“I absolutely believe in a secular society” – Lutfur Rahman speaks to the NS

My interview with the controversial mayor of Tower Hamlets is in this week’s magazine.

The Q&A-style NS Interview in this week's magazine, which hits the news-stands tomorrow, is with the first directly elected mayor of east London's Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman. He, of course, is the local politician who came to national prominence when he was removed as Labour's candidate for mayor by the party's National Executive Committee, over concerns about his "conduct" and alleged links to Islamic extremists. He then went on to win the mayoral election in October as an independent.

For background on the story, and the various allegations and controversies, check out Rahman's own website, the Telegraph blog of the Islamist-obsessed Andrew Gilligan and Dave Hill's London blog on the Guardian website. You can also read an insider's account of the NEC meeting at which Rahman was deselected here.

The full interview will be published on the NS website but here are some of the key quotes:

– Rahman claims he would not have been removed as Labour's candidate for mayor had Ed Miliband not been in the middle of his leadership campaign: "I believe it would have been different had he been leader at the time." But he says he has not had "any conversations with Ed Miliband" about rejoining the Labour Party, nor has he appointed anyone, including Ken Livingstone, "to enter into any such conversations on my behalf".

– The Tower Hamlets mayor condemns a "small clique in the NEC" for removing him as the Labour candidate and says he is not concerned that two Labour mayors of neighbouring London boroughs, Robin Wales and Jules Pipe, have said they will not work with him: "Tower Hamlets is one of the five Olympics boroughs, but my borough is not run at the behest of any of the leaders of the four other boroughs . . . Whatever other mayors say, that's their prerogative. I'm not interested in that."

– Rahman says he believes in a "social-democratic society" and not an Islamic "caliphate". When I asked him whether he supports secularism and secular politics, he replied: "I absolutely believe in a secular society." And, on sharia law, Rahman says: "I was invited to the London Muslim Centre [in July 2008] when the then chief justice, Lord Phillips, came to speak and said that there are merits in learning from certain aspects of sharia law, to help our legal system. Not the penal elements; the family and civil elements. If the chief justice can make those comments, who am I to disagree?"

– On his Islamic faith and the allegations of extremism and links to extremist groups, Rahman says he is "a proud Muslim" but denies membership of the controversial Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), saying: "I don't believe we have extremist groups in Tower Hamlets. If so, I am sure the government and the police would have intervened long ago." He says the IFE is "one group among many", adding: "I believe that previous leaders have worked with the IFE and other such organisations, and some previous leaders are on record as having funded such faith groups. If there was nothing wrong with working with such groups then, why now?"

– I also asked him whether the gay population of Tower Hamlets should be worried by his victory, and he replied: "I made it quite clear that I want to serve each and every member of my community, including the gay and lesbian community. It is not for me to make value judgements. I want to work with every member of the community, whatever their sexual orientation. I grew up with people in the East End from all backgrounds, black, white, gay, and many of them are still my mates."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Boris Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lead

Press coverage of the referendum was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts.

The pound plummeted, the Prime Minister resigned, stock markets plunged and the UK began to unravel, as did the post-1945 world order. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and Isis were celebrating the Brexit vote but that didn’t stop our disgraceful national press from crowing. “Take a bow, Britain!” the Daily Mail declared. “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, ADIEU”, the Sun quipped in a headline. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed the “birth of a new Britain”.

They and others – the Express, the Morning Star, several of the Sunday papers – were claiming victory: a victory achieved after a relentless campaign of lies and Soviet-style propaganda about the European Union that long pre-dated the referendum. Indeed, it was a campaign that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Boris Johnson, who had been fired by the Times for making up a quotation, was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels.

Johnson did not invent Euroscepticism but he took it to new levels. A brilliant caricaturist, he made his name by mocking, lampooning and ridiculing the EU. He wrote stories headlined “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same”, “Threat to British pink sausages” and “Snails are fish, says EU”. He wrote about plans to standardise condom sizes and ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps. He set up Jacques Delors, who was then the European Commission president, as a bogeyman and claimed credit for persuading Denmark to reject the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 with a Sunday Telegraph splash – “Delors plan to rule Europe” – that was seized on by the Nej campaign.

To Johnson, it was all a bit of a jape. “[I] was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive ­effect on the Tory party – and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” he told the BBC years later.

That many of Johnson’s stories bore scant relation to the truth did not matter. They were colourful and fun. The Telegraph and right-wing Tories loved them. So did other Fleet Street editors, who found the standard Brussels fare tedious and began to press their own correspondents to follow suit. I know this because I became the Brussels correspondent of the Times in 1999 and suffered the consequences.

Soon, a Europe of scheming bureaucrats plotting to rob Britain of its ancient liberties, or British prime ministers fighting gallant rearguard actions against an increasingly powerful superstate, or absurd directives on banana shapes, became the only narratives that many papers were interested in. They were narratives that exploited our innate nationalism, distrust of foreigners and sense of superiority. They were narratives so strong that our political leaders mostly chose to play along with them.

The EU is arrogant, bureaucratic, wasteful and meddlesome. It desperately needs reforming. But post-Boris, its great achievements – cementing peace, uniting the continent, creating the world’s largest single market, enabling its citizens to travel and live anywhere they choose, busting mono­polies, improving the environment – have gone largely unreported. Similarly ignored is that Britain has many natural allies in Europe and has enjoyed some significant successes: competition policy, free trade, eastward enlargement. The French now regard the EU as a plot to impose Anglo-Saxon economics on the continent. True, we lost the argument on the euro and the Schengen Agreement, but we won opt-outs.

With a few honourable exceptions – such as the Financial Times, the Times and the Guardian – the referendum coverage was merely a supercharged version of what had gone before. It was led by the biggest broadsheet (the Telegraph), the biggest mid-­market paper (the Mail) and the biggest tabloid (the Sun). And it was based on myths: that we pay £350m a week to Brussels, that we can continue to enjoy access to the single market without freedom of movement, that millions of Turks are heading our way because their country is about to join the EU, that immigrants are destroying the NHS rather than keeping it going.

The coverage was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts. Loughborough University found that 82 per cent of all referendum stories, adjusted for newspaper circulations, were negative. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers don’t matter any more but they do when just 635,000 votes for Remain ­instead of Leave would have averted this national catastrophe. They do when the press is a primary source of information for millions of Brits. They do when most of our papers have relentlessly portrayed the EU as the monster of Johnson’s fertile imagination, not just for a few months, but for more than two decades.

The referendum was a chance for our national press, particularly the tabloid press, to restore its standing after the phone-hacking scandal and to prove its continuing worth to the British people. Sadly, most newspapers chose wilfully to deceive, mislead and inflame. They decided to follow Johnson’s lead by peddling lies and phoney patriotism. They helped him to hoodwink the millions of poorer, less-educated Britons – those who will be the first to suffer from Brexit’s consequences – into voting against their own interests.

Johnson campaigned against a myth of his own creation, with the result that a mendacious pundit, one who achieved prominence by writing entertaining but dangerous nonsense, is the odds-on favourite to be our next prime minister.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies