“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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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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