Lutfur Rahman and communalism in Tower Hamlets

November 6, 2014 at 3:50 pm (Bangladesh, communalism, democracy, Jim D, London, populism, Respect)

Re-elected Mayor Luftur Rahman

Eric Pickles has taken over the administration of Tower Hamlets council for two years after an inquiry commissioned by his department found wholesale mismanagement, questionable grant-giving and a failure to secure best value for local taxpayers.

Pickles plans to dispatch three commissioners to administrate grant-giving, property transactions and the administration of future elections in the borough.

The commissioners, who will be answerable to Pickles, will be in place until March 2017 and are tasked with drawing up an action plan to improve governance in the council, including the permanent appointment of three senior council officers including a chief executive.

The PwC report alleges corruption, cronyism and improper, communalist (though it doesn’t use that word) distribution of grants.

Among the key findings:

  • Poplar Town Hall, a Grade II listed building, was sold for £875,000 to a political supporter of Mr Rahman even though the bid arrived late, and after rival bids had been opened, which created a “risk of bid manipulation”. A higher offer was rejected, contrary to independent advice, and the winner was later allowed to change his contract.
  • Grants were handed out to organisations that were “ruled ineligible”, with some £407,700 given to groups that failed to meet the council’s own minimum criteria. Council officers were over-ruled in many cases.
  • The council appeared to show “a tendency towards denial or obfuscation rather than an inclination to investigate concerns raised”.  It did not properly investigate issues raised in a BBC Panorama programme that alleged Mr Rahman intervened to increase grants paid to some local Bangladeshi organisations.
  • Public money was spent “inappropriately” on political advertising for the Mayor.

Comrade Coatesy has done an excellent job of summarising the report and the media response. He concludes with these words of wisdom, with which we heartily concur:

“Pickles is a one-man anti-democratic foul abusive swine.

“But before protesting at this those on the left should avoid saying that Rahman’s administration and satellites (are) innocent  because they say so.”

Some background information (drawn up by a comrade before the publication of the PwC report):

Rahman was previously the leader of the Labour group on Tower Hamlets Council.  However, he lost this position in 2010.  The same year he was selected as the Labour candidate to stand as the directed elected mayor of Tower Hamlets before being removed by the party’s NEC.  The reason for him losing both positions were accusations that the Islamic Foundation of Europe (IFE) had signed up some hundreds of members to the Labour Party to advance Rahman’s cause.  The IFE is part of a network of groups around the East London Mosque aligned to the Jamaat-e-Islami (aka Maududists), which has its origins in India but is now more significantly is a force in Pakistan and were chief amongst the anti-secessionist forces in the civil war that created Bangladesh.  They are Islamist in that they support an Islamic state based on Sharia law, but are (on the whole) social conservatives not jihadists.

Rahman won the 2010 mayoral election as an independent although Tower Hamlets is by no means a majority Muslim borough, less than 40% are Muslims but they do constitute the bulk of Labour’s electoral base and once Rahman was able to win this no-one could beat him.  Rahman’s position was strengthened by the party formed around him, Tower Hamlets First (THF), winning 18 of the 45 council seats in 2014 and under the mayoral system Rahman can run the administration drawing on only these councillors.  THF is entirely drawn from Tower Hamlets Bangladeshis (and one would assume, Muslims), although six have previously been councillors of both the Labour Party and Respect.  One of these, Abjoi Miah, was a key member of Respect and appears to have been the key link person between Respect and IFE/Jamaat.  He is now the central organiser of THF and a power behind Rahman’s throne.  The turn to the Labour Party and Rahman appears to have been because IFE/Jamaat lost confidence in the Respect MP for Bow and Poplar (in Tower Hamlets), George Galloway, after he made a complete fool of himself on Celebrity Big Brother.

There are three important points to make about the Rahman/THF rule in Tower Hamlets and the possibility of other councils becoming Muslim run:

First Rahman and THF do not present as Islamists.  For example, the council maintains an LGBT policy.  It might be the case that Rahman and many of the THF councillors are not Islamists but communalists who wish to promote the interests of those of Bangladeshi origins, something that is not without precedent in local government politics in Britain.  The most notable feature of Rahman/THF rule is not the establishment of an Islamic state in the East End, but the creation of a version of the millet system that existed under the Ottoman Empire whereby everyone is related to as a religious group.  It is common for local councils to run a layer of social services through local voluntary groups and charities.  In Tower Hamlets these are becoming increasingly demarcated on religious lines, that strengthens the links between people of Bangladeshi origin.  Through its Community Faith Building Support Scheme the council gives direct support to faith based groups, the budget for 2014 being £1.3 million.  Of the 2013 funding, although funding went to a variety of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh groups, two-thirds went to Muslim groups.  It is such communalism and setting of religious identity into policy structures that is most problematic here, not any overt militancy.

Second, what is notable about Tower Hamlets First is their relative youth. These are not bearded elders in traditional attire, but young men in suits and whose beards are either neatly clipped or absent.  In sharp distinction to older generations, there are women amongst THF’s councillors.  This group has coalesced around three factors: the shutting down of channels in the Labour Party to their advancement, the rise of Respect in Tower Hamlets showing the potential to mobilise Muslim voters in a new way, and the organisation hub of Jamaat-e-Islami based on the East London Mosque.   The last of these is probably the most important, but one that might not be readily replicated elsewhere.  As Innes Bowen has shown in her recent book, Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent, while most mosques in Britain are affiliated to the conservative quietism of the Deobandi and Barelwi strands of Sunni Islam, the East London Mosque is affiliated to the Islamist idea of Jamaat-e-Islami, with IFE being part of this stable too.

Third, success for Tower Hamlets First was tied up with the mayoral systems.  Tower Hamlets First do not have the spread across the borough to win the majority of the council seats, and have only 40 per cent.  Their control is thus based on winning the direct elections for mayor that Rahman did comfortably in 2010 where he took much of Labour’s vote, and more tightly in 2014 against a strong Labour challenge.

 Rahman’s links with the Islamic Forum of Europe and Jamaat-e-Islami are described on pages 27-29 of this booklet.

3 Comments

  1. Mike Killingworth said,

    This tale will be repeated elsewhere as time goes by. It is an interesting question as to whether Hilary Benn would have done the same as Eric Pickles.

  2. charliethechulo said,

  3. The options for the return of legitimate governance in Tower Hamlets | Though Cowards Flinch said,

    […] of the verdict need not concern us here.  Nor, indeed. need the ethnicity of the ex-Mayor or his allegiances.  A focus on such matters tends to obscure the more fundamental issue: that investing executive […]

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