In his first speech as Mayor at tonight’s council meeting, Lutfur Rahman promised to “fight for the people of Tower Hamlets.” Perhaps that comes later. This evening, the first priority of Lutfur and his supporters was to fight for the new Mayor’s standard of living.
The secular and democratic parties on the council tonight proposed a motion scaling back Lutfur’s proposed 98 per cent pay hike to a measly, unconscionable 71 per cent. As I mentioned in my last post, the salary he enjoyed as council leader (£37, 945) was due to rise to £74,995 in his incarnation as mayor. Tonight, however, Labour, Lib Dem and Tory councillors united to cut that back to the crippling, near-breadline figure of £65,000. They also voted not to give him a car and driver and to limit his powers of paid patronage.
The anger all this caused in Lutfur and his army was joyous to behold. I could barely stop myself laughing out loud as these tribunes of the people shouted their opposition to the indefensible outrage that their man should be paid a mere five times his constituents’ average income.
Lutfur’s face was a study as he witnessed £40,000 of council taxpayers’ money over the next four years evaporating from his bank account: “It saddens me that on the first day of this historic event, we indulge in this sort of party politics,” he huffed. “I don’t do this for money – but I have given up a successful legal career to serve the people of Tower Hamlets.”
Cllr Oli Rahman (no relation), one of Lutfur’s backers, stormed that cutting Lutfur’s salary was a “cynical” attempt to “undermine the mayor.” To roars of approval from a large claque of Lutfur supporters in the public seats, he shouted: “It signals [the secular parties’] failure to understand and accept change!” The Lutfurites loudly jeered and heckled the movers of the motion and had to be threatened with removal by the meeting’s chairman if they continued to make a noise. “Do you wanna hear the noise, my friend?” snarled one of the Lutfurites.
I know how yobbish Lutfur’s fans can be, but what I did not realise until now was how stupid they are. The politics of this are clear. Tower Hamlets is Britain’s poorest borough, with less than half its residents in work and an average income of £13,000 per head. I imagine most of those residents would be quite happy with a salary of £65,000. The council also faces 27 per cent cuts in the spending review.
Team Rahman and its supporting chorus have tonight added fuel to their opponents’ claims that their real purpose is their own enrichment and that of their powerful business and fundamentalist backers.
There was also the fact that the salary cut could not be stopped – the other parties had the votes. The only sensible course for the Rahman Army would have been to agree with good grace. Instead, they dived head first into the trap that had been laid for them.
The rest of the meeting proceeded along the expected lines. The town hall is not an old-style municipal palace, but a bland office block near Canary Wharf. The council chamber is a smallish low-ceilinged room, rammed on this occasion with spectators, which feels like the sort of place where sales managers compare spreadsheets.
Sitting next to a representative of a very different Britain, a uniformed Lord Lieutenant-type figure in white gloves, Lutfur gave a speech saying he was “proud of the sense of fair play that enabled me to get this far.” “Fair play” isn’t perhaps the first phrase that springs to mind about Lutfur’s election campaign – which saw, for instance, the circulation of a free newspaper falsely smearing his main opponent as a wife-beater.
“The people of Tower Hamlets want a new kind of politics that reaches across the old divisions,” he said. “I look forward to working with each and every one of you.” So far, however, almost nobody seems to want to work with Lutfur. He had hoped to announce a cabinet tonight, but said that he will not be able to do so for another two weeks. He did announce a deputy mayor: Cllr Ohid Ahmed, one of his eight councillor backers. Marc Francis, the Labour councillor seen as closest to Lutfur, has apparently decided to steer clear – formally, at least.
One other little point which may come to be used against Lutfur: the sole Respect councillor, Harun Miah, said: “He [Lutfur] is a product of the Respect Party, you can’t forget that.” The Lutfur backing band didn’t like that at all.
Tonight was, of course, only a small victory for Lutfur’s enemies. He will still have near-absolute power over most things other than his own salary. But the vote to cut his patronage bank is significant: appointing people to well-paid positions is one way in which other elected mayors buy off trouble and stifle dissent. That will still be possible for Lutfur, but on a lesser scale.
