Lutfur Rahman: some facts the Guardian forgot to mention

 

For reasons I can’t quite understand, the Guardian newspaper, “the world’s leading liberal voice,” has appointed itself spokesperson for some of the most illiberal forces in London, notably the extremist-dominated East London Mosque and the council leader closely connected to it, Lutfur Rahman (above).  Maybe the Guardian likes them simply because the Telegraph doesn’t like them – but even for the left, that seems an outstandingly stupid reason to embrace people who oppose everything you’re supposed to believe.

The paper’s latest panegyric for Rahman, last week (“what inspires and energises me is the community”) was so poor a piece of journalism that it even briefly trended on Twitter. As Private Eye’s Tim Minogue put it, “the Order of the Brown Nose profile of Rahman worth it for comments alone. Readers put record straight – and how! More comments deleted from Guardian toadying profile of Mayor Lutfur than an Alan Rusbridger piano piece.”

The writer, Saba Salman, presented Rahman’s exclusion from the Labour Party as “a gulf between national leadership and grassroots activism,” described the allegations against him as “mudslinging,” and accepted at face value not just his denials of extremist links but his claim not to be cutting frontline services (tell that to, say, the users of the Appian Court day centre in Bow, which faces closure – while new millions are to be poured into religious buildings, mainly mosques.)

So I thought I’d update my earlier summary of the evidence against Lutfur just to remind you of all the things Ms Salman had to ignore. What follows is not mud – but fact, which has withstood literally hundreds of complaints to Ofcom and the PCC from Rahman and his supporters. Let’s hope the Guardian gets back to doing some actual reporting about this subject soon.

March 1 2010: The Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches reveal that Lutfur, then the Labour council leader, achieved the position with the help of the Islamic Forum of Europe, based at the East London Mosque, which works to create a sharia state and an “Islamic social, economic and political order” in Britain. In a filmed interview, he refuses to deny the charge.  Under Lutfur, large sums of council money are diverted to IFE front organisations, a man with close links to the IFE is made the council’s assistant chief executive despite being unqualified for the job, and the respected white chief executive is summarily sacked. In undercover filming, senior IFE activists boast of their “consolidated… influence and power” over the council.  The local Labour MP, Jim Fitzpatrick, tells us that his party has been “infiltrated” by the IFE.

May: Lutfur is replaced by the Labour group as council leader. The IFE-linked assistant chief executive is forced to resign. However, the IFE now aims to “get one of our brothers” into the powerful new directly-elected mayoral post that is to replace the council leadership in October.

July/August: Lutfur is excluded from Labour’s shortlist for the mayoral candidacy, but goes to court to force his reinstatement. The solicitor he uses was closely connected to the al-Qaeda-supporting group, al-Muhajiroun, and signed a fatwa calling for a “full-scale war of jihad” against Britain and the US.

September 3: In filmed interviews (transcripts here), local residents tell how Lutfur has personally signed up their entire families as sham Labour members to win selection as the party’s mayoral candidate.

September 4: Lutfur is selected as the Labour candidate.

September 15: Evidence is submitted by one of the defeated candidates and others to Labour’s National Executive Committee detailing Lutfur’s links with the IFE and a powerful local businessman, Shiraj Haque, and alleging massive fraud in the selection.

September 18: Lutfur is accused of failing to declare thousands of pounds in donations from Shiraj Haque – a criminal offence, if true. We have been asked to point out that Lutfur was later sent a police letter saying that there was “no case to answer.” However, the complainant, Cllr Peter Golds, insists that the police never investigated the matter seriously.

September 21: Labour’s NEC sacks Lutfur as the candidate.

September 25: Lutfur stands as an independent. Under Labour Party rules, he is automatically expelled from the party. Six of the people who sign his nomination papers have the same names as senior office-holders and trustees of the IFE.

October 15: Thousands of copies are distributed of publicity material smearing Lutfur’s Labour opponent as a wife-beater and an enemy of Islam. The chief coordinator of Lutfur’s campaign, Bodrul Islam, later says that the material was produced by people “embedded” in the Rahman campaign and with its full knowledge.

October 19: Ken Livingstone, Labour candidate for mayor of London, who has also benefited from IFE support, and been personally paid money by Lutfur’s council, campaigns for Lutfur against his own party’s candidate.

October 21: Lutfur Rahman elected mayor. The chief coordinator of his election campaign, Bodrul Islam, later says that the new mayor had a “strategic relationship” with the IFE and “most of [Lutfur’s] campaigners during the election were either Respect or IFE activists.”

October 28: Lutfur furious as the council votes to deny him a 98 per cent pay rise, awarding instead a 71 per cent rise. One of his key supporters, Cllr Oli Rahman, describes it as a “cynical” attempt to “undermine the mayor.”

November 3: Tower Hamlets places CDs of sermons by an extremist Islamic preacher, Abdurraheem Green, in the Town Hall reception area. Green believes that “Islam is not compatible with democracy” and that a husband should have the right to administer “a very light beating” to his wife.

November 10: Lutfur appoints Alibor Choudhury, a former employee of an IFE front organisation with a long track record of encounters with the police, to the key post of cabinet member for finance. Alibor was committed for trial for violent disorder in 2006, but the case was dropped due to what he insists was an “abuse of process.” (Lutfur’s cabinet was, and remains, 100 per cent Bengali, in a borough which is only about 35% Bengali.)

