The elected independent mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, has been removed from office due to a court ruling over allegations of corruption. The fact that one unelected commissioner is able to overrule the votes of over 37,000 people reveals bourgeois democracy in all its impotence.
On April 30th, several hundred people gathered in East London to express their anger at the election court ruling that had removed the elected independent mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, from office earlier that month, on the basis of allegations of corruption made by four local opposition politicians. The judgement itself is scandalous to say the least and the fact that one unelected commissioner is able to overrule the votes of over 37,000 people reveals bourgeois democracy in all its impotence.
The judgement that removed Rahman is saturated with race and class prejudice and reeks of establishment hypocrisy. One of the main points relied on by the commissioner is that Rahman exerted “undue spiritual influence” over the Muslim residents of Tower Hamlets by telling them it was their religious duty to vote for him. The law against “undue spiritual influence” was passed in the 19th Century as a way for the English ruling class to ensure that the oppressed Irish Catholics could not vote in the interests of their community without being accused of coming under the influence of their priests, thus rendering their votes void. In other words, this judgement is based upon a law that was explicitly designed to prevent a section of people from electing their own representatives who would challenge the Establishment order.
Not only does the judgement make use of this law but it actually says there is no difference between the 19th Century Irish Catholic peasantry, described as “simple people” by the judge, and 21st Century Muslims living in Tower Hamlets. Both groups of people are equally incapable of making their minds up for themselves when it comes to elections, according to this judgement. But the judge goes further. He says that while a “politically literate, highly educated, metropolitan elite” can be trusted with their votes, the people of Tower Hamlets do not fall into the “politically literate” category and therefore have to be treated differently by the law.
Throughout the judgement the judge appeared to be bewildered as to why the the Bangladeshi population in Tower Hamlets “see racism everywhere”. Given that the tone and content of his judgement demonstrates what Giles Fraser, writing about this case in the Guardian, has called “English cultural superiority”, and the fact that Rahman has been regularly hounded by the press, the Establishment and the EDL for years, ever since his first election as Mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2010, we can understand why the people of Tower Hamlets feel this way.
The hypocrisy of the judgement is startling. Rahman is accused of “playing the race card” as part of his campaign, which is apparently grounds for overturning his election. On this basis can we expect to see any UKIP (or even some Tory and Labour) candidates elected at any future election removed from office straight away? He is accused of courting support from local Imams who wrote a letter to the press expressing their support of Rahman. Can we expect the election of Tory candidates this May to be now overturned after the letter of support for them that was sent to the Telegraph from 5,000 businessmen? He is accused of allocating resources to those who need them most as a way of “buying” votes. Shouldn’t we then also bar the Conservatives from office for legislating to allow billionaires to avoid tax in exchange for financial and media support for their party?
Rahman is being accused of corruption by the same political Establishment that has engaged in phone hacking, covered up systematic child abuse and stolen public money in expenses. Corruption exists at every level of government all over the country – no one believes that Tower Hamlets is the most corrupt borough in Britain, nor that Rahman is the most corrupt politician. There is clearly some other reason why Rahman has been targeted.
Attacking Rahman for attacking the rich
That reason can be found in the judgement itself. The judge says that the Bangladeshi population may have thought itself lucky that Rahman’s administration was spending money on building affordable and council housing, paying the living wage, reducing crime, improving health and education, all in one of the poorest boroughs in the country, but in reality these benefits would never last. “It was fool’s gold” he says.
As far as the ruling class is concerned, the only sensible policies for a local government to follow at the present time are those of austerity. How fortunate we are that this judge was able to correct the votes of the 37,000 “fools” who live in Tower Hamlets, who voted for a Mayor who would defend their standards of living at a time when local councils everywhere were implementing the most draconian cuts. Luckily for the residents of Tower Hamlets this judge has given them another chance to vote for a “responsible” political representative, one who will toe the line of big business and the political Establishment by unleashing millions of pounds of cuts on the local population.
Rahman has been able to base himself on this brand of Left populism, despite implementing austerity at the same time, because he is a figure outside of the control of the Establishment. It is his outsider status, coupled with his anti-austerity rhetoric, that has led to Rahman being targeted. If he had been rubbing shoulders with bankers and Tories since his election would Rahman have been removed from office in this manner? True he is not a socialist, and he has implemented cuts, but he has defended frontline services and standards of living in a way that no other council in the country has done.
Rahman’s political future is now unclear. If the judgement stands then he is barred from standing in any election for five years, but in his own words “I have fallen but I am not broken” and he is likely to be a presence in Tower Hamlets politics for some time to come.
