The BBC’s Panorama has done a hatchet job on the elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman. 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.
My path crossed with Lutfur’s in 2011 and 2013 when the crypto-fascist English Defence League (EDL) was threatening to march through Tower Hamlets. During both periods he provided staunch support to the many community organisations that rallied against the bigots. Having walked a wobbly path at times, in the end Lutfur literally put himself at the front of a united demonstration against the far-right. By stark contrast, in 2010 when the Labour Party controlled the Council they deliberately tried to undermine and sabotage the community mobilisation against the EDL.
As well as what he has done, there are some things he hasn’t that will probably get Lutfur my vote. Unlike the Labour Party, he has not overseen a wholesale privatisation of council housing and he has opposed Academies where the Labour Party has supported them.
Lutfur’s opposition to the cuts has not always been resolute, but it’s ironic that one of the spurious accusations made by Panorama is that the Mayor has increased spending on community projects. The BBC and the Labour Party suggests that funding has been provided in return for votes. No real evidence for this proposition is offered, but viewers are led to conclude that only Bangladeshi organisations have been supported, while others – presumably non-Bangladeshi – have been overlooked. This is a misleading and dangerous form of sensationalist journalism that panders to racism. It reflects, however, a type of dinner party Islamophobia that exists in certain circles.
Similarly (and with a strong echo of the earlier Channel 4 smears) the idea is seeded that somehow there is something wrong with Bangladeshi people taking part in elections. At a time when there is widespread political apathy, this is perverse. The argument trades on a false and prejudiced view that Bangladeshis and by implication, Muslims, are a homogenous block of political zombies incapable of thinking for themselves.
On Saturday I was in Bethnal Green campaigning against the Bedroom Tax when a Labour Party candidate for the forthcoming council elections came up for a chat. He prefaced our discussion with ‘I know you’re a friend of Mayor Rahman’s’. I’m not. I’ve never socialised with Mr Rahman or been to his house for tea and he’s never been to mine. What he has been to me is an occasional political ally. That’s why I want to defend him.
Lutfur isn’t perfect, but I’ve yet to meet a politician who is. He has, for example, taken a very poor position on the Bedroom Tax and his housing policy leaves quite a lot to be desired. But this has to be put in the context of being an independent Mayor with few political allies beyond his immediate circle. It should also be remembered that the only reason he’s not still in the Labour Party is because they kicked him out under very dubious circumstances.
As to the revelation that a politician might be using power to curry favours in advance of an election, I’m shocked. That never happens.