November 14: Lutfur fails to turn up to Tower Hamlets’ annual Remembrance ceremony at the borough’s man war memorial, despite promising to attend. All the borough’s other civic leaders make it. The following year (see Oct 10, 2011 below) he will make front-page news by trying to hire out the war memorial grounds for City bankers’ Christmas piss-ups.

November: Lutfur’s publicly-funded political adviser at Tower Hamlets, Kazim Zaidi, anonymously writes a chapter in an Exeter University report attacking Lutfur’s critics and libelling six senior figures in the Tower Hamlets Labour Party and the local Labour MP as racists. The university is forced to withdraw the report and issue a grovelling apology.

December 2010- February 2011: At council meetings, Shiraj Haque and a crowd of other Lutfur supporters shout homophobic abuse at the mayor’s opponents from the public gallery. They abuse Peter Golds, the Tory leader, as “Mrs Golds” and a “poofter.” They heckle another gay councillor, Labour’s Josh Peck, and a gay local resident speaking at the meeting with animal noises and cries of “Unnatural acts! Unnatural acts!”

January 27 2011: An official Labour Party inquiry finds a “concerted effort” to add fake members to the party during the campaign to select Labour’s candidate for the Tower Hamlets mayoralty.

February 23: Lutfur’s voting bloc on the council passes a motion to “campaign against the pariah state of Israel.”

March 8: Lutfur gives a character reference on Town Hall notepaper for Zamal Uddin, a minicab driver who had six weeks earlier pleaded guilty to a serious sexual assault on a woman passenger. When the press finds out, he claims that he did not know the nature of Uddin’s crime before agreeing to provide the reference.

March: Shiraj Haque is appointed chair of the advisory board for a major council-subsidised festival, the Baishakhi Mela. The council had previously removed him from all involvement with the festival and severed relations after allegations, which he denies, of massive financial irregularities and immigration fraud, with the Mela used as a front to bring in illegal immigrants under the guise of performers.

April 4: Shiraj Haque’s premises are raided by police investigating a major counterfeit wine ring.

April 5: Disclosure logs reveal that the council is paying £50,000 a month of taxpayers’ money to three front organisations for the IFE.

April 12: One of Lutfur’s key supporters, Cllr Shelina Akhtar, is charged with fraud. (She already has one conviction for the same offence.)

April 17:  The council’s official propaganda newspaper, East End Life, runs a series of adverts for a training centre closely connected to Anjem Choudhury, the al Qaeda supporter who runs the extremist group al-Muhajiroun.

April 27: Lutfur takes a number of council staff paid by the taxpayer to campaign for the Labour Party in a parliamentary byelection. The District Auditor is called in.

May 8: Lutfur and Shiraj Haque turn the taxpayer-funded Baishakhi Mela festival into a platform for Ken Livingstone, who makes the keynote speech attacking Boris Johnson.

June 8: Defying a new local authority publicity code against taxpayer-subsidised council “Pravdas,” Lutfur rules that East End Life will continue publishing, at a cost to the public purse of around £1.3 million a year.

June 17: As the council passes budget cuts of £70 million, Lutfur spends £115,000 to refurbish his personal office and treble it in size.

July 4: One of Lutfur’s cabinet, Oli Rahman, appears on a platform with a group campaigning for the “unacceptability of homosexuality.” Lutfur has earlier pledged “zero tolerance” against a wave of homophobic attacks in the borough.

July 14: Lutfur acquires a luxury Mercedes and council-employed chauffeur at a cost to council taxpayers of up to £60,000 a year. No other elected mayor in London, Boris Johnson included, has an official car.

July 22: Tower Hamlets loses its second chief executive in two years as its top official, Kevan Collins, quits for a lower-paid job. He praises councillors (but not Lutfur) in his resignation statement.

August 7: The Telegraph reveals that Shiraj Haque has been given a Tower Hamlets council house at the subsidised rent of £135 a week, even though he is a multi-millionaire owning at least eight properties worth around £5 million.

August 8: As riots sweep London, Tower Hamlets’ enforcement officers are given the day off.

Sept 12: Lutfur scraps the official car of the borough’s ceremonial mayor and tells him to travel to functions, in his robes and gold chain, by taxi.

Oct 10: Tower Hamlets hits the front pages after hiring out its war memorial garden for City bankers’ Christmas parties. The decision is reversed after a storm of protest.

Oct 12: The council’s official newspaper, East End Life, promotes an extremist preacher previously banned from speaking on council premises.

Nov 18: A key Lutfur ally, Shah Yousuf, appears in court on criminal charges under the Representation of the People Act for producing the smear leaflets falsely claiming that Lutfur’s main opponent, Labour’s Helal Abbas, is a wife-beater and enemy of Islam (see Oct 15, 2010.) The leaflets were produced with the Lutfur campaign’s full knowledge, according to the chief coordinator of the campaign. The charges are later mysteriously dropped.

Dec 20: An eight-month campaign of complaints by Lutfur to the Press Complaints Commission about our coverage fails, when the PCC rules that he can be described as “extremist-linked” or “extremist-backed.”