No faith in the bourgeois state
Regarding the allegations of corruption, it is clear that a lot of ordinary people have a lot of legitimate questions about Rahman’s running of the council. We say that such matters should be investigated fully, but not by the bourgeois courts who act in no-one’s interest other than that of the ruling class. Rather, he should be investigated by elected representatives of the workers and the communities in whose interests he is supposed to be working.
What’s clear is that there is some evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Rahman and his party surrounding the election in 2014. However the extent of the wrongdoing is relatively minor and any unbiased, rational person could hardly conclude, on the basis of what has been proven, that a proportional response would be to declare the entire election void. In fact, the 2014 election was held under extremely heavy scrutiny following similar allegations that were made after the 2010 election at which Rahman was first elected Mayor. If the national media is to be believed then the entire election was steeped in corruption but in fact, despite a police presence at every polling station and a media magnifying glass concentrated on the whole affair, only a handful of minor infractions were discovered. Such malpractice cannot simply be brushed under the carpet but neither can it be allowed to justify one man overturning 37,000 democratic votes.
As well as being removed from office, Rahman and one other councillor have been banned from standing for reelection. Eric Pickles has sent in two more unelected commissioners to take over the running of Tower Hamlets council, one was formerly a senior officer in the Met police, and the other is an ardent neoliberal who is hell-bent on privatisations and cuts. Tower Hamlets First, Rahman’s political party, has been banned and new elections called for 11 June.
David vs Goliath
That militant mood of which the Establishment is so fearful was on display at the meeting in defence of Rahman on 30 April. Local residents addressed the meeting to speak about the decline in crime, the preservation of open spaces and the availability of affordable housing, all of which had improved since Rahman was elected in 2010. A representative from Tower Hamlets NUT spoke about how Rahman had defended the schools in the borough against privatisation. A member of Tower Hamlets Unison spoke about how Rahman had overturned the decisions of unelected bureaucrats in the council to impose cuts on the living and working standards on workers in the borough. Andrew Murray, the chief of staff of Unite the Union, said that Unite nationally supported Rahman (although they will be backing Labour at the June election) and explained how Tower Hamlets, under his Mayoralty, had been the first council to outlaw firms that practice blacklisting. George Galloway and Ken Livingstone both sent video messages of solidarity to the meeting.
Christine Shawcroft of the Labour NEC encouraged people to donate to Rahman’s legal defence fund, but one of the speakers, a human rights barrister, urged the meeting not to put their faith in a “system that is not designed for you” and instead encouraged people to take to the streets and “make them feel it economically”, using the occupation of the Chicago stock exchange as an example. A number of speakers echoed similar ideas – that this was a battle to be fought by the people on the streets, and that legal appeals were something of a sideshow. One former councillor from Birmingham said that what was being done to the people of Tower Hamlets was part of a “class war” being waged all over the country.
Rahman announced, to deafening cheers, that Rabina Khan, current Tower Hamlets cabinet member for housing, will be running as an independent candidate for Mayor in the upcoming by-election. She previously defected from the Labour Party to support Rahman after he was pushed out of Labour in 2010. The relationship between Rahman’s independents and Labour is complex. The party does not support him, but Christine Shawcroft from Labour’s NEC, Ken Livingstone, and Unite the Union all support Rahman in Tower Hamlets. However, Shawcroft has now been suspended from Labour because of her support for Rahman. This is the party’s retaliation after Shawcroft revealed the minutes of an NEC meeting to the election court, proving the scandalous way in which Rahman was pushed out of the party despite his election as the party’s Mayoral candidate in Tower Hamlets.
What is clear is that in the run up to this by-election political tensions will be running very high in the borough. Many young people, particularly from the Bangladeshi community, will be mobilised and engaging in a political contest which is being framed as a David and Goliath struggle of progressive independents against the political Establishment.
In waging this struggle the best weapon of the people of Tower Hamlets will be a clear, radical anti-austerity programme. It is the potential of the working class, united across racial and other divides, to take power into their own hands and run society for themselves that most frightens the ruling class and their friends in Westminster. A programme for fighting austerity through mass demonstrations, pickets, strikes and so on is what will bring the Establishment to its knees. The new Mayor and council must refuse to implement cuts and they must challenge the capitalist system that makes them necessary.The Establishment cannot afford for the people of Tower Hamlets to elect a Mayor who stands outside of their control and is therefore capable of fights in the interests of the people who elected them, as the example of Rahman has shown. As long as the rich and their capitalist system remain in control, they will dictate their politics to Tower Hamlets and other working class communities now expected to bear the brunt of the attacks of the new Tory government. The only way we can defend democracy in our borough is by fighting for socialism.