Last week, Panorama ran a programme on the elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman who, as it happens, is up for re-election in approximately one month’s time. It would be remiss of me not to mark this event.
Full disclosure: as regular readers will know, I have my own reasons to be a little wary of Rahman. Following on from some pieces I wrote he did once, after all, report me to the police (I kid you not, see here) for reasons which the four different journalists I spoke to about it found roundly disingenuous; the excellent Nick Cohen wrote a detailed rebuttal here and a further short catalogue of his history here, after Rahman complained to the Spectator about his first piece.
However, I said at the time that neither would I stop writing about Rahman and there are somewhat more important matters at stake here. I leave it to the reader’s judgement which of the two of us is a more reliable recounter of the truth.
The programme was, on the one hand, extremely damning: it accused Rahman, on apparently sound evidence, of doling out money to preferred Bengali charities in amounts far above what his own council officers recommended and – extraordinarily – of failing to answer questions in full council session (or, more often, even to turn up, in the case of his Scrutiny Committee).
In a moment of pure comedy, as his mayoral challenger John Biggs has noted, he once claimed that being forced to answer questions violated his “human rights”. If you want to understand how odd this is, try to imagine David Cameron turning up to Prime Minister’s Questions and then sitting there in abject silence. Scrutiny may sound dull, but it is these checks and balances which make democracy function properly. Without them, politicians can do just as they please.
But most damningly of all, Panorama accused Rahman of using council money to buy electoral favours.
On the other hand, I felt – as did others on Twitter that night – that, if anything, Rahman got off rather lightly. That is not, I suspect, because the stated accusations were not weighty or lacking evidence, but simply because there is only so much alleged wrongdoing you can squeeze into a half-hour documentary.
Much of it was taken up with Rahman being rather pathetically evasive with his interviewer (even more pathetically, Rahman decided to play a sectarian card and put out a statement just after the broadcast accusing the BBC of “racial and Islamophobic overtones”. That’s right, the BBC: well known for their racist sectarianism, the BBC).
We should also note that, in the interests of trying to scupper the programme, a junior BBC journalist was found to have leaked, most unethically, details of sources within the Rahman administration to the mayor’s office, sources who will now, presumably, have their jobs put at risk by her betrayal of their identities. Reasonable suspicions were raised, I think, that this action could have been the result of her being “leaned on” by the Bengali community in Tower Hamlets, but this is clearly difficult to prove conclusively.
It’s almost as if someone were trying to prevent the BBC from broadcasting…oh, hang on, turns out they were. Rahman mounted a legal and PR campaign against the Beeb to do precisely that. Predictably, he failed.
But yes, it was not quite the great exposé we might have expected. If we are looking for conclusive evidence on Rahman, a great deal more can easily be found by checking out the excellent blog of Daily Express journalist Ted Jeory (for historical reasons to do with the David Kelly tragedy, I hesitate to recommend the now-sporadic blog of the Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan, but have to admit that he has also been fairly accurate on this matter). There is no shortage of information.
So, in light of all this, I was interested to read a piece on the matter entitled “Why mayor of Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman must go” by Tower Hamlets councillor, Joshua Peck, posted at Progress a couple of days later. The argument was essentially that we should focus on the precious little that Rahman has actually achieved for his constituents, above and beyond bombarding them ceaselessly with propaganda (improperly paid for by the taxpayer, of course – partisan communications are not allowed to be funded by the public purse) about his administration.
Peck is quite right, of course, in the title of his piece and in that Rahman has done precious little for the people of Tower Hamlets (especially the two-thirds who are not Bengali). But I feel compelled to argue that he is quite wrong to place that matter above the issues discussed on Panorama.
I understand why this was done, I really do. Peck is a local politician, after all (and I’m sure a decent one), who clearly believes that the best attack line for Labour in the forthcoming election is to play it on the issues. But there is a political “line to take”, and there is the bigger picture, which also demands we do the right thing.
First, this ignores the elephant in the room.
There are clearly very serious issues regarding fitness to govern here, which go much wider than the Tower Hamlets mayoral election. Eric Pickles, minister with responsibility for local government, is now sending in independent inspectors.
If we simply downplay these issues, we implicitly accept that what Rahman has allegedly done is ok. It is not.
If we fail to address what may well turn out to be one of the worst examples of political malpractice in living memory, we are sending a message to other councils that we will do nothing in the face of bad behaviour, that there is no control, no sanction. In the absence of a deterrent message, we end up with a similar situation to MPs’ expenses – zero control leads to bad deeds slowly drifting into outrageous ones.
On the contrary, we must call them out, loudly and continuously, until people take notice. Once cynicism sets in with the voting public, you create a vicious circle of low turnout and bad administrations (in Tower Hamlets you could argue we are there already, of course, but that does not mean you should give up).
There is a second and vitally important issue as well. Tower Hamlets Labour Group has, I am sure, many decent councilors. I know some of them personally; I have met and liked John Biggs, the candidate who will stand against Rahman, and I wish him the very best of luck.
But Tower Hamlets Labour Party still needs to look itself in the eye and make a clean break with the past.
We have such short memories: do we not remember that Rahman is a monster we created? That he once led the council for Labour? Can we really honestly say to ourselves that if Rahman is gone, that we are confident there will never, ever be a repeat performance in Tower Hamlets?
It would be great to think so, but I cannot bring myself to believe the answer is yes.
Labour needs to show it has truly changed. It is still playing games – not just in Tower Hamlets, but across the country, as my good Uncut colleague Kevin Meagher has previously noted – in tying up ethnic minority votes in blocks, and failing to deal effectively with the causes of membership fraud (which is clearly linked to electoral fraud, a criminal offence).
Alternatively, if I’m wrong and someone would like to explain to me a different reason why thirteen Labour constituencies are in “special measures” (i.e. with the national party imposing a candidate shortlist), I’d be fascinated to hear it. Special measures contain a problem, but they do not solve it.
And while it still has not learned that lesson, even when Rahman is gone, as all right-thinking people should hope he soon is, Tower Hamlets politics will always be in danger of sliding back into the gutter. And, most likely, Labour with it.