East London Mosque: normal service resumes

After being exposed in the Telegraph in February, the East London Mosque was on its best behaviour for a while. But now, at this favourite destination of hate and extremist preachers (18 at least since March 2009), normal service appears to have resumed.

One of the mosque’s more troublesome associations has been with Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda-sympathising cleric named as an inspiration by many high-profile terrorists, including the 9/11 hijackers, the Fort Hood murderer, the attempted Detroit plane attacker and the would-be Times Square bomber. Awlaki last spoke at the mosque, by video link, on 1 January 2009, at an event advertised with this poster of New York under bombardment.

Ever since Fort Hood, the East London Mosque has tried to downplay its Awlaki links, at least to journalists or people who might give it some more public money. It continues to claim that it is a centre of tolerance and moderation. This Monday, however, it is hosting one Abu Adnan, an Australian Awlaki supporter who has staunchly defended the cleric as an “important figure.”

Adnan is a senior officeholder at the Global Islamic Youth Centre in Sydney, where his partner is Feiz Mohammed, described by The Australian newspaper as “on paper, Australia’s most dangerous sheikh” for his links to extremists and terrorists. Adnan is on a six-date tour of the UK, where one of his other events is subtitled “Allegiance with the people of eemaan [the true faith] and dissociation with the people of enmity [non-Muslims].” Just the boy for the East London Mosque, I’d have thought.

Is Labour handing Tower Hamlets back to the Islamists?

Labour’s candidate for the directly-elected mayoralty of Tower Hamlets will be selected by the entire local membership, it has been announced. What’s wrong with that? In somewhere normal, nothing. But in Tower Hamlets, it risks ripping up the whole of the last two years’ successful work by Labour to hold back the infiltration of their party by Islamic fundamentalists. 

As I’ve described in the Telegraph and on Channel 4’s Dispatches, there have been some exceptionally suspicious changes in Labour Party membership in Tower Hamlets.  Over a period of a few months, Bethnal Green and Bow constituency saw its membership more than double – from 550 to more than 1100. Ninety per cent of the new members were Asian, and dozens joined on the same day.

One of the local Labour MPs, Jim Fitzpatrick, says the fundamentalist Islamic Forum of Europe – which wants to create an Islamic state – has been infiltrating and “corrupting” Labour like Militant did in the 1980s.

Aware of this, Labour placed the local party under “special measures.” Members’ power to select councillor candidates was removed. Candidates were selected by a special panel, limiting the numbers of Islamists in the Labour group. Now, however, these measures are to be removed. Labour is throwing open the selection for the far more powerful post of mayor – who will be in almost total control of the council. This is a recipe for disaster.

Labour sources assure me that they are well aware of the issue. I’m told that some of the suspicious new members (whose numbers peaked in 2008) have failed to renew. It’s also true that an early “freeze date,” 6 May, has been applied. Nobody who joined Labour after this point will be eligible to vote in the mayoral selection, meaning that the IFE cannot sign up huge numbers of new members in the coming weeks. It’s also possible that the time-honoured tactic will be adopted of keeping some of the more problematic candidates off the shortlist.

But the fact is that this does create a huge window for the IFE, and one of its recent allies, Lutfur Rahman. Mr Rahman, who was until recently the council leader, was elected to that post with the help of a senior IFE official, something he has refused to deny; under his leadership, a number of IFE-friendly policies were pursued, an IFE sympathiser was hired as assistant chief executive and increased sums of council money were paid to organisations closely connected to the IFE.

Mr Rahman lost his job after our expose; the recent elections, a massive defeat for the IFE, saw a number of moderate Muslim councillors elected. They promptly voted for an opponent of the IFE, Helal Abbas, as leader. But he is hoping to use the mayoralty to stage a triumphant comeback to a position of even greater power. The way it’s looking, he might well manage it.

The security minister and the Islamist-linked TV station

Guess who Pauline Neville-Jones, the new security minister, chose for her first post-election interview? The BBC? The Telegraph? The Guardian? No: bizarrely, it was the Islam Channel, the Islamist-linked satellite broadcaster whose chief executive, Mohammed Ali Harrath, is the subject of an Interpol “red notice” for terrorist offences. Only eighteen months ago, Neville-Jones was demanding that Harrath be sacked.

