An 'Election Petition' - a legal challenge to Lutfur Rahman's mayoral election victory - begins this week. Sean Rillo Raczka explains why it's an attack on democracy
The Election Petition against Mayor Lutfur Rahman and Tower Hamlets Council opens on Monday in the High Court.
Finally we will hear in detail the allegations against the re-elected Mayor, many of which so far have been quite ludicrous. Incidentally proceedings are not being heard at Tower Hamlets Town Hall as would be proper, since the centre of borough administration is ‘not a neutral venue’ apparently. To me it seems nonsensical that using a room in the town hall would prejudice anything, and certainly the Mayor’s critics don’t have a problem using the town hall regularly.
The trial will cost Tower Hamlets taxpayers huge sums, as they are pursuing a case against Returning Officer John Williams as well as Lutfur. Presumably the interests of a handful of local political activists and their costly mud-slinging outweigh the votes of tens of thousands of our borough’s residents. You can read the background to all this on the Tower Hamlets onTrial website.
Allegations are in places so outlandish that it’s a wonder why the petition wasn’t thrown out of court months ago. Part of it must be a press and political class that treats the Muslim community with suspicion, not to mention those who stand up against ‘austerity’ (see the outpouring of smear stories against Syriza and the Greens recently.)
My personal favourite is the charge that lollipops were handed out to electors (who as I understand were actually children of families known to a Lutfur supporter – this is local politics after all, the campaigners are part and parcel of the area and obviously know people, friends and family, who will be voting.) Perhaps the petitioners would prefer that cavalcades of people who don’t live in the area put boots on the ground to doorknock, the way that national parties do in every poor marginal seat that finds itself besieged by canvassers who hadn’t heard of the area until their party put them on a minibus.
Then we could have a campaign devoid of warm greetings, smiles to children and friends, and the heinous exchange of lollipops. And if said lollipops are such an enticement to vote for the candidate handing them out, I propose all our national parties abandon their slick leafletting campaigns and simply invest in a few million Chupa-Chups for every target seat.
Another claim of the petitioners is that counting agents (Tower Hamlets Council staff taking on this extra responsibility) were scared they would lose their jobs if Lutfur lost the election, so ensured he didn’t.
The lack of common sense in that statement is pretty breathtaking. How would a defeated Mayor sack council staff after being ejected from office? These are ordinary staff of the council who help deliver our services daily, not Lutfur’s mates. Candidates and their agents from all parties were very closely observing the count. This is one of the reasons that the counting process took so long, because of the extra scrutiny and rechecking of ballots (as well as recounts in closely-fought contests.) In fact the very same group bringing the election petition complained at the length of time the count took. This is not to mention that the appointment and dismissal of staff is not held by the Mayor, as staff would well know - a Mayor that has consistently worked with trade unions and the Living Wage Foundation to deliver decent pay and conditions and an anti-blacklisting pledge for staff and contractors.
These sentiments belie the hard work put in by Tower Hamlets counting staff to ensure all votes were transparently and correctly counted. There were hundreds of journalists and non- Lutfur supporters scrutinising the count, plus a large police presence - ‘percolated’ with police is how one BBC journalist described it.
I hear that according to another complaint, the Mayor’s brother was actually going round the borough nicking ballot papers off people on the street! I don’t know who the Mayor’s brother is (or if he even has one), but I’m pretty sure he would have been arrested if this was the case.
Apparently the Imams of Tower Hamlets also put ‘spiritual’ pressure on their congregations by threatening hellfire for those not supporting Lutfur. Reading the actual letter they produced, it shows no such thing. In a ‘democracy’ everyone is supposed to have their say, including Imams.
Maybe they’ll write to the Archbishop of Canterbury telling him to shut up about poverty or pay day lenders, as this could be construed as ‘spiritual pressure’ not to vote for neoliberals! My elderly grandma might have listened if the local Catholic priest said that not tackling homelessness is wicked, or espoused some other cause.
As for the perennial charge of postal voting fraud, again the Electoral Commission and police have previously investigated this many times and turned up nothing. The only person arrested and charged with an election offence has been a Tory candidate.
I’m not a lawyer and I’m sure others will pass more detailed comment on the specific allegations, but I am a Tower Hamlets resident and I know what I’ve seen.
Election Day on 22nd May last year was actually a great and friendly day. Not to be too hackneyed, but it was a true festival of democracy. A record turnout, canvassers from all parties interacting outside polling stations, and rather less cheerfully a Police Officer guarding every polling station. This is the backdrop to these allegations; a carnival atmosphere where people from all backgrounds were out on the streets engaging with the process. But it seems the presence of Bangladeshis and/or Muslims actively engaging with the democratic process is a concern for some.
You only need look back on social media to see the disgusting way Muslim members of our community were treated, and how every time an allegation is made there are a bevy of bigots - most of whom don’t live in the borough - ready to accuse Muslims of being barbaric, inherently corrupt and trying to bring a caliphate to Tower Hamlets. Even the Economist accuses Bangladeshi Muslims of ‘colonising’ the East End and chalks up any corruption to ‘South Asian politics.’
To me the real reason why people from all religions, races and walks of life supported Lutfur was because of his politics. People voted for top quality schools, new libraries, social housing, the living wage and more opportunities for their kids. We voted for Lutfur because he had delivered a record amount under difficult circumstances in his first term, and we trusted that would continue in his second term.
And so I’m not just angry on Lutfur’s behalf, but on behalf of the residents that put him and his team in office to spend their time working for us, not batting away one half-baked corruption claim after the next.
The election petitioners are not just any old members of the public but activists for the main parties, including Labour and Ukip. The Westminster parties lost in Tower Hamlets to a surge of grassroots support for an independent candidate who engaged and worked in a different and more community-focussed way than the usual political class.
That’s what I believe is the real issue here.
I’ll be reporting from the High Court from next week - it looks set to be an interesting time.
Sean Rillo Raczka is a Tower Hamlets resident with a long history of political activism, who supported Tower Hamlets First in the 2014 election.