Lutfur Rahman Turned East London into a Banana Republic
Political correctness and left-wing myopia helped protect Britain’s first democratically-elected Muslim mayor from corruption charges for years. Eventually justice caught up with him.
LONDON — In 21st century Britain, those who stand on platforms and denounce political correctness are often treated with contempt. And with good reason: the enemies of political correctness often seem to be bubbling over with nostalgia for a time when it was considered OK to knock a woman about or eject a black person from the pub or shop. Opposition to political correctness in modern Britain is, most of the time at least, justifiably derided. Most of the time.
Step forward Lutfur Rahman, Britain’s first democratically elected Muslim mayor and a man who used British liberals’ unwavering faith in political correctness to create a dictatorship in the east end of London. A Bangladesh-born solicitor, Rahman ruled Tower Hamlets, a poor London borough, as if it were his own personal fiefdom. Presiding over a council budget of $1.5 billion and services for 250,000 people, Rahman showered his favoured Bangladeshi Muslim community with money, nurtured a cult of personality and aggressively smeared political opponents as racists and Islamophobes.
Or at least he did until last week. Last Thursday Lutfur Rahman’s rotten second tenure as mayor came to an abrupt end when a High Court judge delivered a stinging 200-page report voiding the mayoral contest of 2014 and banning the discredited mayor from ever standing again. The judge in the case, Richard Mawrey QC, said Rahman was guilty of a string of ‘corrupt and illegal practices’ and had ‘driven a coach and horses’ through local authority law. Tower Hamlets First, Rahman’s political party, was found to have engaged in postal vote fraud, given false statements, committed bribery and used ‘undue spiritual influence’—illegally warning voters that it was a ‘sin’ to vote for rival candidates.
Rahman’s conduct during the trial itself was equally egregious, with the judge complaining of what looked like mass-produced witness statements: “witnesses whose command of English turned out in the witness box to be rudimentary nonetheless produced polished English prose in their witness statements containing words that appeared to baffle them in cross-examination.
“The occasional witness claimed to have typed out his witness statement himself, oblivious to the fact that its appearance was absolutely identical to that of other (allegedly unconnected) witnesses. The nadir came when one witness gave a graphic account of how he had attended a polling station to cast his vote and found it a haven of tranquillity, only to be confronted with absolutely incontrovertible evidence that [he] had, in fact, voted by post and could not have voted in person on the day.”
Initially a budding Labour politician, Lutfur Rahman was booted out of the party in 2010 after Helal Abbas, another Tower Hamlets Labour politician, warned that fundamentalists from the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), a group that wishes to create a sharia state, were using Rahman for the purposes of entry into the Labour party. Yet mere expulsion from Labour could not stop someone as ‘ruthlessly ambitious’ (the judge’s words) as Rahman. Backed by several senior left-wing party figures, including the former London mayor Ken Livingstone, Rahman ran for mayor of Tower Hamlets on an independent ticket in 2010 and won, securing 51 per cent of the vote. After serving a full first term Rahman ran again in 2014 and again he won—or so he thought until Thursday when the result was declared void.
The political machine of Rahman was a motley crew. Local restaurateurs, the IFE and local left-wing activists all backed the mayor. Yet Rahman was no socialist: one of the first executive orders of this supposed man of the people was to dispatch a staff member to go out and buy him the new iPhone 4. His second executive order was deliverance of a Mercedes together with chauffeur. Aside from the fraudulent behaviour documented at the trial, Rahman’s electoral success lay in his showering of favoured communities with taxpayers’ money. He did this by wrestling control of the council’s grants system, which allowed him to direct money away from secular causes and into the hands of those who wanted to ‘refurbish’ religious buildings. According to Ted Jeory, a local blogger who spent years pursuing Rahman, this was ‘a targeted bribe for bloc votes’.
Long before last week’s revelations the corruption and dirty politics of Lutfur Rahman’s Tower Hamlets had been an open secret. There was even a BBC documentary on the misuse of public funds by his administration. But Rahman had proved almost impossible to bring down because he could always rely on the political correctness of polite liberal society to silence his critics. Whenever a journalist or politician criticised Rahman—or had the temerity to run against him in an election—accusations of racism were sprayed around like mud flung from a spade. For the mayor an accusation of bigotry was not a grave and sinister charge but another tool in the armoury of a bent politician. As the judge put it, Rahman regularly played the ‘race card’ and critics were silenced ‘with accusations of racism and Islamophobia’.