Dec 20: The Telegraph publishes Companies House records showing that Lutfur’s cabinet member for the environment, Cllr Shahed Ali, has avoided £25,000 in tax by liquidating his restaurant business, which immediately reopens under a new name and carries on trading as normal throughout. He uses the proceeds of the tax avoidance to buy himself a Porsche.

Dec 21: The Telegraph reveals leaked Tower Hamlets documents showing that Hira Islam, a Tower Hamlets council officer who is also a key figure in the Islamic Forum of Europe, Lutfur’s extremist backers, has been disciplined by the council for interfering with the May 2010 parliamentary and local government elections. Hira Islam is given only a written warning but the man who first exposed the scandal, the former council leader Helal Abbas, is suspended from the council for “breaching confidentiality” – after a complaint by Hira Islam!

Dec 22: The Telegraph publishes pages written on a social networking website by Lutfur’s cabinet member for culture, Cllr Rania Khan, in which she publishes pictures of knives, declaring: “I know it’s not ladylike, but I luv my weapons,” mocks gay people and backs extremist clerics.

Jan 9 2012: One of Lutfur’s key supporters, Cllr Shelina Akhtar, is convicted of benefit fraud – against her own council – for the second time in eighteen months. Despite pleading guilty, she refuses to give up her council seat and Lutfur refuses to call for her resignation until eight days later.

January: A gay pub in Limehouse, the White Swan, says it faces closure after Lutfur proposes to ban its popular amateur strip night.

Feb 6: Shelina Akhtar is finally forced to give up her seat after being jailed for 16 weeks.

Feb 15: It emerges that Lutfur has hired a former adviser to Ken Livingstone, Tony Winterbottom, at a fee of £1000 a day. A key Livingstone crony, Murziline Parchment, is also hired as his chief of staff, even though council headhunters described her as “very unconvincing,” “disappointing” and “lacking in substance” in her interview for a previous Tower Hamlets role. In total, Lutfur employs 16 paid political advisers, more than any other council leader, the Mayor of London, any cabinet minister or the Prime Minister.

Feb 21: As the mayoral election approaches, new concerns are raised about vote fraud in Tower Hamlets after the electoral roll is found to contain up to 12 voters in the same small flat.

Feb: Lutfur refuses to answer questions from councillors at council meetings, with council officers explaining that to do so might breach his human rights.

March 21: It emerges that Lutfur has employed his election agent, Ghulam Robbani, a man with close links to the IFE, as a council advisor at a rate of £40 an hour. Freedom of Information requests show that he appears to have massively overbilled the council for his time, charging for instance £480 – 12 hours’ work – for attending an event that the other participants say only took 90 minutes. Robbani later resigns to stand as Lutfur’s candidate in the Spitalfields byelection caused by the jailing of Shelina Akhtar.

April 16: It emerges that one of the key figures in the IFE and East London Mosque, Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, is to be charged with war crimes for his alleged involvement in a campaign of abductions and mass murders while opposing Bangladeshi independence in 1971. He denies the charges, saying they are politically-motivated.

April 19: Lutfur’s candidate, Ghulam Robbani, narrowly wins the Spitalfields byelection on an unusually high turnout, despite heavy rain throughout polling day. There is a late surge of applications for postal votes: in one large block, Brune House, Brune Street, the number of people with postal votes more than doubled in the two weeks before polling day. Turnout of postal voters is extraordinarily high: in Brune House, for instance, it is 77 per cent.

April 21: Residents of Brune House tell the Telegraph that supporters of Robbani and Lutfur, including at least one councillor, “harvested” their votes, signing them up for postal votes and collecting the blank ballot papers which were then filled in for Robbani. Council and police investigations are launched.

April 26: The Telegraph reveals that a number of dead or imprisoned people have supposedly voted in the byelection.

May: Lutfur steps up his cult of personality. Pictures of him are attached to the sides of council dustcarts. New council headed notepaper is produced with his picture on it. Large banners featuring his face are put up across the borough, including one which covers up an internationally-famous mural on Brick Lane. It is only removed after the owner of the building threatens legal action.

May 27: Nineteen people are arrested at the British High Commission in Dhaka, Bangladesh, accused of attempted immigration fraud in connection with Shiraj Haque’s Baishaki Mela. They admit they paid an unspecified individual £10,000 for fake documents claiming they were attending the mela as stallholders.

July 8: Eight Lutfur-supporting councillors are expelled from the Labour Party in a clear sign that Lutfur will not be readmitted to the party.

July 16: Shiraj Haque is given a criminal caution for selling counterfeit wine in his restaurant.

September: Lutfur announces plans to dispose of a number of pubs owned by the council, including the Queen’s Head in Limehouse, which claims to be the inspiration for the Queen Vic in EastEnders. The pubs, some of the few left in the area, may now be forced to close.

October: The heritage selloff continues after Lutfur announces plans to auction Old Flo, a Henry Moore sculpture gifted by the artist to the people of the East End, claiming it is necessary to balance the books (it later emerges that the artwork may not even belong to the council.) At the same time, however, he announces a £2 million grants programme for “faith buildings” – mostly mosques – and £6 million of further grants to “community organisations,” many of them linked to his supporters, in addition to the large and continuing grants given to front bodies for the IFE.

Oct 7: Despite the council’s pleas of poverty, it emerges that a Tower Hamlets officer has charged taxpayers £855 for two first-class rail tickets to attend a conference in Manchester. This is six times the standard walk-on fare and enough for a return flight to Australia. Some of the money is later repaid.

