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.