Andy Stowe looks at what’s behind the co-ordinated attacks by Labour, the Tories and the BBC on Tower Hamlets mayor Luftur Rahman
Peter Davies was best man at the wedding of Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. He works for a firm called Lansdowne Partners which bought £50 million worth of shares when the Royal Mail was privatised, and went on to make £18 million profit from the transaction on the first day of trading. Davies’ company then made a £500 000 donation to Osborne’s Tory party. On the face of it, an investigative documentary series like the BBC’s Panorama might find this of sufficient interest to start digging around.
Another scandal that might be worth looking into is the fact that Tower Hamlets council, in common with every other council in England, is set to lose 25% of its budget over the next few years due to Tory cuts. The care of the elderly, vulnerable and dying will be transferred from the local state to families, which means a huge increase in the amount of work local women will be expected to do at home.
Instead Panorama opted to run a thirty minute programme on allegations that Rahman doubled the amount of money he gave to Bangladeshi organisations in the borough, overriding the views of senior council officials. Eric Pickles, the Community Secretary, a man whose life work is the destruction of locally provided services, has launched an investigation into the scandalous fact that, at a time of widespread cuts, Rahman increased spending for Bangladeshi and Somali groups from £1.5 million to £3.6 million. No one is claiming that he has personal offshore bank accounts; unlike Stephen Kinnock, son of former Labour leader Neil and a prospective parliamentary candidate, there’s no evidence that he pays his taxes via Switzerland. If there is a scandal it’s a pretty humble one.
As a local political activist Glyn Robbins has pointed out Panorama was:
“Very similar to the 2010 Channel 4 Dispatches programme about politics in the borough, a kernel of legitimate criticism is smothered in racist innuendo, unsubstantiated accusations and hypocrisy in the service of the political establishment.”
Someone clearly has it in for mayor Rahman and is able to get national TV coverage for the hints and whispers that pass for substance.
He’s no George Lansbury
On the face of it it’s hard to see why. Rahman is no George Lansbury, a Tower Hamlets politician who in 1921, under the slogan “it’s better to break the law than break the poor” led a group of thirty councillors to prison n preference to raising local taxes from their very poor community. He’s not even a George Galloway who flirted with setting up a new national party and remains a harsh critic of Labour.
He was a Labour Party member and had a falling out with the party over its failure to select him as its mayoral candidate for the 2010 election. Despite the fact that Tower Hamlets is an overwhelmingly Labour area, he won. Neither that election nor this year’s had a sharp political focus.
Rahman is not promising to defy the cuts in his budget from central government and his council has already had a wave of redundancies and service reductions. He sits well within a mainstream Labour framework and, to the extent that he’s got a publicly expressed world view, it’s his notion of “one Tower Hamlets” which has a lot in common with the sort of platitudes you expect to hear at an Olympic opening ceremony.
Like the local Labour Party, Rahman is not overburdened with ideological baggage. He’s politically isolated too. He has a small group of councillors who are even less politically thought out than he is, the notable exception being Rania Khan, who was briefly involved in Respect. This rather sneery account rings true for anyone who has seen his election machine in action:
“I can confidently say that the gathering of Rahman and his ‘Tower Hamlets First’ party is by far the most unnerving, bizarre and amateur. There was very little campaigning and no talk of policies — just posing, posturing and aimless standing around.”
In the absence of substantial political differences the elected mayoral system becomes a personality clash and a test of which candidate can build the most effective local base. Labour’s contestant John Biggs has been working the local mosques for well over six months, doing exactly the same sort of thing as Rahman.
To the extent that there is a difference between Rahman and Labour it’s that he’s much less gung ho about making cuts. In neighbouring Newham outsourcing of services and union bashing have reached Tory levels under Labour’s Robin Wales. Rahman is less persuaded by the virtues of neo-liberalism, if only for the fact that in the absence of a political machine he has to rely on building support by delivering services and offering some sort of protection against the worst of the cuts to a very poor population. The BBC and Eric Pickles find this infinitely more outrageous than the Tories taking kickbacks from George Osborne’s mates for privatising the postal service. Many people in Tower Hamlets are convinced that a white politician being seen to operate in a similar way with a white electorate wouldn’t be getting the same level of scrutiny. Labour hate him because he outsmarted them.
So far the mayor’s strategy has been to say that the attacks are motivated by racism. There may be an element of truth in that but, if he wants to effectively challenge them, he’ll have to do what he’s so far failed to do. Rather than retreating into the Bangladeshi community and legalistic arguments he needs defend, an admittedly flawed, record of trying to protect services and giving money to communities that need it. He needs to start looking for allies on his left and using his election campaign to challenge the logic of cuts, austerity and Tories bunging hundreds of millions of pounds of public money to their merchant banker mates.