And tonight was also an early sign of one of Lutfur’s other key weaknesses: not just his dodgy backers, but his own and his supporters’ sheer incompetence. That, in the end, is what may prove his undoing.
Tonight’s full meeting of Tower Hamlets council – the first since the fundamentalist ally Lutfur Rahman was elected executive mayor – will be interesting. Lutfur is expected to make a triumphal entry into his new kingdom. The main business will be to approve a proposed new council constitution which, among other things, doubles Lutfur’s salary – while substantially reducing the scope for the public to question him and the council.
The new constitution will reduce the maximum time for public questioning at any council meeting from 30 minutes to 20 minutes. And it will ban any member of the public who has asked a question, or submitted a petition, at a council meeting from doing so again until three meetings later.
So, for instance, if the rule was in force at tonight’s council meeting, and you asked a question at it, you would not be allowed to ask a question or submit a petition at the next meeting of council (8 December) or the one after that (2 February.) Your next opportunity to question your new Mayor would not be until the meeting of 2 March 2011. Democracy lives!
It is also proposed to double Lutfur’s income. When he was council leader, until being removed in May, he received an allowance of £37,945. His new proposed mayoral salary is an altogether more satisfactory £74,995.
To be fair, these changes were proposed by a working party of councillors and not by Lutfur. But his supporters firmly back them and have argued strongly for them.
Tonight, however, those supporters will be in a minority. Since winning, Lutfur has been trying to win other councillors to his side. But so far he has been unsuccessful, even (rather unexpectedly) with his closest sympathiser in the Labour group, Marc Francis. Lutfur was expected to name a cabinet tonight, but all the indications are that has yet to muster enough members who are willing to serve under him. Nobody wants to be contaminated.
At tonight’s meeting, 41 out of the borough’s 51 councillors – 32 Labour, eight Tories and the sole Lib Dem – will sit in opposition to Lutfur, with only his eight ex-Labour defectors and the sole Respect councillor backing him (the 51st seat is Lutfur’s own, for which a byelection will now be held.)
Despite their overwhelming majority, Lutfur’s enemies won’t have that much power – constitutionally, a directly-elected mayor can ignore his councillors under most circumstances. But if they stick together they can, in future, vote down his budget (it needs a two-thirds majority of councillors to do this) – and, who knows, there might also be one or two little surprises for Lutfur tonight.
Here is the full version of a story which appeared in shortened form in the print edition of this morning’s paper:
A GOVERNMENT minister spoke at an event where suicide bomber accessories and items glorifying terrorism were on open sale.
Andrew Stunell, the communities minister, addressed the controversial “Global Peace and Unity” (GPU) conference in East London on Sunday. The event’s programme says its official “supporters” include the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police.
A few yards from where Mr Stunell was speaking, a stall sold suicide bomber headbands and T-shirts promoting two banned terror groups.
One of the shirts showed a masked terrorist holding a Kalashnikov rifle in one hand and the Quran in the other against a backdrop of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The Daily Telegraph bought one of the shirts.
The image is the official logo of the al-Qassam Brigade, the military wing of Hamas, a terrorist group banned across the EU and United States. Underneath, a slogan in Arabic read: “The conscripts of the martyr. Here in response, O Jerusalem.”
The al-Qassam Brigade has been responsible for at least 200 civilian deaths in suicide attacks since 2000.
Hooded tops with the flag of another proscribed terrorist organisation, Hezbollah – a clenched fist holding a Kalashnikov, and the slogan “Resistance” – were also on sale. Hezbollah has killed many Israelis in rocket attacks.
Also available were “shahada headbands” as worn by many Palestinian suicide bombers. “Shahada” in this context means martyrdom. The headbands contain the personal testimony of the suicide bombers.
Legal experts said the items could constitute glorification of terrorism, which is illegal under UK anti-terror laws. A senior City of London police officer was listed on the programme as speaking before Mr Stunell.
The items were on sale at a stall in the GPU’s exhibition area operated by a company called Wearaloud, based in a flat in a tower block in Bethnal Green. According to its website, it specialises in “Islamic,” “political” and “guns and military” items. However, it appears to have no Companies House or other registration. The website also offers for sale a garment described as an “AK47 militia fighter fun T-shirt.”
