Luftur Rahman, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, London
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||Lutfur Rahman, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, London
Victim of and victor
over ‘shady politics’
20 August 2011: Lutfur Rahman is the first directly elected mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, having previously served as council leader. Unusually for a local authority figure however, the mayor and how the office came to exist has attracted a high degree of national interest. Having entered public life as a community activist and lawyer, Rahman was elected a Labour councillor in 2002, but was blocked from obtaining the party’s nomination and instead stood as an independent candidate. His mayoralty has almost become a proxy in the debate between the various wings of opinion on the role of Islam in British political life.
| Tower Hamlets | Early politics | Party politics | The mayoral campaign | In office |
Tower Hamlets is probably better known outside of London as its former constituent boroughs of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney, it being created in 1965 as part of the reorganisation of London government. It is so named for its proximity to the Tower of London, whose ‘constable’ administered such hamlets as Whitechapel on behalf of the Crown.
Poplar in particular was known in the 1920s for the fiery brand of municipal socialism (‘Poplarism’) adhered to under the leadership of future Labour leader George Lansbury, while Stepney is probably best remembered for the 1936 Battle of Cable Street which saw marching fascists routed by left-wing opponents.
More recently the area became associated with the rise of the far-right however when it elected the UK’s first British National Party councillor in 1994. The associations linger on to this day and are often referenced in conjunction with the political complexion of the borough, which is largely composed of Bangladeshi communities to the north and the traditional white working class to the south around the Canary Wharf commercial district. In 2005 it again hit the national headlines when New Labour MP Oona King was ousted from her otherwise safe seat by controversial anti-war campaigner George Galloway and his Respect party (the so-called ‘Battle of Bethnal Green’).
Rahman grew up in London’s East End following his and his family’s emigration from Bangladesh at an early age. He was schooled in Bow and later studied law at university, subsequently practising family law locally. Rahman claims to have entered local politics by marching against the far right in the 1980s, then organised as the National Front and holding frequent activity on Brick Lane, long the centre of the Bangladeshi community. He also threw himself into activism with a number of community and local religious groups (Rahman is a practising Muslim), serving as General Secretary of the Community Alliance for Police Accountability and Chair of the Tower Hamlets Law Centre. Outside of Tower Hamlets he is a member of the Law Society and its Advanced Children’s Law Panel, as well as sitting on the Muslim Council of Britain’s legal affairs committee. Although the MCB is regarded as mainstream by most and is often engaged by government, it does regard ‘western’ culture and schooling as ‘decadent’.
Following his stints in community politics, which also included board roles in local regeneration projects and the local hospital, Rahman was first elected for Labour to Tower Hamlets Council in 2002. The local elections of 2002 were notable in that the regional London Labour Party took the unusual step of preventing a large number of sitting Tower Hamlets councillors from standing again on account of their alleged unsuitability and began a process of centralised control of the local party (which remains in force to this day). Rahman however quickly rose through the ranks on the council, becoming chair of development in his first year and then obtaining executive posts in education and culture, before being elected to the post of council leader in 2008.
It is worth noting that the council leadership in Tower Hamlets has alternated most years on account of factional differences in the ruling Labour group, not to mention its strength and composition on the council when it was reduced to a slender majority in 2006 following the brief challenge of the anti-war Respect party in the borough. Rahman himself lasted just two years in the post before being ousted after the 2010 local elections by his long-term rival and one time mentor Helal Abbas.
The political differences and grievances within the internal workings of the council Labour group (memorably described as ‘’very dirty politics” by former London mayor and vocal Rahman supporter Ken Livingstone) were further exacerbated by the contest to find a Labour parliamentary candidate to replace the ousted King, with Rahman defeated in the selection by a younger female Bangladeshi. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Rahman’s leadership was also a frequent item for comment in the ‘Rotten Boroughs’ section of the satirical magazine Private Eye, with controversial appointments and sackings of the council’s senior officers questioned repeatedly.
The mayoral campaign
Though defeated by Abbas for the council leadership in May 2010, Rahman had long been tipped as Labour’s likely candidate for the post of directly elected mayor.
The decision to adopt the directly elected mayor system was made in a referendum held on the same day as the local elections, though many signatures on the petition to demand the referendum (organised by the Respect party, which otherwise opposes elected mayors) were later argued to be fraudulently obtained. Prior to the referendum, the borough’s politics had been placed under the media spotlight by a series of investigative documentaries and reports on the influence of Islamist groups operating locally, of which it was alleged that Rahman was in receipt of their support.
