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.

Crossrail: Dave looks Boris in the eye

Will a new government keep Crossrail, I asked Boris Johnson last week. “David Cameron looked me in the eye,” replied Boris, “and said ‘We’re going to do it.’”

Admittedly, that commitment was given at the Tory conference in October, before the new team had a chance to examine the (horrible) government ledgers. The fact that we still cannot be wholly certain about the £16 billion tunnel was shown by this week’s letter from business leaders, pleading with the government to make its future secure.

Something else Boris said to me suggests one possible route our new masters may take. “You cannot extend the [construction] timescale to save money,” he said. “It’s a false economy.”

He also interestingly refused to deny speculation that the project could be descoped, with the Abbey Wood branch lopped off. Is that really possible? It would mean that Crossrail would not serve Canary Wharf, surely a bit of a no-no. Canary Wharf is also where most work has been done so far, with construction of the new station under way.

Likelier, perhaps, is the trimming of costs. £16 billion is a gigantic amount to spend on a few miles of rail tunnel – not much less, in real terms, than the 26-mile Channel Tunnel cost. TfL is notorious for its profligacy. People at Canary Wharf, who are part-funding their station, and building the whole thing under a fixed-cost contact, tell me that they were able to make substantial savings on the budget  TfL proposed for it.

It is, of course, almost unknown for British transport projects to come in below budget. But if that can be achieved, Crossrail’s future would seem to be more secure.

Islamists are crushed in Tower Hamlets

Lutfur Rahman, the Labour leader of Tower Hamlets council backed by radical Islamists, has lost his job. At last night’s Labour group meeting, he was replaced as leader by another Labour councillor, Helal Abbas. Abbas is the man who protested last year that Tower Hamlets council was controlled by the fundamentalist Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), based at the hardline East London Mosque.

Mr Rahman is the latest casualty of the Telegraph/ Channel 4 Dispatches investigation earlier this year into the IFE’s grip on east London politics. One of the Labour MPs for the area, Jim Fitzpatrick, told us that the IFE had infiltrated his party like Militant in the 1980s. On camera, Mr Rahman squirmingly refused to deny that the IFE had helped secure his election as leader. Many other Labour councillors told us that he and his administration were heavily influenced by the IFE.

The IFE, which believes in transforming Western democratic government into Islamic government, campaigned heavily against Mr Fitzpatrick – but he comfortably secured re-election. Most of the Islamist-influenced figures we identified in the film have since suffered a rapid deterioration in their careers.

As well as Mr Rahman, Lutfur Ali, the IFE-linked assistant chief executive of the council, lost his job as a result of the programme. The Respect party’s Abjol Miah, an activist in the IFE, came third with 16 per cent of the vote in the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency – and is no longer a councillor. Respect, which won 12 seats at the  2006 council elections, is now down to just one seat. Respect’s George Galloway, who boasted that he “owed more than I can say” to the IFE, was humiliated, also coming third in Poplar and Limehouse and failing even to turn up to the count.

The fight is not over. Later this year, Tower Hamlets will hold its first election for a directly-elected mayor. The IFE described in undercover footage taken by Channel 4 how it was organising to “get one of our people in” to the job. It will now be pouring all its resources into the effort to secure victory for its candidate. But given the way it has been pushed back this week, the auguries look hopeful.

The Tories should pray for a Lib-Lab coalition

A Lib-Lab coalition would be democratically preposterous, defying the laws of political gravity. But for that very reason it could, in the medium term, be the best possible outcome for the Tories.  It would be losers propping up losers. It would be hugely difficult to keep together, lacking a majority of its own and requiring life-support from various nationalist parties. It would be vulnerable to all sorts of unsavoury Celtic blackmail, enraging the already long-suffering English (whose own voting intentions were very clear.)

It would lead to a second unelected prime minister. It might well trigger serious trouble in the financial markets. It would have to make drastic cuts with no mandate whatever. Electoral reform (which I support) would be discredited, because it would be seen as a cynical gerrymander to keep losers in power. Labour would probably be unable to deliver it, even if they wanted to (and it’s far from certain that they do.)  

For all these reasons, a red-yellow alliance would be a political disaster for all those involved. When the inevitable collapse, and new election, came, probably within months, both Labour and the Lib Dems would be annihilated. 

The much more sensible thing for Labour to do would be to go into opposition, let the Tories and Lib Dems suffer the pain of having to make cuts, and hope to profit in a future election, which might also come rather more quickly than usual.

The next year or two would have been horrible enough for whoever was in charge, even if they’d had a clear majority. Without one, it will be simply a world of pain. I still think it’s hugely unlikely we’ll end up with red-yellow rule – I should imagine the current Lib/Lab negotiations are just Clegg’s way of getting more from the Tories. But if it does somehow happen, the Tories will have dodged a bullet – and been handed an Exocet for later on.