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London's Most Controversial Mayor Got Kicked Out of Office for Corruption

To his fans, Lutfur Rahman is a hero who sticks up for his poor, marginalized Bengali community. But yesterday he was found guilty of using "corrupt and illegal practices" to secure his re-election last year.

Lutfur Rahman (center) greets his supporters after his election victory in 2014. Photo by Simon Childs.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Lutfur Rahman is one of Britain's most controversial politicians. Until yesterday, he was the mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. To his fans, he's a hero sticking up for his poor, marginalized Bengali community. But yesterday it was his detractors—who see him as East London's answer to Vladimir Putin—who were feeling vindicated, as he was found guilty of using "corrupt and illegal practices" to secure his re-election last year. These practices included being involved in vote-rigging, using local imams to exert spiritual influence, and wrongly branding his Labour rival John Biggs a racist.


The mayor has been told to leave his office immediately. The mayoral election will be re-run, but the court has banned Rahman from standing. The judge, Richard Mawrey QC, said that, "The evidence laid before this court, limited though it necessarily was to the issues raised in the petition, has disclosed an alarming state of affairs in Tower Hamlets. This is… the result of the ruthless ambition of one man."

Lutfur Rahman's team have released a statement saying they are shocked and that the mayor continues to strongly deny any wrongdoing. "We are seeking further legal advice on the matter in relation to a judicial review," they add.

The case against the mayor was brought by four residents—one of them, Azmal Hussain, a Brick Lane restaurateur, has long been a critic of Rahman. He told me that his car was vandalized after he went public with his accusations and that the window of his restaurant was broken. He added that when he was coming out of the polling station on Election Day last year, "some people shouted at me that I was a 'slave of the British.'"

For years, the political scene in Tower Hamlets has been an acrimonious one. Today's court verdict marks the most explosive twist in the bitter struggle between Lutfur Rahman's Tower Hamlets First party and his enemies. But who is East London's most divisive political figure and how did we get to this point?

Rahman again, at his 2014 victory. Photo by Simon Childs.

Lutfur Rahman became Tower Hamlets' first directly elected mayor in 2010 and was re-elected in May last year. Previously a Labour councillor, he was selected and then deselected as that party's candidate. In the end, he won the election running as an independent candidate, trouncing the opposition from the traditional political parties. Born in 1965 in what is now Bangladesh, his critics accuse him of being a corrupt Jihadist sympathizer intent on transplanting the factional Bengali politics to the streets of London.


His champions insist that he is a progressive social democrat disliked by a political establishment that feels threatened and is fatally compromised by entrenched structural racism. Judge Richard Mawrey picked up on this in court, saying that Rahman sought to play the "race and Islamaphobia card" whenever faced with criticism. He did this in the election and he would no doubt do it after the verdict, Mawrey said.

In Tower Hamlets, the stakes are high. It's the third most deprived local authority in the country, one of the most ethnically diverse and one in which income inequality is particularly obvious. Because of the financial services industry thriving unchecked in and around the Docklands, the average salary of those who work in the borough is £58,000 [$87,000], according to the Tower Hamlets Fairness Comission. But around a fifth of families there live on less than £15,000 [$23,000] and levels of unemployment and child poverty are far higher than the national average. It's the borough of the Patrick Bateman penthouse dweller and the family living on the breadline, of the Cereal Café and the Bengali shopkeeper. It is at the epicenter of a lot of what is being talked about in Britain today: inequality, corruption, gentrification, and immigration. The towers of the financial powerhouses loom over the crumbling estates.

If contending with income disparity is one task for local politicians, then appealing to different ethnic groups is another. Rahman's support base is among his fellow Bengalis, who make up a third of the borough and who vote in very high numbers. After the Second World War, Brick Lane and the areas around it saw an influx of immigrants from Bangladesh. This wave of immigration reached a peak in the 1970s and was met with violence by white power gangs and the National Front, which moved its headquarters to the area in November 1978. A few months earlier, three teenagers killed Altab Ali, a 25-year old Bengali, because of his race. On a wall next to where he'd been killed, they wrote simply, "We're back."


This killing provoked an upsurge in resistance and political organization in the Bengali community. Lutfur Rahman and his peers grew up in this cauldron and the struggle that they and their parents' faced has not been forgotten and is not viewed as being over. When I covered the mayoral election last year, almost every Bengali involved in politics in Tower Hamlets to whom I spoke told me they'd been physically attacked because of their race. One young activist pushing out the vote for Rahman on Election Day had a history lesson for me. We were standing on the edge of the Holland Estate, once the site of pitched battles with roaming National Front thugs. For him, you couldn't separate the jackbooted attacks on his parents from the besuited attacks on his mayor.

On Election Day last May, Brick Lane was a place of dynamic chaos. Old comrades of Rahman's from his Labour party days admitted that he wasn't perfect but insisted that the motivation to sling mud at him comes from sinister places. After all, how many other politicians are doing what he's doing—and much worse—and getting away with it?

The court verdict suggests something different, though it's important to note that the judge stressed there was absolutely no "credible evidence" linking Rahman with any Islamic fundamentalists.

