Lutfur Rahman, the fundamentalist-backed mayor of Tower Hamlets, held the first meeting of his new cabinet today – and it was rather a thin affair. Three weeks on from his election, despite waving around a great deal of money in “special responsibility allowances,” Lutfur has still not been able to persuade anyone of substance on the council to serve with him. It emerged today that he has only been able to fill half the cabinet’s eight slots, plus the deputy mayor’s position (which he announced two weeks ago would go to his supporter Ohid Ahmed.) Only three of a potential 10 cabinet members, including Lutfur himself, attended the meeting today. There were a lot of empty seats around the table.
The four posts Lutfur has filled are all from the ranks of the councillors who defected from Labour to him before the election. They include Alibor Choudhury, a man with even closer links than Lutfur to the Muslim supremacist group, the Islamic Forum of Europe. Alibor has, incredibly, been given the key post of cabinet member for resources – that is, he will be in charge of the money.
Alibor was previously development and communications officer of one of the IFE’s front organisations, a drugs project called Nafas. In a tape-recorded interview with my colleague Ted Jeory, the IFE’s own president at the time, Muhammad Habibur Rahman, admitted that Alibor had “associations with” the IFE. Alibor also has a deeply unsavoury past. In 2005, he appeared at a committal hearing in connection with a gang attack. His case was never sent to trial after he argued that he had been subjected to “abuse of process”. More about Alibor on this blog in the days ahead.
The other three members of the cabinet are Oliur Rahman, for children’s services; Rania Khan, for regeneration; and Rabina Khan, for housing. At least one of these also has connections to the IFE – more about them soon, too. Peter Golds, leader of the Tory group, called the new cabinet “some of the weakest councillors in the chamber.” He would say that, of course – but others privately share his opinion.
The cabinet does not only lack experience and competence, but fails to reflect the communities which make up the borough. Like Lutfur’s group of councillors, it is 100 per cent Bangladeshi, though Tower Hamlets is only around 35-40 per cent Bangladeshi. In that respect, it mirrors Lutfur’s first proposed cabinet in his former incarnation (2008- May 2010) as council leader – also entirely Bangladeshi, though on that occasion he was dissuaded from proceeding with a mono-ethnic lineup.
This time Lutfur desperately wants some people from outside the ranks of his supporters in his cabinet. But so far absolutely nobody has taken the bait, not even his main non-Bangladeshi ally under his previous leadership, Marc Francis, who was expected to defect today. Maybe he has left the slots vacant in the hope of future defections. Interestingly, however, Mr Francis’ main specialism, housing, has already been filled.
So far, therefore, it does appear that the decision by the other parties to treat Lutfur as a leper is holding. Here’s a reminder of why that might be.