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What to make of Lutfur Rahman?
By Morgan Jones
Lutfur Rahman’s five-year ban from public office for corrupt and illegal practices under election law ended in 2021. Under a year later, he was re-elected to the office he had held between 2010 and 2015; Mayor of Tower Hamlets. To some he is a corrupt local politician with a patchy record; to others, a progressive figure thwarted by a racist establishment. One thing is certain; both in and out of office, Rahman has been the central figure in Tower Hamlets politics for 15 years.
Rahman was a Labour councillor from 2002, and leader of the council from 2008 to 2010. The borough adopted a mayoral system in 2010, with a powerful directly elected mayor; Rahman was initially picked as Labour’s candidate for this new position, but accusations of vote rigging and misconduct saw him deselected. He took the mayoralty as an independent, a feat he repeated in 2014.
This victory proved short lived; it was overturned in 2015, when Rahman was found guilty of a number of electoral offences, mostly relating to bribing voters and misuse of funds, and, more contentiously, exerting “undue spiritual influence” on the Muslim electorate.
Labour’s John Biggs became the mayor, and the party strengthened its hold on the council in 2018, winning the mayoralty again and 43 of 45 council seats. However, in 2022, Rahman defeated Biggs and his newly formed Aspire Party picked up 24 seats, taking control of the local authority, in a development that took many Londoners by surprise.
Very few people think that Labour ran a particularly good campaign in Tower Hamlets in 2022, and on the ground predictions were generally that it would be close. Biggs, a profoundly uninspiring man, was a poor salesperson for Labour’s offer and record. In an election that saw turnout fall from what it had been in 2018, one Labour council candidate felt that ultimately the result was “Labour’s failure, not Rahman’s success”.
Rahman, who is Muslim, was born in Bangladesh and came to the East End as a small child; his voting base is drawn from the Bangladeshi community, which constitutes about a third of the borough’s population. A local Labour source asserted that Labour “overestimated the collective memory” of the borough when it came to Lutfur Rahman. His voters are probably the least transient group in a borough which sees a high churn of young renters - shorter term residents who had perhaps looked at Tower Hamlets’s uber-safe Labour parliamentary seats and assumed that the area was more assuredly red than it actually is.
Rahman maintains his innocence on the charges that saw him barred from office, contending that the allegations of corruption levelled at him were weighted with racism and Islamophobia. It is not a stretch to say that the British media in the early 2010s was Islamophobic, and the tenor of even mainstream liberal commentary on Rahman reads uncomfortably today. At the time, the Economist termed him the “Badshah of Tower Hamlets”, in an article that characterised his as a project to “bring South Asian politics to London”. Still, “did Rahman face prejudice and motivated criticism?” and “did the election court find that Rahman behaved corruptly?” are ultimately two different questions, the answer to both of which is “yes”.
Tower Hamlets politics may be a world of its own, but it is not a world removed from wider political context. Days after his victory, Rahman set out his political agenda - an agenda which was, he asserted, proudly socialist - in an article for Jacobin magazine (“I’m a Socialist, and I Just Beat The Labour Party in London’s Poorest Borough”). The left case for Lutfur Rahman is not new - you can see, for example, a spirited defence of Rahman in the Guardian by Ashok Kumar and Richard Seymour in 2014. But, in a post-Corbyn world where the left is increasingly moving away from the Labour Party and has a media ecosystem of its own, the case has renewed valence.
The narrative of radical Rahman triumphing over the managerialist Biggs suits the alienated Corbynite left, and is one they would like to see replicated on larger scales. Certainly, an enthusiasm for this narrative and for Lutfur himself animated Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani during his recent interview with the mayor. Bastani, with typical reserve, termed Rahman’s victory “one of the most extraordinary election results in modern British political history”.
A former Labour councillor I spoke to was dismissive of Rahman’s claims of radicalism, stressing that the mayor had his origins in the Labour Party and that, at core, his politics are not more interesting than those of a “social democrat”, whose programme was little more than a populist interpretation of Labour’s. Besides Rahman’s pledge to scrap Liveable Streets (the Tower Hamlets equivalent of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods), there is little on his policy programme - free school meals, housing and tackling overcrowding - that anyone I spoke to objected to on grounds other than viability. Few doubt Rahman’s ability as a campaigner and machine politician; many doubt that he has much in the way of political principle beyond this populist localism.
There is one very obvious problem for those wishing to put a progressive case for Rahman; namely, his new party has just elected a slate of 24 men, all Bangladeshi, as councillors. Aspire stood three women, all in seats in which they could have reasonably predicted little success. Asked about this by Bastani, Rahman expressed regret that a range of issues, from childcare to the lingering shadow of the corruption scandal, had prevented him from having more “young ladies” as candidates. Rahman offered to place female Labour candidates in his cabinet, which was dismissed by a candidate I spoke to as nothing more than an attempt to “make Labour responsible for his issues”.
Bastani ends the interview by comparing Rahman’s result to the result of last year’s Batley by-election, where George Galloway collected a respectable number of votes in a campaign marred by some of his supporters targeting homophobic abuse at Labour’s Kim Leadbeater. Rahman demurely denies harbouring any parliamentary ambitions himself, but suggests that Aspire may field candidates. On Rahman’s leaflets, you could find Ken Livingston asserting, presumably in the manner of Patrick Swayze about to be betrayed in a 90s action film, that he would “trust Lutfur Rahman with his life”.
Rahman is one of a long string of former Labour politicians who have had success running in London as left-of-Labour independents; Galloway did it in Rahman’s own constituency in 2005. Of course, the capital now has another high profile left-wing former Labour politician who has announced their intention to run as an independent at the next general election: Corbyn himself.
In the past, Corbyn had sought to distance himself from Rahman. Now, however, with the mayor singing from the Corbynite hymn sheet in the pages of Jacobin, it seems possible that the MP could find some common cause with a man whose comeback has been a resounding success, and whose influence is only set to grow. London has in recent years firmed up its reputation as a Labour city; however, Rahman’s success suggests that “not Tory” can mean things other than “Labour”. Whether his victory is a canary in the coalmine or a localist fluke remains to be seen.
Morgan Jones is originally from Ireland but lives in London. She works in politics.
Pictures: Adamkash / Steve Daniels