Friday, 24 April 2015

Lutfur Rahman and the Strange World of Tower Hamlets

Lutfur Rahman, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, has been found guilty of electoral fraud by an Election Court and removed from office.  This follows several years of controversy over the former Mayor Rahman's policies and conduct in office.

*

Electoral fraud was virtually unheard of in the United Kingdom until quite recently.  Leaving aside the unusual circumstances of Northern Ireland, there was no serious doubt that you could cast a secret ballot, place it in the box, and expect it to be accurately counted together with the others.  In some parts of Britain, this is no longer the case.

The trial of the election petition against Rahman lasted for over a month.  Yesterday's judgment - which was delivered by Richard Mawrey QC, a deputy High Court judge - is worded in unusually forthright language.

A disproportionate number of British electoral fraud cases have come from Tower Hamlets.  This is because Tower Hamlets (where I used to live) is not an ordinary borough.  It is a borough with a relatively large and well-establishing voting bloc consisting of people of Bangladeshi heritage.  This bloc constitutes Britain's largest Muslim community (by head of local authority population); and, as the judge noted, it is both unusually conservative and unusually cohesive.

It is possible to interpret the electoral history of Tower Hamlets along anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim or anti-Asian lines.  But this sort of cheap Ukippery would miss what is really going on here.  The problem with Tower Hamlets is not that it has an immigrant population, it is that it has a very specific tribal voting bloc associated with one particular immigrant community.  The same may be said of other areas which have seen electoral fraud cases in recent years.  The problem isn't with immigrants in general - as the judge intimated, no-one is suggesting that the Somali Muslims of Tower Hamlets have been up to any sharp practice - it's with a specific manifestation of ethnic bloc politics.  And, as it happens, the indigenous white population of Tower Hamlets isn't entirely innocent of fooling around with tribal identity politics either.  Some of us still remember which borough, back in 1993, had the distinction of giving Britain its first elected far-right politician since the Second World War.

That said, it is important to emphasise that the far right in Tower Hamlets is a spent force these days.  The likes of the BNP and the EDL have little political presence and influence in the area.  They do, however, fulfil the important function of serving as bogeymen for some ambitious political activists associated with the Bangladeshi community.  As the judge put it: "Truly, in Tower Hamlets, if the EDL did not exist, like Voltaire’s God, it would be necessary to invent it."

One denizen of this strange world was a Bangladeshi-born solicitor with an agreeable manner by the name of Mohammed Lutfur Rahman.  Rahman was a longstanding member of the local Labour Party and was filled with a burning desire to serve the local community in public office.  As the judge observed, years in the overheated environment of Tower Hamlets politics had given Rahman a special perspective on the issue of race in 21st century Britain:
Mr Rahman... has shown himself to be someone who perceives racism everywhere. Any criticism or any opposition is necessarily racially motivated, whatever the context. Any organisation with which he is in dispute is, equally necessarily, ‘institutionally racist’, whether it is the Labour Party or the BBC. This attitude has been adopted by his close associates, for whom a cry of ‘racist’ is usually the first reaction to any criticism of Mr Rahman.
It may be guessed that the judge was less than wholly impressed with Lutfur Rahman as a defendant.  He found that he was not a truthful witness, and added that "his grip on reality was not always 100%".

In 2010, Rahman came to the view that he was just the man to become the first directly elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets.  Sadly, this was not a view that everyone around him shared.  Indeed, by this time, he had "racked up an impressive tally of enemies, not least in the upper echelons of the Labour Party".  He attempted to secure the Labour nomination for the mayoralty; but the attempt collapsed after several rounds of internal procedural warfare and legal action in the High Court.  Undaunted, Rahman followed in the footsteps of Ken Livingstone and stood in the election as an independent.  Astonishingly, he won over 50% of the vote on the first ballot.  The bloc had come through for him.

Rahman gathered an unofficial party organisation around him and served a full four years as Mayor before his first term expired in 2014.  His tenure was autocratic, partisan and tribal:
The Mayor’s unofficial party was seen as being a Bangladeshi party and, it must be said... the party came to see itself as the Bangladeshi party. Although stoutly denied by Mr Rahman’s partisans in evidence, the reality is that the focus of the Mayor and his cabinet became more and more on the Bangladeshi community. This perception was heightened by the policy adopted by Mr Rahman towards grants of Council money and it was not assisted by the fact that, on one view of the figures, the Council’s housing budget had been skewed toward those areas of the Borough... where support for the Mayor and his associates was strongest.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, council meetings in the Rahman years were somewhat lacking in traditional municipal decorum:
I was told by [Conservative] Councillor Golds that any criticism of Mr Rahman or his colleagues or indeed any attempt to ask questions would habitually be met with shouts of ‘racist’ or similar from the Mayor’s party. Nor were members of the public silent. The public gallery was, the court was told, often filled with raucous supporters of the Mayor who would shout abuse at those opposed to him, frequently in unacceptable terms. For example Mr Golds was subject to abuse both because he is Jewish and because he is gay.
It sounds like it was almost as bad as the House of Commons.

