8 min read
09 Aug, 2022
Newly re-elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, explains how a racist media campaign against him played a central role in over a decade of his political life and draws comparisons with those targeted by the Trojan Horse Affair.
“Lutfur Rahman is duly elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets”.
I could hardly believe those words when I heard them. It was 6 May, 2022 and the people had spoken, they chose me to be their mayor for a third time. I was humbled.
I’ve lived in Tower Hamlets most of my life. I grew up here, I went to school here, I’ve raised a family here. I love my home, and I’ve dedicated most of my life to serving my borough. My fellow residents.
Tower Hamlets has always been a diverse place – a haven for immigrant communities; be it the French Huguenots fleeing persecution, the Jewish community fleeing the pogroms, and of course the Bengali and Somali community.
It’s been a long journey, at times packed with lies, shadowy political machinations, and Islamophobic rhetoric. A false narrative that has plagued my career. This is my story of how Islamophobia was deployed to stop my political career, and undo all the good I had tried to do for my community.
The trouble begins
As a community activist, I joined the Labour Party, and became a councillor in 2002 for Tower Hamlets. I held various cabinet positions, and worked my way up to Leader of the Council.
”What happened to me and what happened in Birmingham during the Trojan Horse Affair share haunting similarities. Because I am a British-Muslim, some parties were happy to believe the lies without much scrutiny – just as they were willing to believe the Trojan hoax on very shaky evidence.”
It was around 2006/2007 that I became aware of Islamophobic smears, when I applied to become the Labour Party Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow. I heard whisperings throughout my campaign, that I was somehow Islamist-linked, had dealings with extremist groups, fundamentalists.
My relationships with mosques and community organisations was used against me. It shocked me, and I believe that was the beginning of my faith and heritage becoming the key focus of attacks.
Although I did not get the candidacy, I was as always, delighted to serve my community as a councillor.
In 2008, I became the Labour leader of Tower Hamlets council. I enacted policies to benefit the borough, including spending £20 million to buy back Right to Buy homes to house our homeless families. It was during this time that a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary entitled, Britain’s Islamic Republic, was released.
The documentary, hosted by journalist Andrew Gilligan, the former advisor to the Mayor of London, portrayed me as some sort of ‘mad mullah’, presiding over an Islamic dictatorship; once again recycling old accusations.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. I am a democratic socialist. I believe in democratic values, I respect the secular nature of the country I live in, and the laws of the land. I was also a practicing as a solicitor at the time.
Then came 2010. When the idea of an executive mayor was floated, I was immediately excited. It seemed a good idea to make elected officials more accountable to the people who vote for them – a much better system than putting power in the hands of a small group of councillors.
A referendum was called on the question, but the Labour central office firmly told us to oppose it. Yes, it was good enough for Lewisham, for Newham and Hackney – all Labour held – but not Tower Hamlets.
Despite strict orders from the top, I and others who were like-minded worked behind the scenes to support the ‘yes’ campaign, and the people of Tower Hamlets spoke: a massive majority favoured a mayoral system.
I prepared for my bid to become the mayoral candidate, and interviewed to be shortlisted. I performed well, and the panel seemed keen, but later that day, I was told that I had not made it.
In no way did I ever believe I had an inherent right to be mayor; that’s for the people to say. But I thought that members of Tower Hamlets Labour should be the ones to decide if I was right for the job, not a selection panel from the central office.
Perhaps some involved believed the Islamophobic smears, and genuinely feared them. They’d bought the narrative constructed by the media.
I believe some of my Labour colleagues – worried I’d be selected as mayor, and harbouring similar ambitions themselves – acted cynically, gladly stoking fears.
I took the Labour Party to court, which was settled outside of court, and I was placed back on the shortlist – ultimately winning the selection by some distance and becoming Labour’s mayoral candidate.
Thousands came to our launch at the Troxy, one of the biggest venues in Tower Hamlets. I was honoured to share the platform with imams, priests, members from local synagogues, and non-faith groups – a real rainbow coalition of support.
The day of the dodgy dossier
I was in my office one morning, when my phone rang. It was my friend from the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC), calling to inform me that the regional director had just presented a dossier containing “serious allegations” against me.
The dossier rehashed all the false accusations levelled at me about extremism, but they had added that I had secured my candidacy by falsifying votes.
I had put the work in for that selection. I canvassed members to earn their support. It was genuine and sincere, but now the NEC were threatening to not endorse my candidacy. At one o’clock, my source rang again – I was out.
Against the backdrop of the war on terror, my identity as a Bengali Muslim was being weaponised for political gain. I finally got my hands on the dossier – stocked with Islamophobic tropes and full of hysteria; for which some of my Labour colleagues had, I’m sorry to say, fallen hook, line, and sinker.
I then made the decision to stand as an independent.
Mayor of Tower Hamlets
I humbly won the mayoralty by a landslide. Unfortunately, the Islamophobic narrative plagued me throughout my first term.
I tried to keep busy with the task of improving Tower Hamlets. As the guillotine fell on local government budgets under the new Conservative regime, I worked hard to make sure the people were protected. As councils were closing libraries, I was opening them. When the Education Maintenance Allowance was cut, I stepped in. I created thousands of affordable homes, and under my mayoralty, former ‘sink’ schools were rated outstanding by Ofsted.
Yet, rather than concentrate on that, I was dubbed an extremist, while unfounded allegations of corruption started taking hold. Grants to projects such as lunch clubs for the elderly or youth centres were spun as corruption, or as favouritism to certain groups.
The auditors and ‘concerned citizens’
Despite this, I was re-elected in 2014 against the Labour candidate John Biggs. This time, we ran a slate of councillors under the name ‘Tower Hamlets First’.
Then, four ‘concerned citizens’ launched an election petition. These citizens were anything but ordinary. One was a former Labour council candidate who had lost by one vote to one of our councillors. Another was a former chair for the Respect Party, later an active Labour Party member. Next there was a former advisor in the last Labour government, and finally a UKIP supporter.
The petition was small at first, and I honestly didn’t expect it to go anywhere. By now, falsehoods about me were running riot, so much so that the government ordered the PWC, an independent auditor, to review our practices.
No evidence of criminality was found in their report. We could account for every single penny we spent.
Yet, new claims were being thrown in – voter fraud, bribery, even ‘spiritual influence’.
At the end of it, I believe our case was better. Our witnesses more credible, we had police officers, imams, respected members of the community who stood up in court and told the truth, but they were not believed. I was branded as liable for serious allegations, criminal in nature.
Those allegations were found to be nonsense. The evidence provided was not credible or robust enough for the police to question me let alone charge me, nor were the CPS interested; they didn’t see there was a criminal case to be heard.
What happened to me and what happened in Birmingham during the Trojan Horse Affair share haunting similarities. Because I am a British-Muslim, some parties were happy to believe the lies without much scrutiny – just as they were willing to believe the Trojan hoax on very shaky evidence.
Since 9/11, Muslims have all too often been a convenient ‘other’ in our society. Labour and other parties will field BAME candidates, and court BAME votes, but still have a long way to go to reject Islamophobia at all levels of society.
What heartens me is that the people of Tower Hamlets saw past the smears and, once again, trusted me to run their borough at the 2022 local elections. I am forever humbled by that privilege, and will work every day to make them proud.
Lutfur Rahman is the elected mayor of Tower Hamlets and leader of the Aspire party. He has held various roles in public service since 2002 and is passionate about social justice and equality.
Follow him on Twitter: @LutfurRahmanTH
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