While most of the national coverage of Thursday’s elections has been about the surge of UKIP, one of the most remarkable upsets has gone unnoticed: the re-election of Britain’s first elected Asian Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, in the face of a virulent campaign by the political and media establishment. Ashok Kumar reports.
Lutfur Rahman at the 2011 EDL counter-demo in Tower Hamlets
One of the biggest upsets of Thursday’s UK elections was to be found in the East London borough of Tower Hamlets. Britain’s first elected Asian Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, secured 37,000 votes, comfortably ahead of the 27,000 tally of his Labour Party opponent, John Biggs, in spite of the latter being heavily favoured by both the press and the bookies.
At 47.8%, the borough saw the highest voter turnout in London. As a Tower Hamlets resident myself, I can attest that there is a veritable gulf between the sentiments within the borough and those endlessly reproduced in the popular press. As thousands of Tower Hamlets residents celebrated the re-election of their Mayor, the mainstream media and politicians sneered, questioning the competency of the borough’s constituents and the legitimacy of its results.
Labour’s battle with Rahman is long-standing. In 2010, as the party was selecting its candidate for Tower Hamlets’ first directly elected mayoral race, and despite Rahman topping the Labour Party’s selection, the party HQ disqualified him on the grounds that he had “extremist-ties”. These claims were widely seen as a political smokescreen, including by many within the Labour party itself who believed Rahman was considered too left-wing and independent whereas Labour wanted someone who would more reliably toe the party line.
Thus, the hierarchy replaced Rahman with the third-placed candidate, who had received less than a third of Rahman’s vote tally during the selection process. (In second-place was none other than John Biggs, but the Labour Party made a political calculation to put forward someone of Bengali heritage.)
Upon his disqualification, Rahman stood as an independent and won the 2010 Mayoral race at a canter, securing twice as many votes as his Labour Party opponent. In Thursday’s elections, standing for the newly formed party, Tower Hamlets First, Rahman would increase that vote share by 60% [the count is still ongoing but Tower Hamlets First is currently tied with Labour for council seats]. And yet, the 2014 election has revealed the extraordinary lengths to which the establishment is willing to go to ensure absolute subservience of the subaltern – in this case, the Bengali community.
Indeed, in a concerted attempt to unseat Rahman, a tidal wave of negative press – propelled by Labour, desperate to secure the mayoral seat – seemed to have washed over the country. A heavily promoted and covered BBC Panorama programme presented Lutfur Rahman as a corrupt, crooked criminal, squeezing all he could financially and otherwise from his borough.
The incendiary documentary was aired mere weeks before the contentious election, and even Rahman detractors conceded its intention was to influence the outcome. In particular, Panorama’s insinuating tag-line of “ongoing investigation” seemed clearly intended, amid mounting election fever, to be read as a “guilty” sign. Indeed, the documentary led to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Tory MP Erik Pickles launching a major anti-fraud investigation against Rahman, whose report, of course, would not be expected for a full month after the election, by which time the intended damage would presumably have been done – or so they hoped.
It was off the back of this brilliantly choreographed assault by a confluence of media, government, and political actors, that word soon got around that the Conservatives and UKIP hierarchies were asking their supporters to back Labour’s John Biggs as their second preference under the banner “get Lutfur out”.
Beyond Panorama’s retrograde and unsubstantiated caricatures, few seem to be aware of Rahman’s successful track record as Mayor. After all, in politics, an accusation wrapped in a question under the veneer of investigative journalism need never be proven to cause irreparable damage. Once the Panorama bombshell was dropped, not even the metropolitan police denials of criminality could dent its course. As a famous propagandist once pointed out “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it people will eventually come to believe it.”
Whispers about Rahman’s alleged ‘sleaze’ in the media became shrieks within the political class. Many will fail to realise that Panorama will have combed over every organisation Rahman had ever interacted with, every person he has come into contact with, and every action he had undertaken. The fact they could find nothing of substance is a testament to Rahman actually being – do forgive the phrase in the context of this article – whiter than white.