The Islam Channel also has a programme presented by a senior officer of Hizb ut Tahrir, the group the Tories wanted to ban.  Talk about outreach, Pauline! No wonder the presenter told her they were “honoured to be the recipients of your generosity.”

It was quite a revealing interview, too, in which she went significantly further than the detailed coalition agreement published last week. Among her commitments not mentioned in that agreement:

To “narrow [the] scope” of stop-and-search;

To “look at the whole question of pre-charge detention and whether it is justified;”

To “review the operation of Prevent,” the much-criticised counter-extremism initiative;

To produce a “national integration strategy – a conscious attempt to bring people together as Brits, irrespective of gender [or] ethnic origin.”

To “see… if we can, consistent with security, actually abolish the operation and the use of control orders.” (The coalition agreement promises only to review them.)

This is all very encouraging stuff – I’ve written a piece for this week’s Spectator calling for much the same things, as part of a new “compact” with the Muslim community. It is clear that the harm done by blanket stop-and-search, 28-day detention and the rest outweighs what (very limited) use they have against terrorism.

The other part of my suggested “compact” is also, however, that we must stop pandering to Islamists, like so many at the East London Mosque, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Forum of Europe that readers of this blog will be familiar with. The IFE and the rest of them are top favourites with the Islam Channel. So joking aside, Neville-Jones’ choice of media outlet is a potentially worrying sign.

She also stated: “We will bear down on extremism, but we are going to do it across the board. Right-wing extremists are no more going to be allowed to behave in society in ways which undermine the values we all stand for than anyone else.”

This seems to nod towards one of the Islamists’ favourite tricks – claiming equivalence between right-wing terrorism and Islamic terrorism. There are, of course, parallels – but there is no equivalence. There has only ever been one fatal white fascist terrorist attack in Britain, more than eleven years ago, which killed three people. The perpetrator was a loner guided more by personal hatred than by any sort of coherent ideology. The danger from Islamic terrorism is of a different order of magnitude.

So seven out of ten, Pauline: but do watch whose studio sofa you sit on.

Council propaganda newspapers: is this the end?

It’s been a great few weeks for several of my little hobbyhorses (with the exception of a certain bus.) The latest domino to fall looks like being that democratic disgrace, the local council pseudo-newspaper. Yesterday’s full coalition government agreement included a promise to “impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers.”

 I think I was the first journalist, in the Evening Standard last year, to take a detailed look at how councils were increasingly starting high-frequency, in-your-face tabloids to drive out of business the independent local press. The papers are published as often as weekly and delivered to all households. They are subsidised by taxpayers (Tower Hamlets’ weekly, East End Life,  cost the public purse £1.1 million last year) and can therefore undercut the ad rates of their  commercial rivals.

Far from being confined simply to the doings of the local authority, many have TV listings, sport, restaurant reviews, columnists, even news, of a sort. Only two things are missing: anything whatever that reflects badly on the council, and any mention at all of their political opponents. They resemble nothing so much as the official Communist Party newspapers from the old Eastern bloc countries. Several can be shown to have told direct lies.

The disturbing thing is that in this month’s election, it did sometimes seem to work. Tory-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham, which has a particularly subtle and pernicious propaganda organ, H&F News, saw a lower swing to Labour than its neighbouring boroughs. In Labour-controlled Tower Hamlets, the swing to Labour was higher than average.

These newspapers are part of the giant official PR and marketing apparatus that has grown up to spin us. They cannot die soon enough.

Has Labour stitched up the Mayoral selection for Ken Livingstone – and the election for Boris?

Nominations for Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London will “probably” close within the month and the successful candidate will be in place “by this September,” according to a Labour Party spokesman.

The accelerated timetable makes it much more likely that the only runner so far declared, Ken Livingstone, will be Labour’s candidate. Other heavyweights considering standing may not be ready or willing to throw their hats into the ring so early.