Mayor Rahman's finance director and right-hand man was an interesting character called Alibor Choudhury.  The judge had some unflattering words for Mr Rahman's choice of confidant:
Mr Choudhury was a very unsatisfactory witness. He was arrogant, indeed cocky, and did not hesitate to tell barefaced lies in the smug assurance that the mere lawyers listening [to] him would not have the wit to see through them. He also came over as an immature man who possessed, and did not shrink from expressing, outrageous views.... 
The modus operandi of the two men would be that Mr Rahman would retain a statesmanlike posture, making sure that he always said the right thing – particularly in castigating electoral malpractice – while what might be called ‘the dirty work’ was done by Mr Choudhury.
When his first term was coming to its end, Rahman decided to stand for re-election.  He turned his unofficial organisation into a new party, Tower Hamlets First.  This was a "shambolic" structure whose financial affairs were conducted on a somewhat freewheeling basis.  The Labour Party's candidate to replace Rahman was a man called John Biggs.  Biggs had been a familiar figure in the local party for many years.  He had historically had internal enemies on the far left who had been rather free with accusations of racism against him.  The judge described with wry humour the Judean People's Front-style infighting of Tower Hamlets Labour in the 1990s.  All of this should have been ancient history by 2014 - Rahman didn't even become a councillor until 2002 - but then "memories of long ago intra-party battles last for ever amongst the politically committed".  As it turned out, Rahman was willing to go to considerable lengths to defeat his opponent.

*

The judge's verdict on the specific allegations brought against Rahman was devastating.  The following practices were held to have taken place, not in Tehran or the Crimea, nor even in south Armagh during the Troubles, but in the capital city of the United Kingdom in the year 2014:

False registration and personation.  False voter registrations were organised by Rahman's agents.  Bizarrely, the judge found that false registrations had been made by several of Rahman's own council candidates - they had falsely registered not merely other people but themselves.  They must have assumed that they would get away with it.

Postal voting fraud.  There was less of this than in other recent electoral fraud cases.  But there was still some.

False statements.  This ground of challenge is rarely used.  It has nothing to do with the usual trivial insults and name-calling that customarily accompany the democratic process.  Attacks on rival candidates during an election carry legal consequences only in very unusual circumstances: they must be about the candidate as a person rather than his politics; they must be hard factual claims rather than expressions of opinion; and they must be made without reasonable belief that they are true.  This serves to stop an unscrupulous candidate from trying to stampede voters away from a rival by making up shocking and emotive falsehoods about him a few days before the poll.  For example, the Labour MP Phil Woolas was disqualified from office in 2010 after he made demonstrably false statements about his Lib Dem rival's associations with Islamist terrorists.

The judge found that John Biggs had been unlawfully smeared as a racist.  In one press release, Mr Choudhury claimed that the Equality and Human Rights Commission considered that comments made by Biggs amounted to a criminal offence.  In another press release, Choudhury dredged up the infighting of the 1990s to claim that the Labour Party itself considered Biggs to be a racist.  These were not ordinary criticisms of the race relations policies of a rival candidate: they were factually false statements alleging that specific national institutions had condemned Biggs for racism.

Bribery.  Rahman had selectively dispensed grant payments to organisations in the Bangladeshi community, including some which were ineligible for grants or had not asked for them.  The judge hesitated about whether this amounted to bribery within the legal meaning of the word (as opposed to old-fashioned pork barrel politics); but he ended up concluding that it did.  Rahman had also channelled money to friendly media, despite adverse rulings from Ofcom.  This too amounted to bribery.

Undue spiritual influence.  This is an obscure ground of challenge which has not been used since the 1890s, when Catholic bishops in Ireland tried to tell their flock which type of nationalist to vote for.

The judge found that Rahman had formed an alliance with Shamsul Hoque, the chairman of the local Council of Mosques.  A curious feature of Imam Hoque's evidence was that he insisted on giving it through an interpreter "while making it quite clear that he understood English perfectly well".  The centrepiece of Mr Hoque's efforts to re-elect Rahman was a public letter signed by himself and 100 other Islamic clerics.  The wording of the letter bore a "striking resemblance" to Rahman's campaign messaging, and the document concluded by expressing "unlimited support" for the Mayor.  The evidence is that the faithful took the hint.

Undue influence: intimidation at polling stations.  The judge found that a large number of enthusiastic Rahman supporters descended on the polling stations of Tower Hamlets on election day:
Groups of supporters would approach voters, particularly Bangladeshi voters and harangue them in a manner that appeared to some onlookers to be rather aggressive. Several witnesses from different polling stations used the phrase ‘running the gauntlet’ to describe their passage into the polling station. Others spoke of feeling ‘harassed’.
Rahman's witnesses failed to dispel this troubling impression:
Witnesses whose command of English turned out in the witness box to be rudimentary nonetheless produced polished English prose in their witness statements containing words that appeared to baffle them in cross-examination. The occasional witness claimed to have typed out his witness statement himself, oblivious to the fact that its appearance was absolutely identical to that of other (allegedly unconnected) witnesses. The nadir came when one witness gave a graphic account of how he had attended a polling station to cast his vote and found it a haven of tranquillity, only to be confronted... with absolutely incontrovertible evidence that the witness had, in fact, voted by post well before polling day and could not have voted in person on the day.
Nevertheless, the judge found that the conduct of Rahman's supporters had not been quite intimidating enough to qualify as illegal.

*

It is as well to give the judge himself the last word:
The real losers in this case are the citizens of Tower Hamlets and, in particular, the Bangladeshi community. Their natural and laudable sense of solidarity has been cynically perverted into a sense of isolation and victimhood, and their devotion to their religion has been manipulated – all for the aggrandisement of Mr Rahman. The result has been to alienate them from the other communities in the Borough and to create resentment in those other communities. Mr Rahman and Mr Choudhury, as has been seen, spent a great deal of time accusing their opponents, especially Mr Biggs, of ‘dividing the community’ but, if anyone was ‘dividing the community’, it was they.