Umpteen UK politicians – as we know thanks to the expenses scandal – have darkened their names, merely months in office, with wrongful use of the expenses system, underhand dealings and openly making decisions that benefit their friends and personal investments. Yet none of these misdeeds were racialised when covered by the media the way Panaroma had done in Rahman’s case.
This wasn’t accidental, but a tactic that was, at its most fundamental level, a political calculation: The population of Tower Hamlets is 45% white and 32% Bengali. Much of the white residents are the working class that remained in the borough after their more well-to-do white neighbourhoods had fled further out to Essex upon the arrival of non-white – mostly Bangladeshi – immigrants. The white population that remained tends to be reactionary, especially in the southern tip of the borough, in the Isle of Dogs.
Labour Party officials seemed to have decided that by running a white candidate, painting Rahman as an Islamist and a racist, and leveraging the second preference commitment from UKIP and Tory mayoral candidates, they would be able to overwhelm Rahman’s strong base of support in the second round count. However, when the second preferences came through, Rahman had beaten Biggs by 3,000 votes. Undoubtedly, in the coming months the Labour Party will attempt to court Rahman to ensure that those 37,000 votes are delivered to Labour by next year’s general election. After all, that’s the way this game is played.
Even Rahman’s Election Day victory could not shake-off long-held stereotypes. Racist comments whirled around social media, echoed and amplified across news outlets. When Biggs took to the stage on Friday night to concede and a few boo’s were heard in the audience, he couldn’t help himself from barking, “Be a bit respectful. This is democracy and you listen to what we say” – spoken without a hint of irony. Rahman’s supporters seem to understand how democracy works rather well, after beating Biggs by a margin of thousands. Somehow, even after losing, Biggs still thought of himself as a “we”, while we, the children of immigrants, will always remain a “you.”
The election result came as a shock to many outside of Tower Hamlets. In the months leading up to the vote, accusations and smears had run the gamut – from ‘village strongman‘, to third world-style chaos, corruption, and clientelism – entwined with outright racist depictions. Even cries of “intimidation” – allegedly by Rahman’s campaigners at polling stations – fell flat when the evidence was no more than the same unsubstantiated tropes.
Still, despite little evidence of foul-play, the police were called in, stationed at almost every polling site, in order to ‘protect’ the white constituents of the borough from Rahman’s ‘unruly’ campaigners. Instead of Tower Hamlets First campaigners being heralded as committed, politicised local residents, they were portrayed as aggressive and untrustworthy. In another borough – presumably one with the ‘correct’ demographic – such a show of mobilised local community would have been celebrated as a triumph of citizen engagement.
Similarly, outside of the borough, Rahman’s support-base has been routinely and dismissively presented as agentless tribal-loyalists who are set on getting ‘one of their own in,’ to change the face of Britain. Even reactionary UKIP voters are afforded a level of political objectivity, portrayed as rational actors and “disaffected” Labour or Tory voters.
Twitter vitriol invoking the rise of a ‘Tower Hamlet-stan” and policy centers announcing “the Islamic Republic of Tower Hamlets” have exemplified the drive to portray Rahman as the head of a sinister plot to use Tower Hamlets as a conduit to insinuate religious extremism into mainstream UK politics. Of course, such accounts, which seem to have forgotten about the potency of traditional party political loyalties, tend to grant the ‘civilised’ white majority ample levels of political agency in their decision-making while the Bengali community of Tower Hamlets is presented as marching in lock-step to the polls, blindly following community dictates.
In spite of this onslaught, Rahman has managed to supersede party-politics by winning independently, bucking trends of voter apathy induced by the increasing ideological amalgamation of the main political parties. What the election shows is that Rahman is more popular now than he was before he started – 60% more popular, to be exact – despite a wall-to-wall smear campaign. Instead of admiration, or at least recognition, most in the fourth estate are questioning his legitimacy. It’s almost as if democracy wasn’t supposed to involve the participation of all citizens, but merely those of whom the rulers approve.
