Lutfur Rahman: Inside the shock return of Tower Hamlets’ divisive mayor

·8-min read
 Lutfur Rahman with supporters after being elected Tower Hamlets’ mayor (NIGEL HOWARD / Evening Standard)
Lutfur Rahman with supporters after being elected Tower Hamlets’ mayor (NIGEL HOWARD / Evening Standard)

Seven years ago it looked like Lutfur Rahman’s political career was finished. An excoriating High Court judgment by the Electoral Commissioner Richard Mawrey QC had found the mayor of Tower Hamlets and his agents guilty of multiple counts of corrupt and illegal practices.

Mr Rahman was dramatically ousted from office and barred from politics for five years. The 200-page judgment was damning, upholding allegations of personation [the legal formation of “impersonation” meaning “to assume the identity of another person with intent to deceive”], bribery, false statements and undue influence.

Summing up his findings, Mr Mawrey said the scandal which shook the East End borough was not the consequence of the racial and religious mix of the area’s population but “the result of the ruthless ambition of one man”.

Last Friday Mr Rahman’s ambitions were fulfilled once again as he was swept back into power, winning the Tower Hamlets mayoralty with an even bigger margin of victory over Labour’s John Biggs than in the 2014 election.

Last Friday Mr Rahman’s ambitions were fulfilled once again as he was swept back into power, winning the Tower Hamlets mayoralty with an even bigger margin of victory over Labour’s John Biggs than in the 2014 election. (NIGEL HOWARD)
Last Friday Mr Rahman’s ambitions were fulfilled once again as he was swept back into power, winning the Tower Hamlets mayoralty with an even bigger margin of victory over Labour’s John Biggs than in the 2014 election. (NIGEL HOWARD)

The lawyer polled almost 55 per cent of the vote while his Aspire Party won control of the council with 24 councillors elected, compared to Labour who slumped from 23 to 19. “It is as far as I am aware unique in recent electoral history,” says Lord Hayward, a Conservative peer who raised concerns about Mr Rahman’s comeback in the House of Lords earlier this year.

“There’s not even someone who has been in the same position as Lutfur Rahman let alone someone who has been able to get re-elected.”

Mr Mawrey’s judgment found a string of corrupt practices carried out by Mr Rahman and his agents including ghost voters — people with made up names or voters who didn’t live at the address for which they were registered.

It also found people voting in the name of others, postal vote fraud, paying canvassers — a practice barred by electoral laws — and bribery, partly through council grants to help secure the support of local organisations and community groups.

Lutfur Rahman (left) has been elected mayor of Tower Hamlets in London on the second round, defeating incumbent John Biggs (right) (PA / Evening Standard)
Lutfur Rahman (left) has been elected mayor of Tower Hamlets in London on the second round, defeating incumbent John Biggs (right) (PA / Evening Standard)

To ensure the voting was fair in the latest elections, police were posted at each of the polling stations in Tower Hamlets while observers from electoral monitoring group Democracy Volunteers attended 97 of the 109 ballot boxes in the borough. They will produce a report on their findings next week.

So how did Mr Rahman, 56, manage to shake off the damage to his reputation and win an even bigger mandate from the people of Tower Hamlets?

Speak to some of the residents shopping in Poplar’s — Britain’s first pedestrianised shopping centre but now in need of urgent modernisation — it is clear that some feel Mr Rahman deserved a second chance.

“He is an honest man,” says Sanaor Ali, 43. “Whatever happened to him was made up. He is there for everybody, whether you are black, Asian or white.”

His friend Baharuddim Odin, 52, is nodding in agreement. “He is not a criminal. Everyone understands he is a good man.”

That’s not a view shared by Lorraine Paul, 56, whose family has run Ivy’s cafe in the market square for 71 years. She says she didn’t even bother voting last week because “there ain’t no point”.

“We knew the majority of the people in this area are Asian and knew they would vote for Lutfur,” says Ms Paul, as she prepares to shut up shop for the evening. “I’m not surprised he’s won. I’m just surprised that he was allowed to be re-elected. It’s just scandalous.”

A judgment found a string of corrupt practices carried out by Mr Rahman including ‘ghost voters’ and vote fraud

The Aspire Party, created in 2018, is the latest incarnation of Mr Rahman’s Left-wing political movement previously known as Tower Hamlets First and Tower Hamlets Independent Group.

In an article for the American Left-wing website Jacobin on Tuesday, Mr Rahman, a former Labour leader of Tower Hamlets who is close to former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, portrayed himself as an “open socialist” who upset the traditional political order. “We have a socialist program [sic] to spearhead a fairer society” he writes, adding that “the first absolute priority is to tackle the social emergency”.

