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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.

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Who would oppose Scottish independence in a second referendum campaign?

The case for unionism is there. But after Brexit, who will make it?

Back in September, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon mobilised her troops. Standing on the stage at the party's conference, watched by thousands of SNP supporters, she instructed activists to speak to at least five people each month in the run-up to St Andrew’s Day. 

At the time, with opinion polls against independence and the possibility of a soft Brexit still dangling above the Remainer heads, it seemed like a diversion tactic.

But by March, staying in the single market had been ruled out. Support for Scottish independence rose to 50 per cent, according to an Ipsos Mori poll. And Sturgeon has now declared that she wants another vote by 2018. 

Which will leave a lot of Scots asking: “Where’s the unionist campaign?”

***

Now that Alistair Darling, the former Labour Chancellor, has retired from frontline politics, there is little doubt about who the star of Scottish unionism is. Ruth Davidson, the lesbian kickboxer who single-handedly revived the Scottish Conservatives, did so by defining her party as the voice of the union. 

In the 2016 Scottish Parliament election campaign, held before the Brexit vote, the Scottish Tory party leader pledged to do “a specific job” – oppose a second indyref.

However, despite Davidson self-described reputation as a “photo tart”, she is unlikely to spearhead a campaign. The Scottish Tories’ official position on a second referendum is denial (to acknowledge it is seen as playing into the SNP’s hands). She is also seen as too divisive for a cross-party campaign. 

“I think Ruth is a very talented politician and a good communicator,” Blair McDougall, who was head strategist on the 2014 cross-party Better Together campaign, tells me. “But she is not a figure everyone would unite around.

“I think she is smart enough to know a Scottish referendum isn’t the next stage in the rehabilitation of the Scottish Conservatives.”

If a second referendum should be called, McDougall expects unionist politicians to accept less prominence than in 2014. 

“You need politicians to do the dog-fighting in the TV studios when there is a particularly hot debate,” he says. “But actually this time it is probably more fruitful to be a campaign that is led by civilians.” 

While many of Better Together's big beasts are savouring retirement, the prospect of a second referendum is already causing some of them to stir.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s last-ditch speech in favour of the union has been watched more than half a million times. Since the EU referendum – in which he made an equally impassioned, but less successful pro-union intervention – Brown has been lobbying for a federalist solution to the UK’s constitutional woes.

McDougall describes Brown as “indefatigable”, but expects him to focus his attentions on the “Labour side of things”. 

This touches on another change from 2014. Labour entered the Scottish referendum as a party defeated in Westminster, but still holding 41 of Scotland’s 59 seats. Today, only one Labour MP, Ian Murray, remains. Since the referendum, activists have fought and lost two elections and an EU referendum. They are exhausted and demoralised.

***

Then there are the issues. In 2014, the Better Together campaign’s message of cold, hard economic facts worked. Scots voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK. 

McDougall believes economic realism is still the best strategy, if focused on an argument about protecting the NHS, and other public services put at risk by an economic crisis.

Scots on both sides of the 2014 debate have remarked to me that, as the Brexit negotiations sour, voters may think twice about quitting another economic union. 

Others are less convinced. The veteran campaigner I speak to compares the Better Together campaign to the later Remain campaign, which backfired after being parodied as “Project Fear”.

He says of the 2014 message: “It got us to the finishing line, but it didn’t make people feel particularly good.”

Some of the unionists I speak to believe a second pro-union campaign would be more targeted, with different messages for “left behinds” who voted to leave the UK, but approve of Brexit, compared to the pro-Remain pro-EU crowd in leafy Edinburgh neighbourhoods.

Nevertheless, unionists fear the SNP may summon an emotional nationalism powerful enough to eclipse spreadsheet slogans – and that Westminster may inadvertently help if MPs try to block a second poll. 

“Most people I’ve spoken to think Sturgeon wants to have a fight about getting to hold the referendum,” the unionist campaigner tells me. “The moment [Westminster] Parliament turns them down, they’ve got a grievance.”

***

For now, the Holyrood and Westminster gossip is focused purely on whether there is going to be another referendum, and if so, when. But to me, the lack of an organised union movement betrays a deeper challenge for the UK constitution.

In 2014, Brown declared that Scottish achievements happen “not in spite of the union but because of the union – and none of us is any less a Scot as a result of it”. 

It was still possible, at that time, to imagine a Lib-Lab coalition taking power in Westminster the following year. The UK’s membership of the EU was intact. The economy was improving. 

Since then, Scottish Tories aside, the unionists have lost representation in Westminster, lost membership of the EU, and spend their energy fighting cuts and debating the impact of Brexit on the economy. 

Even if a second referendum is never called, progressive unionists have been left homeless by the UK’s mainstream parties. The Tories ask them to defend the UK's single market while turning their back on the EU’s. Labour, from opposition, is asking the same. Neither party is making the case for a soft Brexit, let alone a coherent argument for the ideal of unionism. If it dies in Scotland, perhaps not in 2017, but in 2020, or 2025, they will only have themselves to blame. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.