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Full interview with Lutfur Rahman, mayor of Tower Hamlets

“I don’t believe we have extremist groups in Tower Hamlets”

How has your Bangladeshi heritage shaped you?
I think it gave me a sense of collective responsibility and stability, and the importance of being part of a community, a society. But I soon became part and parcel of the East End of London, growing up here in the 1970s.

What is your priority as Tower Hamlets mayor?
My top priority is more housing, to help the 23,000 people on the housing waiting list.

But what can you, as a mayor, do to solve the housing shortage?
We have to continue to build more homes and work with various stake holders: with private investors, with developers and, yes, with central government, in terms of trying to lever in more money, identify the land and deliver on our targets. We will take advantage of all the opportunities that exist.

But your own former council colleagues in the Labour Party won't work with you, will they?
Well, three Labour councillors have already come out and joined me. There are many more Labour councillors who will want to work with the mayor of Tower Hamlets and serve the community of Tower Hamlets.

What is your response to the two mayors of so-called Olympics boroughs, Robin Wales and Jules Pipe, who have said they won't work with you?
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. I will stand up for my borough and deliver for my borough. When I was a leader of the council, for example, we passed a motion in full council calling for 50 per cent of the Olympics village to be converted into socially affordable housing.

Will you be reaching out to those two mayors, and to your other critics?
I believe in consensual politics, that you work collectively, you work together with others. I will work with whoever wants to work with me but the people who are important are the people of Tower Hamlets: the people who voted for me and even the people who didn't vote for me, they're also important. I'm here to serve the people of Tower Hamlets. Whatever other mayors say, that's their prerogative. I'm not interested in that.

You've been accused of appointing only Asians, only people from a Bangladeshi background, to your team. Are you discriminating against white people?
The senior management team of this council, excluding one member, is all white. So for anyone to make such assertions is unfair. I believe in a meritocracy. People get jobs in this council based on ability. There is a clear recruitment process in place

The chief executive of this council is a white gentleman, Kevan Collins, whom I appointed during my council leadership. My cabinet, during that period, had white members. If people want to work with me, I welcome them to do so. Two days after I was elected as mayor, I sent out an email to each and every member of the Labour group on the council inviting them to come and work with me in my cabinet. Unfortunately, the following Monday, they convened and, by a slender majority, passed a motion not to work with me. So what I am supposed to do? Of course I want race to be reflected, gender to be reflected, ability to be reflected in my cabinet.

You were deselected as Labour's candidate for mayor after criticism of your conduct. Why did you stand as an independent against Labour?
I was elected as the candidate by 433 members of Tower Hamlets Labour Party. All I wanted was that the members should assert their right and decide who led them. If they had chosen someone else, I would have fallen behind that person and served the party loyally.

A small clique in the NEC, only seven or eight members, decided to get rid of me on the basis of a dossier based on false allegations, hearsay and unsubstantiated allegations. We live in a democracy where the rule of law prevails; I am a lawyer and they should have given me a chance to refute the allegations against me in front of an independent panel. I am sure I would have disproven each and every allegation. What's so sad is that they then didn't impose the candidate who came second, John Biggs, but instead imposed the candidate who came third, Helal Abbas, who made these false allegations against me in that dodgy dossier and who received only 117 votes.

It has been suggested that the NEC picked Helal Abbas over John Biggs because it wanted a non-white candidate in Tower Hamlets. Do you agree?
It could be one of the factors. But it was the wrong decision to make. They shouldn't have got rid of me in the first place. I would have won the election for Labour by an overwhelming majority.

It has been suggested that one of the reasons you were removed by the NEC as the Labour candidate is because you refused to back Rushanara Ali, Labour's parliamentary candidate in Bethnal Green and Bow at the general election in May?
In 2007, I stood for the Bethnal seat and I lost by a very small number of votes to Rushanara Ali. But I fell behind her and I supported the Labour Party in the general election. It is not true that I didn't work for her. I went out to all corners of the borough campaigning for Rushanara. And I don't believe she has said I never campaigned for her; she has never said it to me. When she went to Brick Lane mosque, just before the election, I stood up on camera, in front of everyone there, and made a speech supporting her. If Harriet Harman and the NEC had asked me for the facts, I would have given them the facts.

So if it wasn't your conduct or behaviour, what do you believe is the real reason the NEC removed you as the mayoral candidate then?
I don't know. All I can say is this: the people of Tower Hamlets last month made their voice heard. By an overwhelming majority they voted for me and my team and they voted for justice. At the end of the day, the final judges were the people of Tower Hamlets.

Were you behind the various smears against your opponent that appeared in a local paper?
For the record, none of my team was associated with any local paper, formally or informally. The stories that the local papers carry is their choice. It has nothing to do with me.

