweeting “Tower Hamlets… FFS” when the result came through in May.

“Well, ‘FFS’ kind of sums it up really,” he says. “You spend an awful lot of time analysing someone, putting in all that work… and then for people to still go and vote for someone who is unfit for office. It’s like, well, what’s the point? With Tower Hamlets there’s a different kind of politics there that just leaves you thinking, ‘for fuck’s sake’.”

It was here in Tower Hamlets that the Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888, which saw around 1,500 women and girls successfully campaign against dangerous working conditions at their factory, inspired the burgeoning trade union movement. And it was in this borough in 1921 that councillors in Poplar went to prison for defying government orders to collect taxes from the poorest in society. It’s where Oswald Mosely’s fascists took a beating from Jewish residents and anti-fascists on Cable Street in 1936, and where the Bengali community rallied against racism after a young garment worker, Altab Ali, was brutally murdered in a far right attack in 1978. There have long been undercurrents of radicalism and racism in the borough’s politics. It’s the sort of place where the Lutfur Rahman story – of a radical politician being both torn down and built up by racial tensions – would happen. “Tower Hamlets has a long history of fighting back and being anti-establishment,” says Fatima Rajina. “From the Irish to the Jewish community to the Bangladeshi community and now the Somali community. It’s important to remember the history of the East End, and it’s a long proud history of [different communities] fighting back and never settling for anything less than they deserve.”

 Anti-fascist demonstrators march to protest against National Front activity in the Brick Lane area of east London two months after the racist killing of Bengali garment worker Altab Ali, 17th July 1978

Anti-fascist demonstrators march to protest against National Front activity in the Brick Lane area of east London two months after the racist killing of Bengali garment worker Altab Ali, 17th July 1978. Photo: Steve Burton/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This being Tower Hamlets – and this being the Lutfur Rahman story – the May 2022 elections didn’t pass without controversy. First, a relatively minor scandal – the issue of ‘family voting’, in which a relative influences or strong-arms someone into voting a certain way. Peter Golds told me he saw this taking place in polling stations on election night, and a report by election observing group Democracy Volunteers said it “identified extremely high levels” of attempted ‘family voting’. Those subjected to ‘family voting’, it said, were “invariably women from the Asian community” while those causing ‘family voting’ were “invariably Asian men”. Rajima says that ‘family voting’ allegations rely on “bizarre generalisations” about the way South Asian families vote, and perpetuate racist tropes that “South Asian women can’t think for themselves”.

Tower Hamlets has a long history of fighting back”

And then, a far bigger controversy. Every Aspire candidate voted into Tower Hamlets council was Bengali – and all 24 were male. Since Aspire won a majority, every member of the cabinet is now a Bengali male. There were three female Aspire candidates, but none were elected. When asked about the lack of women in his Novara interview, Rahman replied: “Of course it bothers me, it saddens me that we don’t have any women in the cabinet.”

He then used an excuse which critics who characterise Aspire as essentially a one-man show may find difficult to take seriously. “The party is separate to me. I am beholden to the party… As far as I know the party had tried its best to recruit women and recruit potential candidates from non-Bengali communities. They weren’t able to attract as many as possible in the short period in which they tried.”

Aspire has rejected allegations that only having councillors from a single ethnic group is bad for racial harmony in the borough. Rahman’s previous party, Tower Hamlets First, had faced the same accusations. Golds, however, says it’s concerning that “there’s one minority ethnic group that is so large and powerful.” If you go to any other London borough you’ll find diverse council cabinets that reflect diverse populations, he says.

Three months into his tenure, which has seen Rahman commit to building 1,000 social homes a year, freeze council taxes for four years, put the LTN schemes under review and extend the free school meals scheme to secondary education – Golds is surprisingly generous in his assessment of the mayor’s performance, at least when it comes to transparency. “He’s been to overview and scrutiny [committee], he has appeared at council meetings, he’s answered questions. He’s changed.”

The councillor’s ‘Fraud Folder’ sits open on the desk. “But I’m still watching him like a hawk.”

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