Dec 21: Defying Lutfur, councillors accept an offer of UN-style “support” from the Local Government Association after the departure of several key white officials and the repeated failure to appoint a new chief executive. Whitehall mulls intervention as the local government minister, Brandon Lewis, expresses “concern” over the situation in Tower Hamlets.

Jan 16 2013: Ken Livingstone is ridiculed by Labour’s National Executive Committee as he urges it to readmit Rahman and allow him to fight next year’s Tower Hamlets election as a Labour candidate.

Jan 16: The former local government minister, Bob Neill, accuses Lutfur and the council’s assistant chief executive, Isabella Freeman, of bringing the local government standards regime into “serious disrepute” by using it to bully, hound and threaten their opponents on the council on trumped-up charges. Councillors vote to discipline Freeman for her “bias,” but it makes no difference and she continues exactly as before.

Jan 23: The broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, censures five Bengali TV channels after Lutfur’s allegedly cash-strapped council spends thousands of pounds on adverts promoting the mayor, up to 15 times every day for two weeks. Ofcom said: “The purpose of the advertisement was not to inform and educate the public [but] to promote the Mayor in a positive light.”

Let’s hope, at least, that Lutfur didn’t have to pay for his puff-piece in the Guardian.

East London Mosque condemns homophobia, yet advertised four anti-gay speakers last month alone

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I was offered the “Muslim patrol” story in Tower Hamlets, where self-proclaimed “Muslim vigilantes” filmed themselves verbally abusing and intimidating a gay man. Perhaps wrongly, I didn’t use it because I wasn’t sure whether a few kids on YouTube had national importance. I am glad, however, that the local police appear to be taking it seriously for once – in contrast to their lamentable attempts to ignore, downplay and cover up previous acts of “Islamic enforcement” and bigotry in the East End.

One Tower Hamlets organisation of undoubted national importance that continues to laugh up its sleeve at us is the East London Mosque, the capital’s largest. The mosque’s PR machine lost no time cranking out a statement condemning the “vigilantes” and claiming that the mosque was “committed to building co-operation and harmony between all communities in this borough. The actions of this tiny minority have no place in our faith.” This claim has been trustingly repeated by various journalists in the coverage this week. But, as the most cursory investigation would show, it is a brazen lie.

There is no evidence that the East London Mosque is directly involved in the latest attacks. But at least one activist in the Islamic Forum of Europe, the Islamic supremacist group that runs the mosque, has previously threatened and intimidated people for violating “Islamic norms,” using the IFE’s name.

And as this blog has repeatedly documented, the mosque itself and its annexe, the London Muslim Centre, host a constant stream of viciously homophobic and other hate preachers. In June 2011, after coming under particular pressure on the subject, the mosque promised: “Any speaker who is believed to have said something homophobic will not be allowed to use our premises.”

Sounds clear enough to me. But as I documented at the time, this promise was broken within eight days. It has been broken countless times since. And it appears to have been broken at least four times last month alone.

On December 29, the IFE advertised a fundraising dinner at the London Muslim Centre for Interpal, a charity banned in the US for its links with the terror group Hamas. Among the speakers was Interpal’s chair of trustees, Ibrahim Hewitt, who in a pamphlet likened homosexuality to child-molesting and said: “The spread of this depraved practice in a society disrupts its natural life pattern and makes those who practice it slaves to their lusts, depriving them of decent taste, decent morals, and a decent manner of living.”

On December 21, the London Muslim Centre was the advertised venue for a “charity dinner in aid of the world’s orphans,” addressed by one Murtaza Khan – a star of my Channel 4 Dispatches exposing the IFE and the mosque, and somebody who has spoken approvingly of killing gay people, saying that “not even animals behave in that manner” and calling homosexuality “this abominable action, which goes against humanity.”

On December 16, the London Muslim Centre was the advertised venue for an “unmissable winter conference” starring Hamza Tzortzis, who describes homosexuality as “behaviour that negates the Islamic vision of society.”

And on December 7, the London Muslim Centre was the advertised venue for a fundraising event with Suleiman Ghani, who believes that God created “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

As we’ve described before, gay people have been getting a tough time in Tower Hamlets recently. That simply cannot be unconnected to the fact that hatred of them is allowed to be openly and regularly expressed inside one of the area’s most prominent religious institutions. The mosque and IFE are also closely linked to the executive mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, one of whose cabinet members shared a platform at the mosque with one of its homophobic speakers.

This is not a “commitment to building co-operation between all communities.” It’s time for media colleagues to start probing the roots of bigotry in Tower Hamlets; or if they can’t manage that, at least stop tamely recycling the East London Mosque’s lies.

Hat-tip to Harry’s Place for the adverts and one of the videos.

 

Isabella Freeman: Lutfur Rahman's little helper who brings council standards 'into serious disrepute'

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Among the most interesting members of the dreadful crew around Lutfur Rahman, the extremist-linked executive mayor of Tower Hamlets, is the council’s assistant chief executive, a woman called Isabella Freeman (above). She is one of the borough’s shrinking band of senior white officials who has not been sacked or decided to leave.

Last year, it can now be revealed, both Labour and Conservative members of Tower Hamlets council overwhelmingly passed a motion recommending disciplinary action against Freeman. It was passed in a secret session of the full council but has so far made no difference whatever to Freeman’s position. It has not even been reportable until now.