Other stalls at the exhibition distributed fundamentalist literature calling for the destruction of Israel and the subjugation of women.
The GPU is one of the most controversial events in the annual Muslim calendar. Organised by the Islam Channel, a digital TV station with a number of extremist and fundamentalist presenters, this year’s event was boycotted by the Conservative Party because of deep concerns about some of those taking part.
They included Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, a Holocaust denier who has said that the extermination of the Jews was a “hoax,” and Mohammed Ijaz ul Haq, who has said that the British government’s decision to knight the author Sir Salman Rushdie justified suicide attacks.
The Tory chairman, Baroness Warsi, was banned from attending by the Prime Minister, David Cameron. However, Lib Dems, including Mr Stunell and the party’s deputy leader, Simon Hughes, were not affected by the ban. Senior Labour figures, including the party’s candidate for mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, also spoke at the event.
The DCLG said that Mr Stunell’s speech “made clear that the Coalition Government will not tolerate extremism, hatred or intolerance in any form.”
Paul Goodman, the former Tory MP who shadowed Mr Stunell’s brief in opposition and has campaigned against GPU, said: “This evidence demonstrates why no minister should have gone. I hope that Andrew Stunell, the minister who did go, did deliver the robust renunciation we were promised.”
Jamal Uddeen Waitakarie, a spokesman for Wearaloud, said he thought his products were “acceptable,” adding: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” He described the suicide bomber headbands as “an identification of faith” and said: “I suppose suicide bombers wear them. But anybody wears them.”
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said: “There was no formal Met Police representation at GPU. The Commissioner was invited to attend or record a video message but did not. We understand a small delegation from the Association of Muslim Police attended. The Metropolitan Police Service does not support any extremist view or behaviour and would consider any allegations of criminality raised.”
A spokesman for City Police said: “We spoke at the event to raise awareness of we were doing to work with the Muslim community, and to raise awareness of fraud against hajj pilgrims.”
The organisers of the event declined to comment.
The Tower Hamlets Labour councillors met last night at Westminster. According to several of those present, they voted:
– to ban their members from joining Lutfur Rahman’s cabinet or acting as paid advisers to him.
– to oppose Lutfur’s and all his supporters’ readmission to the Labour Party.
– to ask Labour’s National Executive Committee to investigate the role of Labour Party members in Lutfur’s election campaign and to treat them all equally.
This last bit is clearly aimed at Ken Livingstone, whose action in campaigning against Labour and for Lutfur continues to appal many members of the Labour Party.
But the first is perhaps the most significant. Lutfur knows that he needs to enlist some mainstream political figures (and some non-Bengalis) to give his administration even a breath of credibility. This motion makes it much less likely that he will manage that. It treats him as a pariah from democratic, secular politics.
He will probably now have to form a cabinet from the ranks of his existing eight ex-Labour councillor supporters – a deeply problematic bunch including few with any kind of managerial skills, some who are, shall we say, greedy and another councillor, Alibor Choudhury, who appeared in court in 2006 on charges of violent disorder.
The trial was stayed – Alibor insists because of “abuse of process,” though has always refused to discuss with me exactly what the supposed “abuse” was. Others have said it was because key witnesses backed out. Alibor also has very close links to the fundamentalist Islamic Forum of Europe. More about Alibor, and Lutfur’s other supporters, on this blog in the days to come!
One of those present at last night’s Labour meeting said it was “one of the most comradely meetings” of the Tower Hamlets Labour group he could ever remember – with deep relief at having got rid of the eight Lutfurites, who were forces for instability within the group.
Lutfur could still get one important non-Bengali fig-leaf to join him: Labour’s Cllr Marc Francis, who was a member of the last cabinet and is strongly rumoured to be thinking about a post as Lutfur’s deputy mayor. Mr Francis did not openly support Lutfur, but was seen little on the Labour campaign trail, reportedly turned up at the count without a Labour rosette and voted against the motion above last night.