Two other things favour Ken. Unlike in the national party leadership selection, the votes of MPs will not be given special weight. Most London Labour MPs, in the last parliament at least, privately despised Ken (only three signed a Compass Group letter in his support during the 2008 election campaign.)

Also, whoever becomes Labour’s national leader is unlikely to want Ken as their standard-bearer in the 2012 election, Labour’s first big electoral test as an opposition party. However, they will now have no say in the matter, because the mayoral candidate will be chosen at the same time as they are.

All this raises the delicious prospect (for me at least) of an 18-month re-run of the last mayoral election campaign: there’s quite a lot more material in the locker I never got round to, and some interesting new stuff as well!

Ken is popular with the immediate electorate, Labour activists. But the results of the recent general and local elections should give them real pause about choosing him. Those results show that Labour should have a substantial chance of regaining the mayoralty in 2012: in the general election the party got slightly more votes in London than the Tories, and the capital was Labour’s second-best region, apart from Scotland. The Labour vote fell by less here than anywhere else in England and Wales.

Labour also won back control of nine London boroughs, more than doubling its tally (to 17.) In addition, by 2012 the Tories are likely to be pretty unpopular with the various cuts they have to make. Quite a lot of the Lib Dem vote in London which went to Boris last time might well go to Labour in 2012, now that the Lib Dems are in government.

As well as substantial achievements (the destruction of the Tube PPP – not something Ken ever managed) I also see some weaknesses in the Boris mayoralty – exemplified perhaps by its feeble compromising over the new “son of Routemaster” bus.

But one of the most important things which could prevent any Labour victory is Ken’s candidacy. The voters have already had a choice between Boris and Ken, and they have already made up their minds on the subject. Little has happened to change their minds.

In the two years since his defeat, Livingstone and his supporters have refused to learn any lessons or admit any errors, continuing to claim that he was only cheated of his birthright by the evil lies of the Evening Standard (no specific lies are ever cited, by the way, because there weren’t any.)  He has done nothing to address the actual causes of his defeat, reach out to the substantial parts of the electorate whom he alienated or talk about the things they care about. He remains a divisive candidate who attracts both passionate love and passionate loathing and is unlikely to be able to win the centre-ground voters where the election will be decided. I know many white working-class Labour voters who were happy to vote for the party this month, but will never vote for Ken.

What limited opinion poll evidence there is also supports this. The only public poll, for the Evening Standard last year, showed that if the election were re-run between Boris and Ken, the Tory’s winning margin would stretch from 6 to 16 points.

Ken will endlessly claim that he (in the mayoral election) outperformed his party (at the London Assembly election) in 2008. This is true – but it is simply not valid to compare a party election, like the Assembly, with a personality contest between two strong, polarising personalities. The unfortunate fact is that on this measure Boris also outperformed his party – by almost exactly the same margin.

It does appear that some movements of rival heavyweights may have been detected in the undergrowth. Speculation centres on Alan Johnson, the former home secretary, James Purnell, the former work and pensions secretary, and John Cruddas, the well-respected leftwinger. Cruddas has said he’d back Ken in the past – but his decision not to stand for the leadership has led to some wondering whether he’d step in to London. They need to make up their minds quickly, whatever they’re going to do.

No doubt some Ken tribalists will say that all the above is a cunning double-bluff on my part to derail the candidacy of the man Boris most fears. But I can tell you categorically that Boris does not fear Ken. A re-run of the 2008 election with the 2008 candidate is, quite simply, Boris’s best hope.

Islamic fundamentalism in London: the threat is not over

Rather humblingly, some of the local Bengalis who have campaigned against the fundamentalist Islamic Forum of Europe in Tower Hamlets gave me a thankyou lunch today. As I said to them, and not in any kind of faux-modest way, it is we who should be thanking them for putting their heads above the parapet in the Telegraph and my recent Channel 4 Dispatches film about the IFE.

They are extremely pleased about the election results, which saw the Islamists and their supporters comprehensively crushed. We discussed our next steps, some of which you will soon be hearing about here. In the meantime, you might be interested in this article the Guardian asked me to write, and particularly the cautionary note at the end.