Of course, there is a pattern at work here. Poll volunteers are presented as “intimidating” rather than a mobilised community; higher voter turnout is painted as ‘tribal loyalty’, and progressive policies are presented as Tammany hall-style patronage systems. Despite inviting all parties to his cabinet, the hiring of Muslims is depicted as nepotistic at best and “reverse racism” at worst. But, one might argue, this is to be expected under a coalition government whose cabinet of millionaires has come to represent the status quo.
Even on Election Day, as two thousand mostly young supporters anxiously awaited in the rain into the early hours of the morning, erupting into celebration upon hearing the results, major news sources cynically presented it as an example of sycophancy, with references to crowds ‘mobbing’ Mayor Rahman as he exited the building where the votes were being counted, his supporters were portrayed in the press as uncontrollable and hostile – and willing to cause damage and disorder at any moment.
Joyous residents were presented as a threatening horde rather than representing an excited electorate and a rupture from the apathy. Teams of police were called in because “overzealous crowds could spark violence”, to protect the predominantly white Labour Party members and press core inside. If this were a crowd of white supporters dancing in the streets, mainstream media, politicians and the public alike would watch on and praise the political activity and enthusiasm of local residents.
Rahman, who undertook the full restoration of the Old Synagogue in White Chapel (Panorama misrepresented this as a ‘small grant’) and who stopped a Limehouse gay bar, The Old Ship, being closed down (awarding it a 15 year license after it had been threatened with closure), is still labeled a homophobe. When will racists in Britain realise that Muslims are not the one-dimensional projections of the absolutism that exists only in their minds?
If Rahman was white and not a Muslim he would probably be branded a hippy, or fluffy peacenik, a financially incompetent socialist, giving away the borough’s money to free school meals, paying the bedroom tax for the poor and not ‘investing’ (read: giving it to the private sector) it properly. Instead, because he’s black and Muslim, no such gentle ribbing can be applied, as it would be too kind. Rahman is ‘corrupt’, in league with Bengali school children! (Though white children benefit from free meals, too.) Rahman is only there to represent his own community, a tribal leader of the stone-age era, even though impoverished white families also had their bedroom tax paid, of course. Rahman hates women! Even though he supported an anti-sexism event held after young women were allegedly assaulted and abused by a Labour campaigner.
Mayor Rahman’s policy successes over his first term would be the envy of any progressive politician – were he white and a member of the Labour Party, no doubt he’d be celebrated as a rising star. No other council in the entire country has built as many council or affordable housing units, has reinstituted the full Education Maintenance Allowance after the government abolished it, kept elderly personal care free, expanded the living wage for all contractors, allocated a £1,500 for every student attending university and introduced free school meals for every primary school child.
Under Rahman’s leadership, the council has kept the full Council Tax Benefit for every recipient, is in the process of refurbishing every council home, has not only ensured that every children’s centre, library, leisure centre and youth services stay open but expanded them despite deep government cuts, making TH the first council in the country to ban contracts with firms that blacklist trade unionists.
Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest boroughs in the UK, with one of the highest level of child poverty in the country, but with an area that borders the City of London and Canary Wharf, it brings in an enormous amount of tax revenue. That revenue could be spent on corporate welfare or handouts, yet it is being distributed to the young, poor, and elderly of Tower Hamlets. These policies are unmatched by any other council, yet mainstream media outlets have failed to highlight any of them.
Of course, while impressive, Rahman’s policies arguably do not go far enough. His second term should deepen and expand these policies in order to make a real dent into structural inequity. Indeed, Rahman has promised not to enforce the government’s draconian bedroom tax and to introduce a mandatory landlord registry in his second term, but this will mean little to Tower Hamlets’ working class if it fails to include significant rent controls. Certainly, if history is any measure, it will take the mobilising of the poor, the workers, and then tenants of Tower Hamlets behind such radical policies to ensure their fruition.