One local Labour MP claimed entryism into the party by the Islamic Forum of Europe (which has links to the far right Bangladeshi Jamaat-e-Islami) was as widespread as that of the Trotskyite Militant tendency of the 1980s. More neutral observers suggested that Rahman’s appeal beyond the local Labour Party is that he was to the left of his nearest rivals.
Even by Tower Hamlets standards, the Labour selection process for its mayoral selection was nothing short of farcical and subject to regional official diktats and legal wrangling. Press conferences to announce the Rahman campaign for the nomination proved futile when his name was omitted from the list of applicants to proceed to a members’ ballot, only to be reinstated following action in the courts.
Although ultimately successful in the protracted contest of local members (again argued to be fraudulent on account irregularities among those eligible to vote), Rahman was then debarred from standing as Labour’s candidate on account of a decision made at national level by party officials, following allegations made by council leader Helal Abbas.
Unsurprisingly, Rahman made good on earlier pledges to stand as an independent if denied the party ticket and coasted to a substantial victory in the October race over Labour’s Abbas, who was imposed as its candidate despite placing third in the members’ ballot. The campaign itself was, to use Ken Livingstone’s expression, “very dirty”, marred by violence between rival supporters and even reports of Islamic extremists jostling women voters, not to mention the expulsion of an anti-Semitic Rahman campaigner.
While Rahman violated party rules by standing against the official candidate and therefore faced automatic expulsion from Labour, it is said that he harbours ambitions to be readmitted to the party and the fact that Labour has not expelled prominent supporters (who broke the same rules in campaigning for him) such as Ken Livingstone and Labour Lord Ahmed suggests this option may yet be open to him. However, those councillors who agreed to serve in his administration have since been expelled by the party.
Since entering office, those hoping for an end to Rahman's brushes with controversy and spats with his former party (as part of a possible 'rehabilitation' back into Labour's ranks sought by the likes of Livingstone) are likely to be disappointed. Political capital was made of the mayor's breach of town hall procurement rules and procedures to equip himself with the latest iPhone just days after his election, while the behaviour of his supporters in public has led to accusations of homophobia on account of their alleged barracking of gay opposition councillors at council meetings. Regardless of the veracity of these claims, it does point to the uphill challenge faced by Rahman in seeking to lead a borough characterised by the traditional values of its Bangladeshi population and those who do not share them, and the balance perhaps that needs to be struck between the two. Equally, the mayor’s prominent leadership in bringing together the community to oppose far right marches through the borough has shown a more capable side to some of his doubters. .
Rahman has since his election pledged to work for all of the community, regardless of faith, and given interviews proclaiming to be a social democrat first and foremost. He lists his five priorities as housing, jobs, education, crime and anti-social behaviour and the environment.
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Traffic light sculpture in Tower Hamlets (Photo by Fin Fahey)
The City Mayors Foundation, the international think tank on urban affairs, organises the World Mayor Project and awards the World Mayor Prize. The Prize, which has been given since 2004, honours mayors with the vision, passion and skills to make their cities incredible places to live in, work in and visit. The World Mayor Project aims to show what outstanding mayors can achieve and raise their profiles nationally and internationally. Mayors wishing to be considered for the Prize are asked to sign up to the City Mayors Code of Ethics.
The organisers of the World Mayor Project are looking for city leaders who excel in qualities like: leadership and vision, management abilities and integrity, social and economic awareness, ability to provide security and to protect the environment as well as the will and ability to foster good relations between communities from different cultural, racial and social backgrounds. Winners receive the World Mayor Prize, while the first and second runners-up receive the World Mayor Commendation.
Winners and runners-up
2004 to 2010:
In 2004: Winner: Edi Rama (Tirana); Runner-up: Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Mexico City}; In third place - Walter Veltroni (Rome)
In 2005: Winner Dora Bakoyannis (Athens); Runner-up - Hazel McCallion (Mississauga); In third place - Alvaro Arzú (Guatemala City)
In 2006: Winner John So (Melbourne); Runner up Job Cohen (Amsterdam); In third place - Stephen Reed (Harrisburg)
In 2008: Winner Helen Zille (Cape Town); Runner up - Elmar Ledergerber (Zurich); In third place - Leopoldo López (Chacao)
In 2010: Winner - Marcelo Ebrard (Mexico City); First runner-up - Mick Cornett (Oklahoma City); Second runner-up - Domenico Lucano (Riace) More