Freeman is responsible for the “standards regime,” the code of conduct for Tower Hamlets councillors. Last week in the Commons, under parliamentary privilege, the former local government minister, Bob Neill, told how Freeman and Lutfur’s supporters have “abused” the standards regime to hound the mayor’s opponents and protect him, bringing it into “serious disrepute.”

Anti-Lutfur councillors – including the Labour leader, Josh Peck, his predecessor Helal Abbas and the Tory leader, Peter Golds – have, said Neill, been subject to a “history of vexatious complaints” by Rahman supporters and placed under costly and time-consuming investigations by Freeman for Kafkaesque supposed “offences” which amount, in essence, to “doing what many people would regard as their duty.” What Neill called the most “frankly scandalous” example involves me.

You may remember that my interest in Tower Hamlets began, in March 2010, when I made a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary describing how Lutfur won the then council leadership with the help of the IFE, an extremist Islamic group which wants to turn Britain into a sharia state. (For a full list of Lutfur’s controversies, see here.)

One of Lutfur’s key actions after taking control was to appoint a man with close links to the IFE, Lutfur Ali, as assistant chief executive of the council, its second most important job. We showed the absurdity of this hire by quoting a leaked headhunter’s report of his job interview, which described him as a “marginal,” “limited,” “superficial” and “one-dimensional” candidate who might “struggle intellectually” with the job. The CV submitted by Mr Ali was also leaked, showing he’d given false dates for a previous post and had omitted the fact that he’d been forced to resign from it for breaching the local authority code of conduct. After we revealed his links to the IFE, and after it also emerged that he was moonlighting for a second public-sector employer, Mr Ali was forced to resign from Tower Hamlets, too.

During the making of the programme, in late 2009, we filmed Peter Golds, the Tory leader, holding and reading from these leaked documents. Incredibly, in 2012, almost two and a half years later, one of Rahman’s supporters brought a complaint against Golds for “infringing” Lutfur Ali’s “right to privacy” in this interview and breaching council confidentiality by “leaking” the document to me.

At enormous public expense, Freeman hired an investigator to pursue this preposterous, bewhiskered claim, with a full panoply of interviews, witnesses and statements. Oddly enough, or perhaps not, the one person the fearless gumshoe didn’t manage to hook up with was the key witness, myself.

So I contacted the investigator to point out that the documents were not leaked to me by Golds; that they had in fact been circulating in the public domain since the previous year; that their contents had been referred to in the local newspaper, the East London Advertiser, as early as May 2008; and that even if Golds had been guilty of any disclosure simply by reading them out on TV the year after, the deceits and disqualifications of the council’s second most senior officer were surely not private, but matters of the clearest public interest.

I asked why Tower Hamlets was spending thousands of pounds to defend a long-gone employee who was forced out for essentially cheating it – especially since Lutfur Ali himself had never complained, either to the council or to Channel 4. I asked why this investigation was being launched so long after the supposed offence had taken place. And I also asked why, given something Golds said to me was the basis of the complaint, the investigator had made so little effort to contact me.

Answers came there none – presumably because the answer is that whole farrago was launched for the sole purpose of hassling Mr Golds, a regular thorn in Lutfur’s side, tying him up in legal knots, costing him big money in legal bills, and deterring anyone else from holding the Dear Leader to account too vigorously. Scandalous is almost too weak a word for it.

At the time of writing, despite a formal written statement from me making clear that the key allegation against Golds is false, the complaint against him grinds on. It was rightly rejected by the local government standards tribunal. Astonishingly, Freeman and Tower Hamlets are now considering appealing against the rejection – perhaps they’ll end up at the European Court of Human Rights! In the meantime, Peter Golds is faced with yet more hassle and potentially substantial legal bills. The poor old taxpayer, of course, is picking up the council’s side of the tab, which will not be small.

It is far from the only such example. After a similar case, as I described in 2011, Tower Hamlets suspended its ex-leader, Helal Abbas, following a complaint by an IFE bigwig. Abbas’s offence was to reveal the truth: about how that self-same IFE man – a council employee – had been disciplined by the council for interfering with the 2010 elections. This too was deemed an “invasion of privacy.” Twelve thousand pounds has also been spent on a complaint from the Lutfur camp against the Labour leader, Josh Peck, for walking on the cracks in the pavement something too tedious to describe at length.

As Bob Neill said last week, councillors’ beef with Freeman is not just her zeal in pursuing these ludicrous cases. It’s that, though theoretically a servant of the whole council, she seems rather less willing to pursue perhaps better-founded complaints against the mayor’s supporters – several of whom, as I’ve documented in the past, have somewhat burning questions to answer. Freeman, as he outlined, has also helped Lutfur in various other ways, giving a clean bill to his absurd weekly propaganda newspaper, East End Life, and ruling on at least one occasion that the Dear Leader need not answer questions from councillors – at a council meeting! – because it might breach his human rights.

This alleged bias, essentially, is why councillors from left and right voted to discipline Freeman. The proximate cause was her advice, whose impartiality they strongly dispute, in Tower Hamlets’ ongoing failure to appoint a chief executive. The reason why the vote against Freeman hasn’t come out in public until now shows, however, that the hounding tactic is having the desired effect. No councillor, until Neill raised it under privilege in the Commons, has felt able to risk Freeman’s wrath by talking to me on the record about the subject. They were worried about being subjected to yet another complaint.

