Police outside a polling station in Tower Hamlets. Photo:Getty
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Leaflets urging Muslims not to vote issued in Tower Hamlets

Locations targeted included streets near polling stations in the Poplar and Limehouse constituency, which has previously been reported for displaying an Isis flag. 

Leaflets urging Muslim citizens “DON’T VOTE” that were distributed in public places around Tower Hamlets on Thursday have been called “a travesty”.

The leaflets, which were discovered and reported by local residents, said: “None have the right to legislate except Allah. Appointing an MP as a legislator is shirk (polytheism).”

Shirk is the sin of worshipping more than one deity, which is forbidden in Islam. The leaflets also said: “Democracy is a system whereby man violates the right of Allah and decides what is permissible or impermissible for mankind, based solely on their whims and desires. #StayMuslimDontVote.”

Rabina Khan, a Tower Hamlets councillor who is running for mayor in the June elections after her former party leader Lutfur Rahman was ousted from power, said: “The leaflets are a travesty. It is ironic when we have fought so hard for immigrant communities to be treated with equal concern and respect, that people calling themselves Muslims are attempting to prevent us from exercising our right to vote.

“We send a message loud and clear to those behind these leaflets; that no kind of extremist will prevent us from participating in a democratic society as equals”, she continued.

Around 346 police were stationed over the borough for the election after the former mayor Lutfur Rahman was last month deposed from power after being found guilty by the High Court of electoral fraud in the 2014 mayoral election. Mr Rahman, who was the first directly elected Muslim mayor in Britain, was also accused of spreading racist rumours about his opponent, John Biggs.

A representative from Tower Hamlets Metropolitan Police Service said: “Police are aware of these leaflets in circulation and are working with the Electoral Commission.”

Locations targeted included streets near polling stations in the Poplar and Limehouse constituency, which has previously been reported for displaying an Isis flag. The constituency is one of two in Tower Hamlets, both of which remained Labour seats on Thursday.

A spokeswoman from the Muslim Council of Britain said: “Come every election time, a small band of naysayers will try to dissuade people not to vote. On the one hand we have anti-Muslim bigots telling us that Muslims participating in politics is a threat to our democracy, while a band of misguided agitators tell us this is against Islam. Both are wrong.”

 “Come every election time the Muslim Council of Britain and scores of mosques and Imams come out in large numbers urging people to vote, for the good of our country, and as a civic duty we as Muslims must fulfil”, she said.

The East London Mosque, which recently held a voter registration event organised by London Citizens and the Cabinet Office said: “The East London Mosque has always assured its congregation that voting in elections is a responsible and Islamically acceptable practice.”

However preachers such as Anjem Choudary disagree. On 22 April, Mr Choudary posted on Twitter that “a Muslim that votes due to ‘opinions’ from secularists is sinful as every Muslim must know Allah is the ONLY legislator”. Attached to the tweet was an image of flyers similar to the ones seen in East London.

According to Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND), a non-governmental organisation which seeks to encourage greater participation in politics by the Muslim community, only 50 per cent of Muslims turn out to vote compared with a national average of 67 per cent.

Police are asking anyone with information about the people who distributed the leaflets to contact police via 101, or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800555111.

Photo: Getty
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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.