Tower Hamlets should serve as a warning about the dangers of putting one community above all othersby John Ware / April 27, 2015 / Leave a comment
Lutfur Rahman, the disgraced Mayor of the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, often spoke about his “passion” for the “community.”
Tower Hamlets is a very diverse community. Its quarter of a million residents speak some 90 languages. Besides white Irish and white British, Chinese, Africans, Somalis, Poles, Russians, Lithuanians, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians and Bengalis—the list goes on—make up this “community.” The truth is, Tower Hamlets is not a community. It is a community of many communities.
To strengthen community “cohesion” Rahman devised a “Community Plan” called “One Tower Hamlets.” When it came to the 2014 election, however, the one community he most relied on to return him to power was his own—the Bangladeshi community, the largest single ethnic group comprising 32 per cent of the borough’s population.
According to the election court which has just kicked him out of office, Rahman relied on it in the basest of ways. He and his election agent ran his 2014 mayoral campaign “by branding Mr Biggs [his Labour opponent] as a racist,” a claim the judge describes as “wholly dishonest.” The court also found he was guilty of a 19th century offence, still on the statute book, which outlaws “use of the power and influence of religious office to convince the faithful that it is their religious duty to vote for or against a particular candidate.” Rahman “decided to run his campaign on the basis that it was the religious duty of faithful Muslims to vote for him,” and enlisted the support of Hafiz Moulana Shamsul Hoque, the highly influential Chairman of the Tower Hamlets Council of Mosques (encompassing 45 mosques and other Islamic institutions) “to deliver what might be termed the imprimatur of the senior Muslim clergy.”
At the time, neither Rahman nor the Imam in this political-religious “double act,” as the judge terms them, seem to have thought there was anything wrong with what they were doing, even though Rahman was a solicitor. After all, a speech by the Imam was filmed at one event he attended, and at another event a report of the Imam’s speech was posted on the internet by a Rahman supporter. The judge makes clear, it should be noted, that he assumes “that Mr Hoque genuinely believed that it was in the best interests of the Muslim and, in particular, the Bangladeshi community for Mr Rahman to be re-elected.”
In large part this breach of the election rules is a consequence of decades of aggrandising diversity to such an extent that it has created ethnic and religious enclaves, at the cost of an authentic cohesive “community” identity. It is an idea that has been largely, though not exclusively, fostered by the otherwise “enlightened” Left who have played politics with Muslim identity in their attempt to revive a proletarian vanguard.
Tower Hamlets should serve as a warning about the danger of destroying the very cohesion that the political nurturing of religious identity is intended to generate. Islam is this country’s fastest growing religion, so now British citizens of Arab, Asian and African heritage are increasingly being identified solely by their faith. If Tower Hamlets and other towns and cities with large Muslim populations are any guide, the trend is towards more conservative religious practices.
Tower Hamlets has changed profoundly over the last three decades. With ever more women covered with full-faced veils, the borough has begun to look more like the Saudi capital, Riyadh, than Dacca, the relatively secular capital of Bangladesh. This offered Mayor Rahman an open goal to shoot at. He actively injected faith into both local politics and policy delivery, for example, through grants to the borough’s thriving third sector and to faith institutions. While public money went to all faiths, disproportionate amounts empowered Muslims who formed his electoral base. It was our Panorama programme “The Mayor and his Money” that disclosed how he had rejected officer recommendations by doubling grants to Bangladeshi and Somali voluntary organisations. As the court found, money was corruptly awarded to organisations run by or for the Bangladeshi community “for [Rahman’s] own personal electoral benefit.”
Tower Hamlets shows how the politics of communalism—”my community right or wrong”—deepens cultural and political divisions but the temptation for politicians to engage in communalism in places like Birmingham, Luton and the old northern Mill towns will grow as the demographics change.
There are now 53 constituencies where the number of mosque spaces within each constituency exceeds its 2010 majority by 100 or more, and 36 where it exceeds it by 1000 or more, according to a recent survey.
You might say that the Tower Hamlets election fraud judgement was the day the judiciary caught up with public opinion and gave voice to the elephant in the room—the growing challenge to create meaningful integration through social mixing to help diverse faiths and cultures transcend their differences.
No judge has ever articulated as clearly as Mr Commissioner Mawrey QC how political correctness over race and faith silenced legitimate questioning about a system that was rotten to the core, because people feared being labelled a bigot. After all, no one likes to be thought of as a “bad person.”
Mayor Rahman—Britain’s first directly elected Bengali Muslim mayor—”relied on silencing… critics” of the way he ran the council “by accusations of racism and Islamophobia,” the court found.
Influential sections of the Left, Ken Livingstone included, have also indulged this bogus charge by Rahman and his cronies.
That explains why they got away for so long with such a litany of abuses including “corrupt” voting practices under the representation of the people act 1983, making false statements about the character of a rival in accusing him of being racist, and committing bribery through giving grants to organisations run by or for the Bangladeshi community in order to induce people to vote for him.
The Tower Hamlets police may have conducted limited investigations into vote rigging, and were passive when it came to intimidation of voters at polling booths. The judge linked this to the Macpherson Inquiry, set up to investigate the police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which left a bruising legacy when it found 16 years ago that the police were “institutionally racist.”
The Executive Mayoral model was a perfect fit for the self-aggrandising Rahman. He plastered his picture at public expense over the borough, even on dustcarts. Devotion to a single figure rather than a political party seemed to suit those who defected with him from the Labour party.
In recent years, fear of the Islamophobia label has stifled intelligent debate and robust action by the authorities not just in Tower Hamlets, public discussion about the sexual grooming of 1,400 of Rotherham’s most vulnerable children was also avoided because councillors and staff feared they would be called “racist” even though they knew the abusers were men of mainly Pakistani heritage.
So how to prevent another Tower Hamlets? The Commissioner’s icebreaking judgement should at least encourage future critics to turn off the mute button when confronting wrongdoing by public figures irrespective of their race or faith, rather than remaining silent for fear of being accused of racism or Islamophobia. Hopefully it will also encourage the police and the prosecuting authorities to always apply the law fairly and equally.
Lutfur Rahman’s name should become a byword for bogus allegations of racism or Islamophobia—to instantly consign these terms to the dust-heap when they are deployed to deflect evidence-based criticism or inquiry. Britain has welcomed and accommodated migrants from many parts of the world. The fact that Muslim migrants continue to head for Britain is testimony to that.
The Mayoral model also needs reforming to make directly elected Mayors more accountable to councillors whose job is to hold the Mayor to account on behalf ofthe people who elected the councillors. Rahman’s excuse for so consistently ducking questions from opposition councillors was that he was directly accountable only to the people of Tower Hamlets because it was they—not councillors—who elected him to the Mayoral office. He should have been reminded that he was accountable to those who did not vote for him, as well as those who did.
In the longer run, though, we come back to the challenge of creating a common life between citizens of this country who have too little in common, and the need to avoid the divisive politics of communalism. That challenge should not be underestimated. A senior Home Office source recently told me that a review of government initiatives to encourage integration had not shown that any of them had had any impact. Nor, I fear, will they, because for integration to work, migrants themselves must be motivated to adapt to the mores of their new home. There is a limit to what can be done artificially by government fiat, and that is why this country so urgently needs a national conversation free from hair trigger accusations of racism and Islamophobia.