As Bob Neill put it last week, Freeman’s behaviour “hardly gives the impression of an unbiased, open and transparent approach.” The council’s antics under her, he says, constitute the sort of “abuse of the system [which] brings local government into disrepute.”

By way of reply to Neill the council claims that Freeman “had no powers to reject [complaints]. It was the Standards Committee [of councillors and lay members] who referred claims for independent investigation. In relation to the substantive allegation of bias in investigating complaints about elected members,12 complaints were referred to [Freeman] in 2011 and 2012. Ten were subsequently referred by the Standards Committee for independent investigation: 4 relating to Independent members, 4 relating to Labour members and 2 relating to Conservative members.  The facts show that the Standards Committee has made referrals in respect of all political parties and independents.”

Let me just say that Golds, and other councillors, have provided me with information which quite clearly shows Freeman taking a rather more prominent role in the disciplinary process than this statement claims. I have a feeling you’ll be hearing more about Isabella Freeman.

 

Andrew Gilligan cycling commissioner job: cyclists cautiously pleased, Ken supporters not so much

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There’s been an interesting set of reactions to my job offer as Boris Johnson’s (part-time) cycling commissioner, revealed yesterday. On the one hand, we have the main opinion-formers in the London cycling community, who seem to be cautiously pleased. David Arditti (aka the blogger Vole O’Speed) called my statement yesterday“short but promising… [I] have time for Gilligan and I’m willing to give him a chance. It’s a highly political job and he might just be the right man.”

Danny Williams, of the Cyclists in the City blog, described me as someone with “good things to say” and as a “strong supporter of making cycling something that everyone can do as a normal activity and a real form of transport.” My former colleague, the Standard’s chief news correspondent Ross Lydall, another cyclist, said cyclists “should welcome” my appointment, since I “ride miles and know how to ask awkward questions.” Mark Treasure, from the As Easy As Riding A Bike blog, said I “seem to get it.” None of these people could remotely be described as pro- (or anti) Boris partisans. They will rightly, of course, in the end judge me on what we can deliver.

There was inevitably a second group of reactions. A small number of people who could fairly be described as partisan, such as Labour’s Len Duvall and the Ken Livingstone blogger Sunny Hundal, have damned it as “cronyist.” But as Mayorwatch’s Martin Hoscik – another man who could never be described as a patsy for the mayor – points out, all mayors are entitled to appoint political supporters to political jobs, and do so routinely without controversy. Nobody would or should call, say, the Labour assembly member Val Shawcross a crony because Boris’s predecessor appointed her as chair of the fire authority.

Cronyism, of the kind I exposed in City Hall six years ago, is when the mayor’s advisers channel vast sums of public money, for no clear purpose, to their friends, their business associates and women they secretly want to honey-glaze. I’m fairly sure I won’t be doing that. (And to anyone tempted to diss those Lee Jasper stories of mine, do remember that the only libel action to result from them was brought, successfully, by me.)

As was also pointed out yesterday, I’ve been fairly critical of several of Boris’s policies, including his cycling policies, in the past (though the future we have been discussing at City Hall is starting to look better.) I also, with my then Standard colleague Paul Waugh, broke perhaps the single most damaging “cronyism” story of Boris’s whole first term: the fraudulent use of public money by his deputy, Ian Clement, for meals with his mistress, which led to Clement’s criminal trial and conviction.

I hope, too, that our cycling policies will command cross-party support, and will not be particularly partisan, because in cycling all four of the main parties at last year’s election signed up to essentially the same things. Still, it is of course true that I am a strong supporter of Boris. That, I’d suggest, is an advantage, rather than the reverse: it gives me, and cycling, more influence with the mayor.

Andrew Gilligan offered job as cycling commissioner

It’s emerged today – slightly earlier than planned – that I’ve been offered a job as Boris Johnson’s cycling commissioner. It’s part-time; I’ll continue in my day job, covering national and international news for the Telegraph, though I will no longer be called London Editor or cover any matter related to City Hall or Boris Johnson.

I’m very pleased to be doing this at a time when London cycling stands on the cusp of quite ambitious change. As perhaps the foremost cycling blogger in London, Danny Williams, was kind enough to say, I have been a “big supporter” and long-term advocate of London cycling.

In 2007, at the Standard, I devised and led the newspaper’s six-month campaign for safer cycling which foreshadowed many of the themes of subsequent media campaigns. One of our main demands was for segregated bike lanes, several years before this became mainstream or an explicit objective for most cycle lobby groups.

I’ve never driven a car in my life and nearly all my travel in London is by bike. I cycle about 100 miles a week in the capital, and have cycled in every borough. I understand cycling provision from a cyclist’s point of view. Just as importantly, as a fairly recent convert, cycling since 2006, I understand how you can go from being a totally unfit slob who does no exercise to becoming a daily cyclist whose life has vastly improved as a result, because I have taken that journey. I know what got me cycling, what nearly put me off cycling, and what ultimately kept me cycling because I have been through that process.

At the same time, I believe that the way to win arguments is to stress what better cycle facilities can do for London as a whole – reducing air pollution and crowding on the Tube, for example – rather than just for cyclists.