A local Labour party employee told me that, a couple of months before the 2014 election, he was at a cross-party discussion at the town hall. Outside the room the meeting had taken place, he stood alone checking his phone. A group of young guys, supporters of Rahman, approached him and started getting in his face. They surrounded him, asked him what he was doing, who he was texting, why he was using his phone. They told him to get off his phone before letting him know, as he left, that they hoped he'd have a good night.


In an interview a month after his election victory, Rahman told me that he felt aggrieved when it comes to claims that he favors the Bengali community over all others. "There was the constant insinuation that I was a reverse racist and I took real offense to that," he says. "But I grew up with white kids, with black kids and the white kids helped me and sheltered me when I went to school."

Rahman sees this line of thinking as being one fabricated by his political opponents, a scared Westminster elite and the right wing press. He believes he is held to a different standard than the white, privately educated members of the cabinet, and that he's had "unfair tension from certain quarters and extreme scrutiny from parts of the media," primarily journalists like Andrew Gilligan, the Telegraph columnist. Gilligan has accused Rahman of being everything from a scary ally of fundamentalists to the next Daniel Arap Moi, the former Kenyan leader who is thought, among other things, to have siphoned off over £1 billion [$1.5 billion] of public money during his long reign.

Yet still Rahman's campaign threw race into a number of situations, even using ancient quotes out of context to accuse John Biggs, who for years was an anti-racism campaigner, of being a racist himself. This attack on Biggs is one of the things that led Rahman to fall foul of the court. He ran a "ruthless and dishonest campaign to convince electorate his rival John Biggs was a racist," the judge said.


When I asked the mayor if he truly thought Biggs was a racist, he initially dodged the question, launching into a hymn celebrating multi-cultural Britain and the opportunities it had afforded immigrants from all over the world.

He then told me that he had known Biggs for many years but had been surprised and disappointed that his Labour rival had told the BBC that Rahman was only interested in serving the Bengali community. "I thought that was the wrong statement to make and it set the tone for the election… And then Panorama came along and said I was channeling money to only one community… Others picked up Biggs' statement and it fuelled the flame of division… There was constant insinuation that I was maybe a reverse racist and I took real offense to that."

A Lutfur Rahman supporter. Photo by Simon Childs.

The Panorama program Rahman is referring to was broadcast at the beginning of April 2014. Its depiction of Tower Hamlets was far from complimentary and the interview it featured with the mayor was very tense. The program became a hot topic in the run-up to the election, with Labour insisting that it showed Rahman couldn't be trusted and Rahman insisting it was just proof of an establishment plot against him. In the end, a number of Labour campaigners admitted to me that the program had hindered them and bolstered the mayor's outsider, man of the people appeal. The rest of the country may just be waking up to the idea of the "Westminster establishment," but in Tower Hamlets' they've been suspicious of insiders for years.


Rahman's outsider appeal was evident during the election campaign and he was a charismatic presence. This was in contrast to John Biggs, who seemed less comfortable out on the trail. A couple of days before the election, I went to Globe Town market in Bethnal Green to watch Biggs do a TV-opp with a salt of the earth fishmonger. He looked uncomfortable. Away from the cameras, I talked to the fishmonger. "I was born in this borough but I can't afford to live here anymore," he said. "It's getting harder to do my job but what's the point of telling a politician that? I like to keep my political opinions to myself."

During our interview, Rahman seemed to embody a number of traits that are stereotypical both to his current profession (politician) and to his past profession (lawyer). He has a politician's sense of when a question might be an attack or a challenge and a lawyer's pedantry and attention to detail. He became, at points, almost robotic in his defense of himself, something that made it hard to feel as though he was being genuine.

He identifies himself as a social democrat and says that this means having "liberal values, having progressive values, having values that benefit the whole population." He points to a series of progressive policies undertaken in a time of austerity: to the reinstatement of the education maintenance allowance in Tower Hamlets, to free school meals, to a crime-fighting policy that doesn't criminalize offenders but seeks to rehabilitate them, to free home care, library, and leisure facilities.


For more on UK politics, watch our doc about gentrification here:

On Brick Lane, I spoke to a local estate agent who questioned the idea, held by Rahman's opponents, that he's enriching great swathes of Bengalis at the expense of everyone else. The truth, he said, is that a Bengali elite have been cleverly playing the property market there for decades and have made millions—without Lutfur's help. Azmal Hussain prospered during Lutfur's tenure, and has now triumphed over him in court. In that sense, Tower Hamlets is less a crony-ish fiefdom and looks like any other neighborhood susceptible to the machinations of the global economy and the property market. The majority of people suffer while the lucky few get rich.

In 1986, the BBC series King of the Ghetto , starring a young Tim Roth and set in Tower Hamlets, lifted the lid on corrupt politicians, racial tension, and the king of the ghetto himself—a businessman doing deals with everyone and getting extremely rich in the process. Today in Tower Hamlets, these things are all still alive and well. But the poverty of the borough has been thrown into sharp relief by the explosion of global finance in Canary Wharf. In the 1980s, Tower Hamlets was just poor. Now it's both poor and extremely rich.

Today's verdict aspires to offer a solution to the problems Tower Hamlets faces. The sad fact is that it is places that need the kind of progressive, social democratic leadership Rahman claims to provide that also provide breeding grounds for demagoguery and corruption.

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