It’s never been hard to tell the difference between Tower Hamlets’ council chamber and the reading room of the Bodleian Library. But events there have taken a deeply nasty turn since Lutfur Rahman, the man thrown out of the Labour Party for his links to the extremist Islamic Forum of Europe, was elected mayor of the borough with the IFE’s help.
Since the election in October, councillors say, the public gallery at meetings has been regularly filled with a group Tower Hamlets is starting to know as “Lutfur’s crew” or “Lutfur’s army” – and they appear to specialise in a particular form of abuse towards the Mayor’s opponents.
“It has started really since the mayoral election,” Cllr Peter Golds, the leader of the opposition, told me. “Beforehand there may have been the odd comment, but never anything like this.”
“This” is the homophobic abuse to which Mr Golds, several other gay councillors and even a member of the public asking a question have been subjected in the council chamber. “It is horrible, absolutely bloody awful,” Golds says.
Mr Golds confirms that he was repeatedly subjected to homophobic abuse from the public gallery at the council’s abortive budget-setting meeting on February 23. “A prominent supporter of Lutfur Rahman with a very distinctive voice kept calling out ‘Mrs Golds! Mrs Golds!’ when I spoke,” he said. Another Rahman supporter called Mr Golds a “poofter.” A councillor, Anna Lynch, has made an official complaint about the abuse.
At the previous meeting, on February 2, Mr Golds says, Lutfur Rahman supporters in the public gallery heckled Labour’s deputy leader, Josh Peck, who is also openly gay, with the shout of “Unnatural acts! Unnatural acts!” At the same meeting, a member of the public who asked a question about bringing a (gay) Pride march to East London was greeted with “animal noises” from the public gallery, Mr Golds says.
On LabourList this week, Labour’s chief whip on Tower Hamlets, Cllr Rachael Saunders, who was also present, described the 23 February meeting:
“Part way through the meeting Cllr Anna Lynch told the Chair that she had heard someone shout “poofter” when Peter Golds, Conservative leader, who is openly gay, was speaking. Some people had already been evicted from the meeting for disruption by the chair of council, Motin Uz-Zaman. Motin tried to evict the person who had made this comment. An adjournment was called. Anna and Motin were both then threatened by members of the public in the gallery, with shouts that they would “get them”. Some of those involved in the fracas were amongst the Independent Mayor’s most prominent supporters.”
Ms Saunders says, surely correctly: “None of us came to the meeting on Wednesday wanting to talk about homophobia, or about the intimidation and bigotry that too often surrounds Tower Hamlets politics, but when someone shouts “poofter” as a part of a barrage of abuse directed at a gay individual, we have no choice. Labour members there to watch the meeting have since reported clear homophobic abuse from other parts of the public gallery.”
Mr Golds says: “Since Lutfur became mayor the spectator section has had these groups of people in. They are Lutfur’s crew and their behaviour is horrible.”
I’ve seen Lutfur’s little helpers in action a few times myself. On polling day in October they hung around in large groups outside several polling stations, and you had to run a gauntlet of them to vote. I overheard one of them scolding a Bengali woman voter for her “improper dress.” They were also present in force at the last council meeting I attended, in October – aggressively, though not at that stage homophobically, heckling.
Lutfur, according to Cllr Saunders, refused to condemn the abuse during the meeting (and doesn’t seem to have condemned it since, either.) That’s perhaps not surprising. His key ally, the IFE, controls the hardline East London Mosque, which regularly hosts homophobic preachers, including one who staged a “Spot The Fag” contest at the mosque in 2007. It was due to host another such bigot only last week.
Lutfur’s supporters have form for freshening up the politics of the borough. In order to get their man elected, readers may remember, they distributed thousands of leaflets falsely smearing Lutfur’s main opponent as a wife-beater.
Lutfur’s supporters’ response is desperate, even by their standards. The Dave Spart parody website, Socialist Unity, quotes someone who wasn’t there denying the account of three witnesses who were there, and claims the whole thing is an Islamophobic plot!