I’ve been discussing this with TfL and the mayor’s office for a while. In the next few weeks, you will see the launch of a whole set of ambitious cycling policies that we have been working on. You’re already seeing, I hope, the beginnings. Last week TfL unveiled London’s first fully-segregated cycle track, on Stratford High Street, and cancelled an unsatisfactory scheme at Lambeth Bridge roundabout which had attracted a lot of criticism from cyclists. There is more to come.

 

Ken Livingstone 'ridiculed' as he tries to help Lutfur Rahman

Ken Livingstone was openly laughed at by members of Labour’s National Executive Committee today, I am told, after he urged them to readmit the extremist-linked mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, to the party and let him stand as the Labour candidate in the borough’s 2014 mayoral election.

The NEC’s organisation sub-committee was setting the process for selecting a Labour mayoral candidate in Tower Hamlets. He or she is now expected to be chosen in April, to give them time to build up a head of steam against Lutfur, who was sacked as Labour candidate in the 2010 mayoral election for his close links to an Islamic fundamentalist group, the Islamic Forum of Europe, which believes in turning Europe into a sharia state. Lutfur is also backed by a group of powerful local businessmen. In office, as this blog has documented, he has systematically given key positions, funding and favours to his extremist and moneyed patrons and is slowly turning a diverse, multicultural borough into a vehicle favouring a specific set of interests and segment of the community.

“Ken was ridiculed,” says my informant. “People were laughing out loud. He had absolutely no support whatever for his proposal, not even from the likes of [hard-left MP] Dennis Skinner.” A former member of the NEC, Luke Akehurst, tweeted tonight that the Kenster was “in a minority of one” at the meeting. Labour’s secretary in Tower Hamlets, Tarik Ahmed Khan, said: “Ken Livingstone still meddling in TH politics, [sought] to let Mayor Lutfur back into TH Labour Party. Thankfully, all voted against. Desperate.”

This must, I think, mark the final end for Lutfur’s hopes of readmission to Labour. Even the Dave Spart parody left, his main supporters in the party, have fallen silent in recent months as the true nature of his regime becomes clear. Labour know that if they let Lutfur back he becomes their new Derek Hatton. Outside the party, he’s still a scandal and a disaster – but he’s not their scandal and disaster.

Today is also clearly the latest sign of Ken’s fading influence in London Labour circles. His running-mate, Val Shawcross, was not selected to contest November’s Croydon North byelection – instead Labour chose the more Ken-sceptic figure of Steve Reed, former leader of Lambeth Council. Several of Lutfur’s Tower Hamlets allies were expelled from the party in July, an event unlikely had Ken won the mayoral election two months before.

More people than ever across the party now realise what plenty were saying all along – that Livingstone threw away a potentially winnable mayoral election last year. One of Ken’s countless self-inflicted wounds was his decision to campaign for Lutfur, and against the official Labour candidate, in the 2010 Tower Hamlets mayoral poll.

Does all this mean that Lutfur will lose his mayoral gig in 2014? Not necessarily. He still has almost total power over the council’s £1 billion budget and has been ruthlessly using it to promote his re-election. Every council tenant who gets a new window also gets a letter from Lutfur, on his famous picture headed notepaper, claiming credit – even though it’s usually the Government that’s paid. Every Tower Hamlets letterbox gets Lutfur’s personal taxpayer-funded Pravda, East End Life, through it every single week, complete with the statutory half-dozen or so pictures of the great man. Millions of pounds are being channelled into “capacity-building” (that is, vote-building) grants to Lutfur’s business cronies and extremist allies.

Egged on by such people, Lutfur’s Bengali bloc can be relied on to vote under all circumstances (even death shall not weary them.) Non-Lutfur Bengali, white and black voters (who still collectively make up the vast majority of voters in Tower Hamlets) are much less likely to turn out.

Yet Lutfur’s permanent isolation in that cul-de-sac marked “independent” will peel away more of the ambitious job and money-seeking opportunists who cluster around politicians in Tower Hamlets. If he cannot tap in to wider Labour power circles, his usefulness to such folk is less. Some of the Dear Leader’s backers have already drifted away in frustration at the severely local nature of what he can deliver them. The IFE’s secret is organisation. If Labour can match its level of organisation, it can win in 2014.

Labour’s choice of candidate will be important, though. Because of the aforesaid turnout differential between Bengali and non-Bengali voters, Tower Hamlets politics is Bengali-dominated and other groups feel less engaged. The trick might be to select someone who can appeal across all communities. The front-runner is probably the London Assembly member and former Tower Hamlets council leader, John Biggs, who came second to Lutfur in the 2010 Labour selection contest.

Labour should be proud that its representative bodies and its elected leaders (such as Newham’s Robin Wales and Hackney’s Jules Pipe, who will have nothing to do with Lutfur) are so strongly resisting sectarianism and sleaze and upholding the party’s core secular and democratic values.

Cycling growth in London tails off

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The latest figures for cycling levels on the Transport for London Route Network (TLRN), London’s TfL-controlled main roads, are given in the depths of a paper to the TfL board (page 9 of this PDF). They show that the previously stellar growth of cycling in London under both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson has ended, maybe even gone into reverse. Cycling on TLRN roads is actually forecast to fall this financial year for the first time since 2001/2.

