Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Lutfur Rahman: guilty of protecting Tower Hamlets from austerity cuts

By New Worker correspondent

LUTFUR Rahman received a standing ovation last Thursday evening on his arrival at a packed meeting at the Water Lily conference centre in Whitechapel’s Mile End Road.
The vast conference chamber was packed on 30th April as were a couple of ante-rooms with video links and there was a link to the big Mosque just down the road.
Most of those present were local Bangladeshi residents but there was also a strong turnout from local Black and White residents, trade unionists, anti-fascist leaders and progressive political activists.
They had come to hear Rahman declare his intention challenge a court judgement the previous week that deposed him as Mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets on the grounds of election fraud and using “undue influence” over the local electorate.
Lutfur Rahman centre with other speakers
The judge, Richard Mawrey QC, based his ruling on a very old law regarding “Undue influence: spiritual injury”. This is a law that has very rarely been used for over 100 years. It was framed by the British government to “counter the baleful influence of the Roman Catholic clergy of (largely the southern counties of) Ireland over elections in the late 19th century”.
The British state deemed Irish Catholic voters to be “unsophisticated” and “easily manipulated”. Judge Mawrey argued that this law applies today and not only to Catholic priests but to the Muslim Bangladeshi Imams of Tower Hamlets.
Mawrey says: “Controversial though it may be, and likely to cause offence, it is none the less the clear duty of this court to hold that the participation of the Muslim clerics in Mr Rahman’s campaign to persuade Muslim voters that it was their religious duty to vote for him and, in particular, the Imams’ letter, did, however unwittingly for most of the signatories, cross the line identified by Andrews J between what is permissible and what is impermissible. Sadly, therefore, the court feels it has no option but to find that there was undue spiritual influence.”
Mawrey’s finding are based on just four complaints from local residents, research by journalist Andrew Gilligan and the company Price Waterhouse Cooper – noted for its assistance to one per cent on how to dodge paying their taxes.
He takes a patronising attitude to the Bangladeshi community: “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.”
But Tower Hamlets contains a huge diversity of ethnic groups who live and work alongside each other very well – and strong support for Rahman comes from all sections, not just the Bangladeshis.
The Bangladeshi community is not isolated, nor is it lacking in political awareness; compared to most white communities in Britain Bangladeshi people are politically well informed and well able to make up their own minds.
Speaker after speaker talked of the benefits that Lutfur Rahman’s mayoralty has brought to the borough. They included leaders and organisers of local community groups and trade unions and some councillors from the local Labour group that threw Rahman out for his left-wing policies.
They spoke of funding found for swimming baths that were threatened with closure, youth programmes, lunch clubs for the elderly saved from cuts, domestic help for the elderly provided free, companies that use blacklists barred from council contracts, zero-hours contracts barred and the Education Maintenance Allowance continued.
Speakers included Andrew Murray from the giant union Unite who brought greetings from Len McCluskey, speakers from Unison and the National Union of Teachers, comedian Ava Vidal and George Galloway and Ken Livingstone, both via pre-recorded video clips. Christine Shawcroft, a local Labour councillor, gave a powerful speech in Rahman’s support and so did Birmingham councillor Selma Yacoob.
Sabby Dhalu of Unite Against Fascism helped chair the meeting and her co-leader of UAF, Weyman Bennett, gave a powerful speech on the joint work against the threat of the Islamophobic English Defence League that Rahman played a leading part in.
Judge Mawrey, in his statement had portrayed the EDL as not a serious threat and accused Rahman of “needing” the EDL in order to “play the race card” and accused right wing Labour leaders of policies that would play into the hands of the EDL.
Three times the EDL sought to march through the borough and three times they were barred by Rahman. Afterwards EDL leader Tommy Robinson admitted that it was their failure to march in Tower Hamlets that broke the EDL.
Before that they had marched in thousands through towns all over Britain, targeting Muslim communities with violent assault and intimidation. Nowadays they have difficulty getting 100 supporters on a march.
The measures Rahman took to protect Tower Hamlets from the cuts have benefited all the citizens of Tower Hamlets regardless of creed or colour. Effectively Rahman, elected as Mayor in 2010, has refused to implement the Con-Dem Coalition cuts – and this is his “crime of corruption”.
The Government knows that more mayors like Rahman would undermine its attack on working class living standards and wants him stopped. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has been tasked with leading the charge against Rahman and against Tower Hamlets. They intend to make an example of him to discourage others.
But this sort of thing has happened before in Tower Hamlets. In 1921 Poplar Council (now part of Tower Hamlets), led by George Lansbury, refused to set rates that would impoverish the people of Poplar and were tried and imprisoned for doing so.
Under the existing financial system for local government, boroughs were individually responsible for poor relief within their boundaries. This discriminated heavily against poorer councils such as Poplar, where rates revenues were low and poverty and unemployment, always severe, were exacerbated in times of economic recession
 On 29th July the 30 councillors involved marched in procession from Bow to the High Court, headed by a brass band. Informed by the judge that they must apply the precepts, the councillors would not budge; early in September, Lansbury and 29 fellow-councillors were imprisoned for contempt of court.
But they inspired other local councils to do the same and Lansbury and the other councillors were released after six weeks. They succeeded in changing the law so the rates did not fall so heavily on the poorer boroughs.
Rahman, in his speech, described himself as “down but not broken” and vowed to appeal against the judgement. He also commended to the meeting a colleague, Rabina Khan, who will be standing in the coming mayoral election in the borough for the Tower Hamlets First group – which was formed when Rahman was expelled from Labour.
Rabina Khan
Meanwhile Judge Mawrey is calling for a change in the law. He is convinced that only four local residents came forward against Rahman because of widespread intimidation. He wants the police to be able to act against an elected mayor without any complaints being lodged, “as a way of protecting democracy”.
“Police forces can and do act when evidence is presented to them of electoral wrongdoing but they do not have the resources to be pro-active and they remain heavily dependent on information supplied by the political rivals of the alleged wrongdoers. The Petition system is obsolete and unfit for purpose. It is wholly unreasonable to leave it to defeated candidates or concerned electors, like the present Petitioners, to undertake the arduous and extremely expensive task of bringing proceedings.”

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