Eric Pickles, the Tory Minister for Communities and Local Government, has referred to the Tower Hamlets local council as possessing “a culture of cronyism” that promotes “the corrupt spending of public funds“. Ben Gliniecki looks at these strong words emanating from the mouth of a Tory politician who has himself been at the centre of scandal.
“A deeply concerning picture of obfuscation, denial, secrecy, the breakdown of democratic scrutiny and accountability, a culture of cronyism risking the corrupt spending of public funds.”
This would be an appropriate description of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government in light of the string of scandals that have been exposed over the last few years within the Establishment. Politicians have been shown to have stolen public money by fiddling expenses; systematically covered up child abuse by establishment figures; and sold off the NHS to companies with links to Tory MPs and Lords.
Tower Hamlets’ council under scrutiny
And yet it is not the government to whom this quotation refers. They are actually the words of Eric Pickles, Tory Minister for Communities and Local Government, referring to the local council of Tower Hamlets, which he plans to take into his direct control via three commissioners, who will scrutinise the activities of the council and report to Pickles every six months.
The comments by Pickles came after he commissioned a £1 million audit by the City firm Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) into the accounts of the council. This follows a previous investigation ordered by Pickles into any criminal wrongdoing or fraudulent activity by the council, of which no evidence was found. After spending so much money hounding the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, Pickles has the cheek to say that the council “is not providing good value for money”!
The PWC report found deficiencies in procedures, particularly with regard to the way that grant money was allocated and with the recent sale of Poplar Town Hall. Rahman has been dogged by corruption allegations for some time, evidence for which seems to be mounting with the publication of this report. In any case, any allegations against Rahman should be investigated by representatives from the labour movement and the local community, not by the Tories and their hired hands from the City.
Despite the fact that Tower Hamlets is not the only local council with corrupt politicians in it, Pickles has seized on the PWC report with extraordinary zeal, declaring Tower Hamlets to be a “rotten borough” and comparing Rahman to a medieval ruler, accusations which are disproportionate to say the least.
Hypocrisy of the Tories
The background to this is that Rahman, the directly elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets, who used to be a Labour Party candidate, ran as an independent after being removed as the Labour candidate in 2010 by the Party National Executive Committee, despite being elected by Tower Hamlets Borough Labour Party members to stand as their Mayoral candidate. As an independent Rahman was elected to the position of Tower Hamlets mayor twice. He describes his politics as social democratic, and he is clearly not a socialist, but he has put up some opposition to cuts, more than the Labour Party leadership at least, and is protecting most frontline services in Tower Hamlets. In any case, Rahman does not need to be a socialist for socialists to be disgusted at the breathtaking hypocrisy of those who are attacking him.
Pickles says he is worried about “the corrupt spending of public funds”, and yet Pickles himself was ordered to pay back £300 of public money he took in expenses despite not being entitled to it. Further to that, he spent £500,000 of public money on luxury limos over the last three years. He also talks about a “culture of cronyism” in Tower Hamlets, which seems rich coming from a man at the heart of a party which has recently sold off £1.5 billion in health contracts to private firms with links to Tory MPs and Lords as part of the dismantling of the NHS.
It is hard to believe that Tower Hamlets is the worst case of council mismanagement in the country, especially given that it has been one of the best performing councils in the country in areas such as primary education, house building and cutting fuel bills since Rahman’s election as Mayor. It would be legitimate to ask whether a Tory (or even a Labour) mayor would have been treated in the same way.
Whatever Eric Pickles says, we know that the only people for whom he is working to get value for money are the banks and big businesses that use the Tories as their mouthpiece. The idea that he is genuinely worried about the ordinary working class people in Tower Hamlets who have been let down by their elected officials is laughable. In fact, when Pickles himself was a councillor in Bradford he cut the council’s budget by £50 million over five years, reduced the workforce by one third, privatised services and controversially restructured many council departments.
Fight the cuts – fight for socialism!
The reality of the situation facing Tower Hamlets is that the council is expected to make £100 million in extra cuts in the next period. Such a burden, while the super-rich and the Tories are living it up, cannot be carried by the ordinary people living in Tower Hamlets. These cuts need to be fought by local councillors capable of building a campaign and a movement against austerity.
There is a history of struggle like this in the East End of London, with the rates rebellion by the Poplar councillors led by George Lansbury in 1921 rallying around the slogan “better to break the law than break the poor”. If we are going to fight back against Pickles and his cronies in the Tory Party and big business then we need to rediscover these traditions.
We should not be talking about the best way to implement cuts, but the best way to fight against all cuts. This requires working class unity and struggle through the organised labour movement. Above all, it requires a clear alternative; a political programme that has, at its core, socialist policies. What is needed, therefore, is a real leadership that provides such clear socialist aims and principles. The mood for fighting austerity does exist among Tower Hamlets residents – it is the role of the leaders of the labour movement is to give that mood a conscious expression so that together we can change society.