As I say in the Guardian piece, “the danger in Tower Hamlets is not over. The IFE did win one victory this month – in its campaign for a directly-elected Tower Hamlets mayor, which was approved by a referendum held on polling day. The election for the new post will take place later this year.

“Part of the reason the fundamentalists did so badly on May 6 was that it was a high-turnout poll, with a general election on the same day. In a typical local-government turnout [such as the forthcoming mayoral election], roughly half what we saw this month, the IFE’s motivated activist base can have much more of an impact.”

As I also say, something else the election results do is to disprove the claims of many on the far right – including, unfortunately, some of the stupider commenters on this blog – that there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim”. Bear that in mind when next tempted to bloviate, will you, folks?

Boris Johnson's new bus: a pointless, compromised mess

The new Boris Johnson “son of Routemaster,” unveiled today, is only a design for a prototype. Not even a balsa-wood model has yet been made. This design can, and must, still be changed. Because in its current form, it is simply not worth bothering with.

The only way the new bus can ever justify its existence is if it offers something genuinely distinctive, genuinely exciting and genuinely better for passengers than the existing models. But, apart from a greener drive, this prototype does none of that.

With great fanfare, a competition to design the new bus was held. The public was excited. Professionals and ordinary citizens entered in their hundreds. Two great winners were chosen, good-looking and true to the original principles Boris set out in his manifesto – to “renew traditional forms by commissioning a 21st-century Routemaster with conductors.”

Naturally, therefore, “Transport for Livingstone’s” first priority, as I reported at the time, was to bin the winning entry as soon as possible and go straight back to the same bus manufacturers who have given us some of the most dismally ill-designed, passenger-unfriendly vehicles ever seen on our streets.

What passengers want from their bus is a seat, but a modern one-person double decker has very few seats downstairs. Enormous amounts of space are wasted, particularly with the staircase, which TfL (unlike most other operators) insists must be straight.

The new Routemaster design is actually worse than current double-deckers. It has two staircases. Why? Why not go the whole hog as well, and install a lift, and perhaps also a buffet, and a small Tie Rack outlet?

It has three doors. Why? Why can’t disabled passengers enter through the front door if the bus is in one-person mode? It is claimed to be “better-ventilated” than modern sauna buses, but the pictures show no opening windows.

From the glimpse on the video, it looks as if all the unnecessary staircases and doors may take up so much space that there will very few seats downstairs. Passengers may have hated the bendy buses, but TfL loved them. Its ambition is quite clearly to create a bendy-bus experience on the lower deck of the new vehicle.

The total number of seats, across both decks, will be 62 – ten fewer than on the most commonly-used variant of the old Routemaster, and also fewer than in a modern double-decker. This is a deeply retrograde step.

It also looks as if there will no longer be any seats at the front of the top deck – eliminating one of the great pleasures of London bus travel, beloved of generations of tourists.  (TfL denies this, saying there will be seats. But the fact is that their own video shows seats on the top deck behind the staircase, and no seats on the top deck in front of the staircase.)

The rear door is a promising feature, but it can be taken out of use and the bus operated in one-person mode, TfL says, “in the evenings and at night.”   Evenings and nights are, of course, the times when passengers would most value a second staff member on board. It seems, from some reports, that the rear door may only be opened when existing mobile uniformed staff are around – in other words, almost never.

The front end of the bus unveiled today looks nothing like the winning entries and is pretty ordinary: it is a near-exact copy of a first-generation one-person double-decker.

Boris has done some really important things as mayor, above all ending the disaster of the Tube PPP. But this bus symbolises the other side of his mayoralty. He has the right instincts, but he is allowing them to be stifled and stripped of real meaning by a fundamentally unreconstructed bureaucracy.

The cynic in me suspects that TfL has deliberately produced a pointless design today so it can safely roll up the new project into, basically, a newer version of the flawed buses it already has.

But the interesting thing is that not too many changes would be needed to make the new bus  more distinctive and a genuine improvement for passengers. Fewer doors, fewer staircases, more seats, a nicer front end.  If today’s design is what we’re getting, however, we might as well stop right now.