Political correctness may go some way to explaining why neither London’s Metropolitan Police nor the Labour party ever brought a prosecution against Rahman. The party certainly had good reason to. During the 2014 campaign for mayor, Labour candidate John Biggs was publicly smeared as a racist by Rahman’s campaign team. Meanwhile Abbas, rather more difficult to brand a racist due to his own background, was branded a ‘wife beater’ in a Bengali newspaper in a completely unfounded allegation. Against this backdrop, the Labour party’s reluctance to bring a prosecution, while not perhaps forgivable, is nevertheless understandable. As the judge put it, the Labour party was probably ‘not prepared to risk the accusations of racism and Islamophobia that would have been bound to follow any petition’.
To the surprise of many, during the trial Richard Mawrey dismissed accusations of extremism directed at Rahman. However the Press Complaints Commission had previously ruled that referring to Rahman as ‘extremist-backed’ was not misleading due to his refusal to deny having links to the IFE. The chief coordinator of Rahman’s 2010 mayoral election campaign, Bodrul Islam, had also put his links with the IFE on the record.
Rumours of Rahman’s links with extremist politics, whether accurate or not, only appeared to heighten his attractiveness to a certain type of activist. In this respect Rahman was merely the latest footnote in a sorry tale of the pro-Islamist Left—the Hitler/Stalin pact of the twenty-first century. Those who would automatically reject any compromise with the British establishment were once again ready to collaborate with the most reactionary sections of the Muslim community. George Galloway’s Respect party, a significant player in Rahman’s Tower Hamlets First, was conceived in 2004 out of an amalgamation of the Leninist Socialist Workers’ Party and the Muslim Association of Britain, one of Britain’s most radical Islamist groups. As the French writer Pascal Bruckner mockingly put it, on the far-left hatred of the market was ‘worth a few compromises regarding fundamental rights’.
The judge’s ruling appears to have done little to dampen support for the deposed mayor on the far Left. Last night, a week after the damning verdict, a rally of hundreds of supporters took place in Stepney Green in East London, where Rahman confirmed that he was “exploring the possibility” of challenging the judgment. The rally was made up largely of Rahman’s Bangladeshi supporters—and left-wing activists, including Andrew Murray, the chief of staff at Britain’s biggest trade union Unite, Respect party MP George Galloway, who appeared via video link, former London mayor Ken Livingstone and Christine Shawcross from Labour’s National Executive Committee. Shawcross, who is expected to be disciplined by the Labour party for continuing to support Rahman, is also reported to be acting as a trustee of Rahman’s legal defence fund. The corrupt former mayor used the rally to launch a fundraising drive to pay his £1 million legal fees and to insist—again—that he was the victim of smears.
Behaviour of this sort is perhaps to be expected from the communist Left. More depressing in the case of Lutfur Rahman has been the loyalty shown to him by mainstream sections of the liberal press. The Guardian, “the world’s leading liberal voice,” was one of Rahman’s biggest cheerleaders, running countless op-eds lionising the now-deposed mayor. The campaign against Lutfur Rahman was an “insult to democracy” with “a deep substrate of racism” informing it, ran one of the paper’s many pro-Rahman columns. In reality the “deep substrate of racism” was on the part of Rahman’s white liberal supporters, who took the mayor’s rampant megalomania and corruption as a sign of authentic Islamic behaviour. Look a little closer and the underlying assumption was indistinguishable from the white far-right: vote rigging and invocations of hellfire were no more than you should expect from Muslims and Bangladeshis.
Another thing which seemed to rankle with the Left (and which made defending the disgraced mayor a point of honor) was the fact that, for their own reasons, right-wing newspapers didn’t much like Rahman either. One of the journalists who fought hard to bring Rahman down was Andrew Gilligan of the conservative Daily Telegraph. The British Left, keener on the verbal diarrhea of Slavoj Zizek than the windowpane prose of George Orwell, had clearly forgotten the latter’s injunction that “Some things are true, even though the Daily Telegraph says they are true.”
This unwillingness of the politically correct to take the controversy surrounding Rahman seriously (a fawning profile in the Guardian referred to the allegations simply as ‘mud slung around’) meant it was left to four concerned citizens of Tower Hamlets to bring the prosecution against Rahman themselves, risking predictable smears and opprobrium but also bankruptcy and homelessness (had they lost the four would have had to stump up £1 million in costs). Fortunately people power won the day and justice was served.
But the rise and fall of Lutfur Rahman ought to stand as a cautionary tale for the politically correct. Obsessed with the perceived oppression of London’s non-whites, and terrified of accusations of racism, the Left found a ready bedfellow in a corrupt mayor who led the Bengali community “into a sense of victimhood,” as the judge put it, in order to satisfy his own lust for power. That Britain had its first Muslim mayor was to the good. But for many liberals and leftists that’s all they saw—an exotic category—and not the man, who was busy turning East London into a banana republic.