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Lutfur Rahman: “I’m just a humble local politician”

Is the Tower Hamlets mayor a ruthless egotist or a victim of anti-Muslim bigotry?

By Freddie Hayward

Over the past fifteen years Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets in east London, has been accused of electoral malpractice, autocratic tendencies, links with Islamist organisations, cronyism, bribery, corruption, manipulation of the media and self-delusion. Rahman’s history reads like a dictionary of political scandal. Yet he endures. In the 2022 local elections Labour lost 23 seats to his party, Aspire, and he reclaimed the mayoralty. He will be mayor for 320,000 people, from the East End to Canary Wharf, until 2026.

Rahman, 57, has been a crucial figure in Tower Hamlets politics for three decades. The former council leader was first elected as mayor in 2010 before increasing his majority in 2014. But a year into his second term an electoral tribunal removed Rahman from office for making false statements about a candidate, bribery and undue spiritual influence. A report from the accountancy firm PwC at the time found that he diverted money to the Bangladeshi community. He was suspended from holding public office for five years.

When I interviewed him at the town hall in Whitechapel on a hazy day in May, I asked him how his constituents could trust him following the judgement. He sat at the head of a long table in a slick suit, looking presidential and brandishing bold cuff links.

“I delivered. We delivered. For the seven years that we were in power our passion was how do we improve the lives of the people of this borough?” he said. “So that’s why people trust me. They trust me. If they didn’t trust me on 5 May 2022, they wouldn’t have voted for me and our party with a huge majority. That’s one. Second, to this date, and to my last breath, I will not accept that report of Mr Mawrey.” Richard Mawrey was the election commissioner who nullified Rahman’s election; Rahman calls his judgement “Islamophobic”. “I will not accept it. It was an election tribunal, it wasn’t a proper court. It was one man who was the prosecutor, who was the jury, who was the judge and the executioner. And as a lawyer, let me say this to you, on the second day, I went into that tribunal and I sat in that chair, looked into his eyes and I knew he had already made his mind up.”

Mawrey’s verdict was an unflattering one, full of paragraphs like this: “Again, and with regret, it must be said that [Rahman’s] grip on reality was not always 100 per cent. This judgement has already instanced his long-running fantasy that tomorrow would bring an invitation to re-join the Labour Party. His evidence as a whole displayed a tendency to close his mind to any version of the facts that did not accord with his world-view.”

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I read this passage to Rahman. “It’s so unfair, so one-sided,” he said, plaintively. “For a person to make those allegations against me is in itself fanciful because if you’ve talked to people about me, on the streets of Tower Hamlets on the ground… I’m very thoughtful. And I do think twice before I make a decision, and I do take advice from people who are much more knowledgeable than I am, have more wisdom than I have.”

[See also: Could Jeremy Corbyn win as an independent?]

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The stall owners peddling garments across the street from the town hall trust the mayor. “He listens,” one told me. “I remember when I saw him in the street and I went to speak with him about a personal problem. I didn’t think he would give me any time but he invited me back to his office and I spent 30 to 40 minutes with him.” A law student nearby said he was suspicious of the criticism directed at Rahman. “There’s always going to be bias in the press.”

The day before we met the council’s cabinet approved Rahman’s manifesto promise to provide free meals for secondary school students. Tower Hamlets is the first council in the UK to do so. “What you eat at a young age has a knock-on effect in later years,” Rahman said. “[We are] helping those who are struggling, but it’s universal, irrespective of income. I think a child is a child [and] we help them with healthy food.”

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, praised the policy. “I think it’s really exciting,” he said. “If he can pay for it, it’s really exciting.” Indeed, the funding for the policy is questionable. Rahman has withdrawn £23m of the council’s reserves for his policies next year. Free school meals are not an investment from which the council can expect a return. How is the policy sustainable if it’s funded by savings? “With the money that we generate from business rates, we can virtually run the whole of London… We keep 30 per cent of that as a local authority. So that’s a healthy stream for us.”

According to the BBC the mayor’s private office is nearly trebling in size to 30 staff, including nine “consultants”, each earning £58,000 a year. Rahman rejects the characterisation that his office is ballooning in size. He doesn’t count case workers, who constitute much of the increase, as part of his private office. And the consultants’ role he says, gesticulating to two of them sat opposite me, is to liaise with the media and the council officers – something he said he didn’t have time for.

The British Bangladeshi media is extremely active in the borough. One of the consultants in the room is Mohammed Jubair, who an Evening Standard investigation in 2013 found was working for Rahman at the same time as he was a journalist for a TV station targeting the community, which Ofcom found was overly supportive of Rahman, in breach of broadcasting rules.

Rahman has also attracted close supporters of Jeremy Corbyn to his enclave. The former Labour leader’s political secretary, Amy Jackson, is now Rahman’s chief of staff. The other consultant in the room, Kieran Andrieu, was once an election agent for Bell Ribeiro-Addy, the Labour MP. Rahman himself is still smarting from the Labour Party’s rejection of him. In 2010 Rahman was selected as the Labour candidate to run for mayor but was eventually deselected over allegations that he was connected with Muslim extremists. Ken Livingstone, the party’s candidate in the 2012 London mayoral election, ran the risk of expulsion from the party by campaigning for Rahman. A self-styled “socialist”, jettisoned by the party hierarchy, battling to bring about a more just world in the face of what they see as an unfair campaign of persecution from a biased media: the parallels between Rahman and Corbyn are clear. But the mayor cautiously rejects the comparison.

“We’re all individuals. We all have our own experiences. Others who are observers may be able to make better comments than myself. Jeremy Corbyn had his own agenda. He had his own tribulations. And he was a national politician. I’m just a humble local politician trying to make sure our bins are collected on time, make sure our kids are not obese.”

Who is Lutfur Rahman? The egotistical autocratic mayor of Tower Hamlets who funnels money to his political supporters and pursues power with a single-minded ruthlessness; or the campaigning socialist committed to free school meals who was hounded out of office by an establishment awash with anti-Muslim bigotry. Or both?

[See also: Will Jeremy Corbyn agree to step aside in Islington North?]

This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars