When I wrote about Lutfur Rahman in April I had lots of ‘hits’. This made me a bit grumpy because it suggested that more people are interested in the small world of Tower Hamlets politics than the much bigger issue of housing. But the Lutfur story has taken another twist, so I thought I’d revisit it and plug my new book (which I haven’t written, but watch out for something next year!).
Last night I was outside Tower Hamlets town hall, as I have been on several occasions recently, taking part in a demonstration against the cuts in services that are currently threatening local nurseries, day care to people with disabilities and support for adolescents with mental health problems. This is the essential background to the announcement on Tuesday that Eric Pickles is sending in ‘commissioners’ to supervise the running of our Council. The justification comes from a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) which found some procedural irregularities in the use of public money, leading to accusations of ‘cronyism’, although as Lutfur has been quick to point out, there is no evidence of the systematic political or financial corruption that has previously been alleged.
There’s no excuse for dodgy grant funding or disposal of public assets, but the moral outrage directed at Lutfur form various parts of the establishment is a laughable gathering of people in glass houses throwing stones.
Let’s take PwC to start with. They were complacently predicting a rosy outlook for global capitalism just before it plunged over the cliff and have been criticised by MPs for setting up tax avoidance schemes for big business.
Attacks from New Labour rely on everyone forgetting what happened when they controlled Tower Hamlets, but here are just a few things I remember:
- They appointed an ex-New Labour councillor on a big salary as head of a department to oversee the proper use of public money. He had such high moral standards that he once recorded a private, informal conversation I had with him and used it to try to get me sacked because I was critical of housing associations taking over public buildings.
- Some of those same housing associations were allowed to run amok through Tower Hamlets and were headed by people who were not only former Council employees, but Labour Party members.
- The Rich Mix arts centre was bailed out from a financial crisis by using money from council tenants’ rents. The leading Board members were New Labour councillors.
- Under their watch, several people (some of them Labour Party members) went to prison for abusing regeneration funds.
When the Liberals were in control of the Council they virtually gave away Bethnal Green town hall. It’s now a luxury hotel and worth millions.
Eric Pickles is criticising incompetence in Tower Hamlets the week after his government again failed to find a Chair for an inquiry into child abuse because they couldn’t see that having the Lord Mayor of London – who is also a social acquaintance of an ex-Tory Minister who has ‘lost’ crucial papers relating to the case – might be seen as an establishment stitch up.
The demonisation of Lutfur Rahman is a hypocritical (and at times racist) political attack, but there’s a ‘but’ coming. Lutfur and his administration have not done enough to lead a campaign of resistance to the cuts that would transcend these smears. Comparisons with Poplarism in the 1920’s are sometimes clichéd, but do convey an important lesson that Lutfur has failed to learn. The Poplar councillors became local heroes by making individual sacrifices, but they had helped build a community-wide movement of thousands opposed to a central government trying to balance their books on the backs of the poor. When the councillors were imprisoned, the people of Poplar supported them and demanded their release and a fairer distribution of government funding. They won. By contrast, Lutfur has cultivated an image of political respectability designed to appease the establishment in the misguided hope that he will be rewarded for doing their bidding.