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Lutfur Rahman

Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Following the British establishment's undemocratic attempt to undermine the twice-elected mayor of Tower Hamlets it's clear whose side we should be on argues Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

Another day, another attempt by the British establishment to undermine Lutfur Rahman – the now twice elected mayor of Tower Hamlets. Following the release of a ‘damning’ report by cuddly accountancy giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (a repeated Tory profiteer), Communities & Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has intervened. A hit-squad of government officials is to be installed in the Tower Hamlets Mayor's Office; in addition to ‘supervising’ the work of the office, the team will assume the Mayor’s power to allocate grants, approve property sales and senior council officer appointments.

Following the toxic blueprint which typified the recent Scottish referendum campaign, Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition have attained an almost touching degree of camaraderie with regard to the ‘issue’ of Tower Hamlets’ Mayor; Labour MP (and former Minister For London) Nick Raynsford wasted no time in publicly declaring his support for Pickles’ intervention, and John Biggs, the Labour candidate Rahman defeated in May 2014, suggested that the Mayor might consider resigning.

He [Rahman] should think very carefully about whether his actions are compatible with remaining mayor.”

Mr. Biggs is none too keen on the idea that the ordinary voters of Tower Hamlets should be allowed to decide how the borough is governed. Despite a concerted and highly malicious campaign against Rahman by political opponents and the mainstream media, Lutfur fairly won the election. Within weeks of the result, Biggs appealed to the High Court, asking judges to overturn the election’s outcome. It was a move that made Louis Alphonse of Bourbon, the current would-be heir to the French throne, look positively graceful in his ability to accept defeat.

The PWC Report

PWC were commissioned by Pickles to determine whether allegations of “poor governance and possible fraud” had any grounding in fact. Moreover, they were asked to work out whether the council was getting “best value for money” in its spending. There are two important points to be made here.

Firstly, the report did not corroborate any of the numerous allegations of fraud levelled at Rahman’s office since his election in 2010.

Secondly, the level of substantive criticism levelled at Tower Hamlets was very low by the standards of Local Government.

Many of the ‘allegations’ contained in the report duly highlighted by the media centre around instances where Rahman, and/or other elected members of the council, made spending decisions which were contrary to the advice given by unelected officials. At this point, we are entitled to ask, who did the people of Tower Hamlets elect to run their borough, and spend their money? It is absolutely the right of elected councillors and elected mayors to adopt or reject any and all advice offered by unelected bureaucrats.

Alarmism

For instance, much has been made of the report’s headline discovery that over £400,000 was awarded in grants to organisations that “failed to meet the proper criteria for funding”. Questionable as this may sound, what does this phraseology mean exactly? Buried in the labyrinthine depths of the report is the answer.

Organisations applying for grants are scored according to 11 separate metrics (e.g. “project outcome”, “project descriptions” and “track records”). An organisation fails to “meet the proper criteria” for grant allocation if their overall score ranks below a certain level. This in itself does not imply that the organisation was in some way dubious. It’s hardly a revelation that sometimes algorithms spew out an answer with which people might reasonably disagree (#bankingcrisis); nor is it unreasonable for elected representatives in local government to depend on their judgment and homegrown knowledge when making decisions.

It is also worth contextualising the amounts involved. The Borough of Tower Hamlets spends £1.4bn annually; it would be far more newsworthy if a certain proportion of that overall spending wasn’t open to question. Furthermore, the amounts under discussion pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions squandered by successive governments on PFI contracts, awarded to government-friendly firms for services that would demonstrably cost far less were they provided by the public sector.

Nobody in their right mind would suggest that, on account of PFI, parliament should be deposed and Britain hereafter governed by unelected bureaucrats. That’s because, despite the present system’s many limitations, democracy matters. The verdict and judgment of the people cannot be justifiably overturned except in the most extreme circumstances.

Alas, not everybody’s judgement is treated equally, or respectfully. From the start, Lutfur’s electoral victories were attacked by politicians and media as only semi-legitimate, because many of his electors happened to be Bengali. His victory was riding into office on the back of communal politics (naturally, Bengali people can only ever think and act as Bengalis; their differences from white society must explain the totality of their political thoughts and actions). The rank hypocrisy at the heart of this notion is, of course, that the media commentariat and political mainstream in Britain constantly patronise Muslims and lecture them on their ‘obligation’ to integrate into liberal democratic political structures and norms – yet they recoil in horror when people who are Muslim or non-white influence the outcomes of elections.

What’s at stake here is not merely the public reputation of Lutfur Rahman; the real issue is whether the population of one of Britain’s poorest and most ethnically diverse boroughs have the right to be governed by the representatives they elect. The UK establishment is determined to subvert the democratic will of the people, and further cessate the power of their elected represenatives to unelected figures; as a result, it is vital for all of us to be on their side.

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.

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