Most election counts last week would have been pretty dull affairs, attended only by party hacks and political anoraks, while most of the demos was in the pub or perhaps had David Dimbleby on in the background at home.
Things were different in Tower Hamlets, East London – one of the poorest boroughs in the country – where riot police had to turn up outside the Troxy to maintain order amongst a throng outside the election count for Mayor of the borough on Friday. Thousands of locals had shown up to cheer their hero, incumbent Mayor Luftur Rahman as he was re-elected by the skin of his teeth in a close contest against the Labour candidate John Biggs.
I arrived to an atmosphere more like the red carpet reveal of a new series of Celebrity Big Brother than anything political. Police had to jostle people back as they surged to get the best spot to capture Lutfur on camera and spilled into the road from pavements on either side.
The result was yet to be announced, but everyone was already in a jubilant mood. They were all convinced that their man’s victory was assured. I asked a guy what was going on and he told me Rahman had won – hours before the result had been announced. Maybe that had something to do with the fact that, “Large and intimidating groups of Rahman supporters picketed the entrances to many polling stations, remonstrating with some voters who refused to take Rahman leaflets,” if the Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan is to be believed.
People chanted Lutfur’s name. These guys in particular were really, really enthusiastic. To talk to the people there, you would think Rahman was some kind of saint. “I know it sounds really amazing but there’s no reason not to like him,” one guy told me. What had he had done for the area? “Everything mate – jobs, housing, education.”
“There’s no hatred in Tower Hamlets," said another guy. "We’re all together. We’ve waited nearly ten hours here to see one name.”
It was uncanny. The only time I've ever seen passion like this in British politics was after the death of Margaret Thatcher, but this was completely different, it wasn't mournful or cynical, it was triumphant. It's worth pointing out though that the man isn't Obama, or Blair, or Mandela – his victory isn't some wild begining of a new dawn. No, all these smiles and peace signs were for a local politician – one who's already been in power for four years.
What made it weirder was the fact that nearly everything I have ever read about Lutfur made me assume that people would be lining up to pelt him as he was kicked out of office in shame, rather than clamouring to catch a glimpse of a victor. Lutfur is a man who’s alleged corruption is bewilderingly extensive. He has been the subject of numerous exposés, including a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, and is a mainstay of Private Eye’s page about corrupt local politicians – Rotten Boroughs.
Critics accuse him of creating a corrupt and divisive "Islamic Republic" in East London. One former Mayoral rival said he was "brainwashed" by the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), a Muslim group which has been linked to alleged extremism. In March 2010 it was revealed that Lutfur had achieved his position of council leader with the backing of IFE and large sums of council money had been diverted to IFE front organisations. While standing as the Labour Party's candidate for mayor in 2010, he was sacked after allegations of massive fraud in the selection process and undeclared donations – which he denies. He ran as an independent anyway and won. In power Lutfur has been accused of favouring Muslims over non-Muslims when it comes to distributing grant money and he has never appointed a non-Muslim to his cabinet. He's also said to be using millions of public money to build a cult of personality by getting his face everywhere and giving public money to Bengali-language TV stations, who have been accused of propping up Lutfur with sycophantic coverage.
But nobody outside the Troxy gave a shit about any of that. I asked several people what they thought of the allegations of corruption and everyone said the same thing: the media targets Lutfur because it is “racist”.
Time dragged and the atmosphere became less party-like. It was about two in the morning. How come the count was taking so long?
Whatever was going on, the wait wasn't as bad as what was happening in the count for the council election, which is resuming today after being suspended twice. Peter Golds, a local Conservative who was inside, later wrote about what was going on at the local election count down the road in Mile End on Friday: “There were arguments, threats, and chaos at the counting tables. Tower Hamlets First [Rahman’s party] supporters were challenging vote after vote, forcing supporters of other votes away from the tables.”
At one point it seemed likely that the announcement would be postponed until the next day, but then candidates and supporters from other parties started to come outside. This Lib Dem in particular looked pretty upset, perhaps sad that absolutely nobody in his party anywhere in the country was likely to get a screaming crowd of appreciative supporters anytime soon. Their candidate came sixth with 2.3 percent of the vote and probably fewer voters than there were people outside the cinema.
Rahman’s impeccably dressed security detachment, who had been hanging around all night, began to look more serious and formed up in front of the door as apparatchiks had agitated looking discussions.
The news that Lutfur had won came through on Twitter. People surged across the road to congratulate him, like a bunch of football fans storming the pitch following a victorious playoff final, except that everybody was sober.
Finally, he emerged, waving to the cheers of the crowd. The chant, “Lutfur Bhai” [Lutfur Brother] went up.
As he shook hands through a police bubble, it seemed like he must have been one of the most loved politicians in the country at that moment. The allegations of corruption levelled against Rahman would end another politician's career, so why was everyone chanting his name rather than throwing eggs at him?
As one guy told me, “I’m not into politics, but you’ve got to support Lutfur Rahman. He speaks his mind, he says it how people want it and it’s the truth. It’s not negative, it’s positive. There’s a lot of haters. Because of the Panorama, because of this, because of that – we’re here to support him. People are jealous, because for once in our lives, Asian people are getting a bit of help. Because the whole country went against him, people thought, ‘nah, he is a man of truth’.”
For the supporters of his that I spoke to, the media’s slings and arrows seemed to be further evidence of the marginalisation of their community, and the need for a leader to represent them. In their mind, the fact that Rahman is "targetted" simply goes to show that he is one of them. And if they needed reminding of that marginalisation, the Bangladeshi community would only have needed to look down Brick Lane where the far-right Britain First was holding one of its "Christian Patrols" in the area on the same night, ending in violence. It wouldn't be fair to lump the entire Bangladshi community into one voting block, but if white England feels threatened enough by immigration to vote for UKIP, imagine how the presence of stampeding ex-EDL thugs would affect the vote in a borough as diverse as Tower Hamlets.
That said, it's all to easy to lazily write Rahman off as a mere demagogue. Tower Hamlets is a borough in which 44 percent of households are in income poverty – double the national average. In that context, Rahman's administration is introducing free school meals in September, gives students a £1,500 grant for going to university and delivered an educational maintainance allowance. Sure, some of his policy claims are bullshit, like his pledge to build 5,500 new homes, that is in fact, a policy nicked the Labour council’s own pledge. But a politician who says, "It'll break me as an individual, a politician and a resident the day I have to make cuts to our frontline services," strikes a contrast to local politicians of all parties everywhere in the country who are meekly pushing through cuts. "Basically he’s a people’s mayor. He’s got good policies," said one supporter. He seems to be pulling off left-wing populism more effectively than anyone else at the moment.
He crossed the road with the police forming a protective cordon, lest he got stampeded to death by his adoring fans, before making a fairly anemic speech thanking everyone and asking them to go home. He then sped off into the night in his tax funded £35,000 per year chauffeur driven limo – a people's champion.
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