BBC London news showing Ken Livingstone campaigning with independent Lutfur Rahman in the Tower Hamlets (BBC)
BBC London news showing Ken Livingstone campaigning with independent Lutfur Rahman in the Tower Hamlets (BBC)

He puts his third term as mayor (he won as an independent in 2010 and 2014 before being thrown out of office) down to shaking up policy “in a way that was popular with communities and ordinary Labour members”.

And yet some councillors and political experts argue that Mr Rahman’s victory was the result of deep racial and religious division within Tower Hamlets. The Mawrey report in 2015 highlighted concerns that “undue religious influence was exercised so as to convince Muslim voters that it was their religious duty to vote for Mr Rahman”.

Tower Hamlets’ remaining Conservative councillor Peter Golds (his party colleague Andrew Wood failed to win re-election last week) claims Mr Rahman won by targeting the borough’s Bangladeshi community. He points to the fact that all 24 of Aspire’s newly elected councillors are men with Bangladeshi heritage. Although Mr Rahman’s Aspire Party turned down an Evening Standard request to interview him, one of his most senior political allies Kabir Ahmed dismissed the claims that the newly re-elected mayor only targeted the Bangladeshi community.

Lutfur Rahman (second left) and John Biggs (third right) of Labour, waiting for the results at the Tower Hamlets election count in London. (PA)
Lutfur Rahman (second left) and John Biggs (third right) of Labour, waiting for the results at the Tower Hamlets election count in London. (PA)

“I don’t want to use the word racist,” says Mr Ahmed, who was elected as part of Aspire’s triumphant march to power last week. “But I think it’s very demeaning and insulting to assume that because of the colour of my skin, I can only communicate with others of the same colour. We got huge support from all over Tower Hamlets. So just the assumption that it’s only Bangladeshis…Lutfur actually got endorsement from the middle classes….we picked up a lot of the working class votes.”

He says Aspire won convincingly because of its programme of reform, including pledges to reverse spending cuts, the scrapping of low traffic neighbourhoods and freezing council tax to ease the cost of living crisis.

However, the questions over whether Mr Rahman has reinforced ethnic divisions in such a diverse London community have sharpened concerns raised in Mr Mawrey’s 2015 judgment that the mayor exerted undue “spiritual influence” on Muslim voters. The electoral commissioner upheld allegations that worshippers were told by some clerics in the borough’s mosques that it was their religious duty to vote for Mr Rahman.

Mr Ahmed denies spiritual influence played any part in last week’s result and insists the decision to find Mr Rahman guilty of corruption seven years ago was a “miscarriage of justice”.

He adds: “The level of evidence submitted was flaky...I think he was hard dealt by considering the stuff we’re seeing in the Westminster bubble happening now.” Mr Rahman has always denied he did anything wrong. But his victory may have been as much about Labour’s weaknesses as it was about Aspire’s new manifesto for change.

Mr Biggs, who became mayor when Mr Rahman was forced out of office in 2015 and was then re-elected comfortably in 2018, acknowledged the party needed to be better organised but he rejected the suggestion that his party had lost touch with the borough’s working classes.

Having taken Tory strongholds Barnet, Westminster and Wandsworth for the first time in decades, defeat in Tower Hamlets took some of the shine off what was overall a successful round of town hall elections for Labour in the capital last week.

But Mr Biggs, who admits his political career is now over, launched a stinging attack on Mr Rahman saying his refusal to accept the findings of the special court in 2015 was “mind boggling”. He went even further, drawing comparisons between his rival and other “populist” politicians including Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

I just find it mind-boggling that he had the front to deny what happened and is now re-writing history

He adds: “He repeatedly and incessantly has said he did nothing wrong. He says it is all a stitch-up by the establishment. He has shown no humility or recognition that anything that happened was wrong. Clearly what happened was outrageous.

“ I just find it mind-boggling that he had the front to deny what happened and is rewriting history. It’s something that populists the world over try to do whether it’s Boris Johnson or Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump or indeed Lutfur Rahman. They are all people who massage the truth.”

In his Jacobin article this week Mr Rahman says of the Mawrey judgment: “I don’t accept the findings, but nor could I afford a costly appeal.” He has also previously said it was “a travesty of justice”.

Despite that insistence, last week’s result looks set to once again test faith in the transparency and integrity of Tower Hamlets’ political institutions.

Lord Hayward says: “I do sadly fear the worst. It’s now up to him [Mr Rahman]. He needs to reach across the gender and race divide and show he is a changed man.”

Mr Rahman’s close ally Mr Ahmed insists Tower Hamlets is not a rotten borough. “Absolutely not,” he says. “This is a glorious borough. Put your stereotypes away… don’t give us a rotten

title without measuring us against other local authorities in the country.”

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