Unlike almost all Lutfur’s other allies (and indeed Lutfur himself) Mr Francis is widely seen as competent. His presence would help the good ship HMS Rahman avoid sinking straight away. Many expected him to have jumped already by now – the fact that so far he has not is a signal of just how risky he must know his move would be. His Labour career would be at an end; he would be under intense scrutiny from the likes of me; and he must know that the Rahman experiment is likely to end in tears and the destruction of the reputations of all those involved in it.
Mr Francis declined to comment to me today, but I’ll let you know as soon as I hear his decision.
Very attentive readers might remember the campaign the fundamentalist Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) and its allies waged to bombard the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, with complaints against my Channel 4 Dispatches programme on them. On February 22, nearly a week before the film was even broadcast, the IFE’s president, Musleh Faradhi, circulated an email saying: “We need to ensure Channel 4 receives a strong message from the community by being inundated with complaints.”
Sizzling, oven-ready template letters were helpfully provided (“I write to express my disgust and disappointment at Channel 4’s wholly inaccurate and defamatory accusations … The documentary is Islamophobic in nature … uses emotive and provocative language … is part of a series of organised, vindictive and orchestrated witch-hunts”) about a programme that no-one had, at that point, even seen.
Sadly, the community didn’t rise up against the evil Channel 4 Islamophobes in quite the numbers the IFE hoped – Ofcom got 205 complaints. Even worse (it must have actually watched the programme!) the regulator yesterday comprehensively rejected every one of those complaints (see page 29 of this PDF.) It describes our film as a “serious documentary focusing on an important issue of public interest,” calling our allegations “legitimate” and “presented with due impartiality.”
One of the most helpful things Ofcom has done is to reject a number of complaints that the programme was “inaccurate,” specifically in describing the IFE as “fundamentalist” and “extremist.” It states that our allegations were “supported by recorded clips, or actual quotes” and that all who featured were given fair opportunity to respond. There was therefore, said Ofcom, “no evidence that viewers were materially misled.”
It has also kiboshed one of the IFE’s favourite arguments – endlessly made over the last eight months – that any attack on them is an “Islamophobic” attack on all Muslims. As Ofcom put it, the programme “made clear that the allegations made related to the IFE only and were not representative of all Muslims… Nor did the programme suggest at any point that all or many Muslims or Muslim organisations or their members were in general extremist or fundamentalist.”
Another common tactic in the face of our allegations, from the fundamentalists and their sympathisers, is not actually to deny our claims, but to say that they are “unsubstantiated” or have “never been put” to them. Lutfur Rahman, the IFE’s little helper at Tower Hamlets council, is particularly fond of this.
It is nonsense, of course: we would not have been able to broadcast or publish unsubstantiated allegations. And all the allegations were exhaustively put to all concerned, as Ofcom also acknowledges.
Ofcom’s latest ruling comes two weeks after it rejected another complaint by the IFE activist, Abjol Miah, ruling that we had indeed presented good evidence that he was active in the IFE. Abjol is also one of a number of people who has lost (or withdrawn) complaints against me at the Press Complaints Commisson over this story.
Everyone who covers Islamist extremists knows how disputatious and litigious they are; the East London Mosque and IFE have the libel lawyers Carter-Ruck on a hair trigger. So this programme was extremely carefully researched. That is why it has successfully withstood all challenge.
A faintly scary note already from the new mayor of Tower Hamlets, the fundamentalist ally Lutfur Rahman. He’s sent all Labour councillors a letter, passed to me, warning that to “oppose the Mayor” is to “stifle the will of the people.”
The letter says: “On the 21st October the people of Tower Hamlets spoke with one voice… Do not oppose the will of the people.”
The claim that the people “spoke with one voice” is an interesting view of an election which saw 23,283 of Tower Hamlets’ people – or around 14 per cent – support Lutfur. Perhaps “I am the will of the people who were roused to vote by my big business backers” might be a bit more accurate.
Almost exactly the same number of electors (21,702) voted for candidates other than the embodiment of the People’s Will – and the vast majority expressed no preference in the election at all. Does that now make all of them enemies of the people?
By all accounts, Lutfur hasn’t even signed the articles of office yet. It’s ominously early to start coming over all Daniel arap Moi.