Monday, 28 July 2014

Tower Hamlets: the net tightens

Regular readers will know that I appear to be slightly obsessed with this small corner of English local government.

Partly, I freely admit, is purely personal: last year its mayor, Lutfur Rahman, ably demonstrated his unfitness to hold public office by wasting the time of his local police in pursuing someone who disagreed with him (i.e. me). Neither was it the first time this had happened - he has also spent over £100,000 of public money pursuing a whistleblower through the courts (a case he lost) and more in trying to stop the current petition against him in the High Court.

But partly it’s because this is important. One of the great things about Britain is that it is remarkably free – relatively speaking – of the widespread graft, fraud and misuse of public funds which infects much democratic politics, even in the developed world. Such a case as Tower Hamlets has probably not been seen since the dark days of Liverpool’s Militant council under Derek Hatton in the 1980s.

I say “probably”, because investigations are yet to reach their conclusion, but the argument for the defence is looking pretty shaky at this point.

To recap: there have been serious allegations of misuse of public funds against Rahman’s Tower Hamlets first party, as well as of buying political favours. These allegations are currently being investigated by auditors, whose enquiries – surprise, surprise – have apparently been met with obstruction, for which reason their report has been delayed.

In fact, there are now several different ongoing investigations into Tower Hamlets into various matters, including police investigations.

We will leave on one side for now Rahman’s links to local extremist group Islamic Forum Europe – an organisation itself
with clear connections to Jamaat-el-Islami, a murderous Islamist group in Bangladesh – although these, too, are important, as there is a real risk that funds might yet be diverted into dubious organisations in a manner which is not only wrong but dangerous.

But somehow worse than all the above is the new allegation of interference with the democratic process, during the polling day of the mayoral elections, three months ago.

Mismanagement while in office is a social bad, but it is one which may be quickly remedied at the ballot box, once detected. Start rigging the voting, and you find yourself in the position of a banana republic, which cannot then rid itself of its governing politicians and break out of the vicious circle of poor government. If you need an example of this, you need only look at the recent “elections” in east Ukraine.

Furthermore, if these allegations of widespread electoral fraud are found to be true, one has to ask the question, if the Electoral Commission cannot stop a bent election, what on earth is the point of it?

It is for these reasons that we should all care about Tower Hamlets.

So it was of great interest to find out this weekend that John Biggs AM, a member of the London Assembly and Labour’s mayoral candidate against Rahman, was revealed to have made some
fairly categorical allegations regarding electoral fraud, as part of a cross-party submission to the High Court, asking for the election result to be overturned.

John Biggs’ statement is a notable development for two reasons. First, he is not a silly, rent-a-gob politician, but a decent, grown-up one whose public statements are generally rather measured and sensible. He is clearly not, as Rahman has somewhat inevitably accused him of being, a “sore loser”. I am quite sure he has thought very carefully about his submission.

Second, although personally I felt that they were wrong to do so (as I wrote
here), Labour deliberately chose to fight the election on “the issues”, rather than on Rahman’s fitness to govern. This is therefore quite a change of approach from Tower Hamlets Labour, and one to be welcomed. It is right that he be challenged on fitness to govern, because this issue is one which is now much bigger than the borough in which it originated.

Right now, it seems that the net may finally be closing in around this dire administration, and that Rahman may, despite “winning” the election in May, find that his just desserts are not too far away. It will not be before time.

UPDATE 30JUL: Rahman loses at High Court initial hearing and will now face trial for electoral fraud, writes the Evening Standard. Let's see how this ends.

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