Upwards of a thousand Tower Hamlets residents packed into a meeting to defend the east London borough’s directly elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman writes Andy Stowe. Rahman, who describes himself as “a social democrat with liberal values” is facing a series of attacks comparable to those on Lambeth and Liverpool councils in the 1980s. Ken Livingstone was there to offer him some advice on what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that sort of abuse year after year. He also said that he’d work to get the mayor back into the Labour Party.
Hard right Tory Eric Pickles, a man whose politics are indistinguishable from any UKIP saloon bar philosopher, has singled out Tower Hamlets for special attention. The BBC has helpfully volunteered its services along with the entire right wing press in an astonishing campaign of vilification based on no evidence. As Kate Hudson of Left Unity and John Rees speaking for the People’s Assembly remarked, his main crimes are that he is a Muslim who had the temerity to get elected in opposition to the major parties by a largely Muslim electorate and he has repeatedly made clear that he has opposed to the Labour and Tory consensus on austerity.
A range of local and national speakers lined up to back the mayor. Many referred to his willingness to head up large demonstrations against the far right English Defence League or in support of Palestine. Colin Wilson reminded the audience that Rahman had supported and spoken at an east London LGBT march, nicely rebutting Pickles’ ludicrous accusation of Rahman endorsing homophobia.
Rahman’s self-description is accurate. He has tried to implement social democratic policies at a time when they are out of fashion His council provides free home care for the elderly, has retained the Educational Maintenance Allowance for young people and offers free school meals to all primary school children. These are vote winning old style Labour ideas. However the Labour Party has thrown its full support behind Pickles’ claims of cronyism and dodgy dealing. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since the party received £600,000 of support from PwC, the firm Pickles used to audit the council. It’s also the same firm which gave Tesco a clean bill of health shortly before the retailer announced it had cooked its books. If there is a difference between the Labour and Tory attitudes to Luftur Rahman and the attack on local democracy, it is invisible to the naked eye.
Faith in the justice of his cause and the integrity of the courts seems to be the mayor’s strategy to repel the Tory attacks. The only advice he gave to his supporters was to listen out for further news. The obvious local historical reference was the Poplar councillors led by George Lansbury who went to prison under the slogan “it’s better to break the law than to break the power.” Only the local Unison branch secretary John McLaughlin referred to that idea. In any case it’s completely outside the political framework of mayor Rahman and his unideological councillors of Tower Hamlets First (THF). George Galloway did suggest that if THF didn’t stand a candidate against the sitting Labour MPs that his vehicle Respect might. That will receive a mixed reception.
Yet there is not doubt that many of the people who voted for Rahman see Pickles’ campaign against him as racist. For them it’s how the Tory minister is trying to protect his flank against UKIP. They also know that the Tower Hamlets mayor is in the firing line because, even though he implements cuts, his administration does try to blunt them to the limited extent that it can.
What Pickles is doing, by sending in commissioners to take over some of the council’s functions, is a real threat to local democracy. As John McLaughlin remarked, “if he wants to run Tower Hamlets, let him stand for election here.” Of course he won’t. But Rahman and his team need to go on the offensive as vigorously as their enemies have. He has a large base of support he can bring out to repel the Tories and their local Labour allies. He’ll need to do more than tell them to sit at home and wait for news.