It’s a big change from the enormous growth rates achieved in Boris’s first term – an average of just under 11 per cent a year, and more than 15 per cent in the single year 2010/11 alone, for instance. More new cycle journeys were made on the TLRN in 2011 than in any other year. By the end of 2011, more people were cycling in London than at any previous time since the beginning of mass car ownership. The Boris bikes have introduced hundreds of thousands of new people to cycling.

Not that Johnson is ever given any credit for this, of course: during the election campaign, as I mentioned at the time, the London cycle lobby chose to ignore the figures in favour of claiming that everything was terrible and it was all the mayor’s fault. I predict, however, that various opponents of Boris will be only too quick to blame him now the numbers have turned the wrong way.

That would not be entirely fair, because the quarterly breakdown for 2012 makes clear that the principal culprit was almost certainly the weather. In the first quarter of this calendar year, January to March 2012, TLRN cycling continued to grow, by 6.1 per cent over the same period the previous year . The weather in January to March was OK, or at least not much worse than usual.

But in the second quarter, April-June, TLRN cycling declined sharply – down 10.8 per cent on the previous spring. The spring of 2012 was, of course, the rainiest since records began.

Growth then resumed in the third quarter, July-September. TLRN cycling rose by 3.7 per cent on the previous summer, though this growth rate was well below TfL’s target.

Figures from the last quarter of 2012 are still awaited – but based on the spring and summer, when the majority of journeys are made, TfL is now projecting a 1.1 per cent drop in TLRN cycling for the financial year (April 2012- March 2013) as a whole.

In a funny way, the summer quarter’s figure is the most worrying. Yes, growth returned: but at a much slower rate than in previous years. True, July was pretty wet, too. Then there were the special events – the Jubilee, the Olympics – which disrupted normal travel patterns. But according to a Standard story before Christmas, the two-week period of the Olympics actually saw dramatic rises in the number of people cycling. That must mean that performance in the rest of the summer was even poorer than the overall figure says.

Cycling is a signature policy area of the mayor’s – according to Victory in London, the recent book written by Alex Crowley, political director of his successful 2012 re-election campaign, voter focus groups done during the election identified (again perhaps rather unfairly) the Boris bikes as Johnson’s principal achievement. But the figures underline that in cycling, as in anything else, you have to innovate to keep growing. The numbers show that the two big boosts to London cycling came in 2003, with the congestion charge, and 2010, with the Boris bikes. Apart from an extension of the Boris bikes to Tower Hamlets, there were no significant new developments in London cycling in 2012. TfL needs to deliver the same consistently high levels of innovation and improvement in cycling as it has managed in heavy-metal transport with the congestion charge, the Oyster card, the Overground, the new Routemaster, Crossrail, et al.

As TfL research makes clear, there remain enormous untapped reserves of pent-up demand to cycle in London. There are some good signs that radically pro-bike measures which could tap these reserves are on the way. A big increase in the cycling budget has been secured; an east-west “super corridor”  through central London (which I am told will be fully segregated) has been announced. The mayor has promised to implement three flagship “Dutch-style” cycle schemes with “segregated bike tracks where motor traffic is heaviest;” agreed to complete the cycle superhighway programme and all future junction improvements to “Dutch standards”; and pledged that cycle links through the new Nine Elms development in Vauxhall will be “better than Amsterdam.” Not all TfL’s latest schemes live up to these promises, frankly (though there are some signs of improvement.) But the summer’s anaemic growth figures suggest that such improvements, and others, are very necessary if the success of the past is to be sustained.

I’d say only one other thing. I can’t help wondering if last year’s almost all-consuming political and media emphasis on safety has helped suppress cycling. Most of what Londoners read in the paper or saw on TV about bikes in 2012 was variations, with different degrees of subtlety, on the theme that by mounting a bicycle you took your life in your hands.

Cycling in London is clearly not as safe as it should be. It is not as safe as it could be. But it is, in fact, far safer than it was. Between 2002 and 2010, per journey, the rate of London cyclists killed or seriously injured – the standard measurement –fell by more than a quarter. That was another little fact that tended to get overlooked in the excitement of the election campaign.

In the last twelve months sensible people, like Simon Hughes MP, have used words like “carnage” to describe the cycling death rate. But in 2011, the year Mr Hughes refers to, there were 180 million cycle journeys in London. Of these, 16 ended in death: that is, one journey in every 11.25 million. That is not carnage. I have seen quite enough real carnage in my day job, and I promise you can tell the difference.

An otherwise admirable report by the London Assembly made the headline-grabbing statement that cycle casualties had “increased by 50 per cent” between 2006 and 2010 without making any allowance for the growth in cycling over the period, and without making any distinction between slight casualties (where the rate per journey rose) and serious casualties (where the rate per journey fell).

But a sprained wrist should not count the same as a fractured skull. And indeed, the seriousness of casualties declined over that period. In 2006, 86.7 per cent of London cycle casualties were slight. By 2010, 88.3 per cent were.

There was, I know, a worrying increase in deaths and serious injuries in 2011, both in absolute terms and in rate per journey terms. And the emphasis on safety might end up being beneficial if it creates the political space for radical improvements to the cycling experience in London.

So we should never stop talking about safety. It is and always has been the biggest reason why people do not take up cycling. But perhaps we should think a bit more about how we talk about it.