Were you disappointed to see such smears about a former colleague and friend?
I am not going to make comments about Councillor Abbas's private life either this way or that way. None of my literature contained negative stories. My literature was about my policies and the positive aspects of my campaign.

Who funded your mayoral campaign, and your various legal fees?
I funded my own campaign. And I funded my legal fees too from my own pocket. Listen, I am a lawyer. I was a solicitor for many years, a partner in my firm. I worked hard my whole life.

Have you had any discussions with Ed Miliband about rejoining the Labour Party?
The whole of my political upbringing has been on the basis of Labour values. I want to serve the community on a progressive agenda but I have not had any conversations with Ed Miliband.

Would you like to rejoin the Labour Party in the near future?
I am happy to serve the people of Tower Hamlets. They will decide how I serve them.

Is it true that Ken Livingstone has been negotiating your return to the Labour Party?
I have a lot of respect for Ken Livingstone. As to what discussions he is having with anyone, that is between him and that person. I have not appointed anyone to enter into any such conversations on my behalf.

Why did Ken come to campaign with you?
You'd better ask him. He is an astute politician.

How would you describe your own politics?
I believe in social democracy, in equality of opportunity, in social justice, in the welfare state. I believe we must have a system, democracy, that caters for all.

Are you a social democrat or a socialist?
I am a social democrat; I'm left of centre.

Who are your heroes, political or otherwise?
Tony Benn. I have a lot of respect for him.

Who did you back for the Labour leadership?
David Miliband. But I thought Ed Miliband was an equally able candidate. I am sure he will make a great prime minister.

But he tried to get rid of you from the party?
He didn't get rid of me. He was in the middle of a leadership campaign. Six or seven members of the NEC got rid of me. I believe it would have been different had he been leader at the time.

Will you stand as a parliamentary candidate in the East End in 2015?
My only intention is to serve people of Tower Hamlets. I was grateful to be given the chance to serve as a local councillor and now as mayor. My only determination now is to succeed in my mayoralty.

So you won't rule out standing against the local Labour MPs, Rushanara Ali or Jim Fitzpatrick, at the next general election?
At this stage, all I can think about is building more homes, making sure our schools perform, making sure we have a borough where crime is low, and making sure the whole community is served equally. That's all I'm interested in.

How important is your Islamic faith to you?
I am a proud Muslim. I am glad that my values have come from Islam. But I am also glad that Labour Party values have given me great strength over the past 20 or 25 years. Go and speak to people of Tower Hamlets, the people who voted for me, who voted for someone they believe is a pluralist and can serve them well and serve them equally.

Are you a member of the much-criticised Islamic Forum of Europe?
I am not a member of the Islamic Forum of Europe. I have never been a member.

But you do have close contacts with the group?
I have close contacts with the chair of the Tower Hamlets Inter Faith Forum, with rabbis, with the Bishop of Stepney, with people who are of no faith. The IFE is one group among many. As leader of this council, I will work with each and every member of the community, whether they are Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Christian or people of no faith.

Is the IFE an extremist group?
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 and ago. I will work with anyone who adheres to civil society, to democracy, to the progressive values of this council. 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?

Do you support a caliphate, here or elsewhere?
I believe in a social-democratic society. I believe in a society where, through a democratic process, representatives are chosen and elected.

Do you believe sharia law should be incorporated into British law?
I am a lawyer and 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?

Should the gay population of Tower Hamlets be worried by your victory?
During my opening speech as mayor, in front of the full council, 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.

Did Tower Hamlets town hall, on your watch, allow CDs of a Muslim preacher who has allegedly justified wife-beating to be handed out to visitors?
That did happen but it has been stopped and the chief executive has clear instructions from me not to let that happen again. It did not happen with his approval or my approval. And I assure you nothing of that sort will happen with my approval. But you can't control things that happen without your knowledge.

Can you explain what links, if any, you have to Saudi Arabia and your trips to that country? How were they funded?
It is an obligation, as a Muslim, to do the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. I haven't done the Hajj but I have had the good fortune of going on Umra [the lesser pilgrimage]. I have been on Umra four or five times. I went to Saudi Arabia on Umra during my council leadership at my own expense, on a private trip. As a Muslim you are not allowed to take money from anyone else, if you have the means, to go and pay your respects to Allah and go to the Kaaba [in Mecca].

Would you say you are a secularist? A secular politician?
My whole political upbringing has been about clear diving line between my faith and my politics. I believe in a civic, social democratic society.

Do you believe in a secular Britain?
I do. I live in a society based on a clear division of powers between the church and the state. Yes, I absolutely believe in a secular society.

Is there a plan?
I always have a plan. I had a manifesto, didn't I?

Are we doomed?
I am an optimist. I always look for the good nature in people.

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.

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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