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.