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Archive for July, 2010

10am–The Labour party has just lost a case in the High Court this morning. It was brought by Lutfur Rahman and Sirajul Islam over their exclusion from the shortlist for Tower Hamlets mayor.

Unbelievable as it may seem, the pair have now been reinstated and they will be on the ballot paper next Saturday, August 7.

So the man the party so hard tried to exclude from the shortlist must now be considered a strong candidate to win the nomination: it’s said that he controls some 270 votes, which is about a third of the likely electorate. If he wins that nomination, then he will be favourite for Mayor on October 21 – for, kind of a la Hartlepool, Labour could run a monkey in Tower Hamlets and it would be elected.

UPDATE – 1.15pm

A senior Labour source tells me that there was an actual court hearing before a judge, that Labour contested it, but that the judge ruled against the party. It seems that Labour offered to run the contest again, but that was dismissed by the judge. So, the party has been well and truly boxed into a corner of its own making and its members’ cries of “gross incompetence” are being bellowed around loudly around the borough. Again, I understand that Roy Kennedy’s letter, mentioned here and here.

The Tower Hamlets Labour party has for years now been in special measures: perhaps it’s time to do the same to the London region, and perhaps even the national body (given that general secretary Ray Collins is spitting feathers over the mess)!

UPDATE – 5.15pm

Voting will now take place on August 14, ie it has been delayed by a week to let people get used to the chaos. It also allows another week for Lutfur to explain what’s been going on, although my bet is he will try to take the moral high ground and say ‘Let’s draw a line under it all.’

Let the bunfight commence!

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Labour’s selection process has been suspended again! Voting, which was meant to take place this Saturday, has now been postponed for a week, ie August 7.

There was speculation that Cllr Lutfur Rahman was intending to go to the courts on the issue, so some form of injunction is a possible reason….but as yet unconfirmed. Will update later.

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Labour’s selection farce is undoubtedly comedy gold, but there’s also a sinister side.

The Metropolitan Police is so concerned about what’s going and the genuine anger and fury that’s being whipped up in some quarters that they’ve offered the two Tower Hamlets MPs extra protection, according to copper-bottomed Scotland Yard sources.

Police, acting on intelligence gathered at a meeting at a Tower Hamlets mosque last night, have warned Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick that they could be targets for reprisals from those angry at Lutfur Rahman’s exclusion from the Labour mayoral shortlist. Both MPs have been asked whether they want added security at their surgeries.

You may remember that that I blogged here about at article I wrote for the Sunday Express here in May, which detailed a terror plot against four London-based former Labour ministers, including Stephen Timms and Jim Fitzpatrick.

Those whipping this contest up into some racist “Islamophobic” conspiracy should take note.

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Well, you go away for a week and look what happens…there’s nothing like a directly elected mayor contest to flush out the children’s egos.

Here’s a wee attempt to shed some light on what’s been happening in the madcap world of Tower Hamlets politics.

June 24: as I blogged here, a Labour panel comprising London Assembly member Len Duvall, London Unison boss Linda Perks, and NEC members Ann Black and Keith Vaz MP select a shortlist of three: John Biggs, Cllr Shiria Khatun and Cllr Sirajul Islam.

July 12: Labour suspends the contest after a legal challenge from Cllr Lutfur Rahman, who accuses the party of a stitch-up to exclude him from the list. Labour chiefs, concerned about the possible legal costs in defending such an action, decide to re-run the selection process.

July 17: A new panel made up of the NEC’s Angela Eagle MP and Norma Stephenson (panel chair), and Ealing’s Chris Payne and Raj Jethra from the London regional party, select a shortlist of five. From the original three, they drop Siraj Islam (they considered him “borderline”), and add former Tower Hamlets council leader Michael Keith, current council boss Cllr Helal Abbas, and health worker Rosna Mortuza.

July 18: Lutfur Rahman and Siraj Islam signal they will appeal on procedural grounds. They are then invited to have their appeals heard on Thursday, July 22. Lutfur can’t make that date for family reasons and agrees to go to party HQ on the Friday.

July 22: Siraj’s appeal is heard and he is successful.

July 23: Lutfur has his appeal heard by Jim Kennedy, a NEC member and senior official of the UCATT union. After a hearing of about an hour, Kennedy says the appeal had failed. After being informed, party general secretary Ray Collins leaves party HQ for the weekend. However, less than two hours later a letter is sent out to Lutfur telling him he had, in fact, been successful. The letter, shown here, is from Roy Kennedy, Labour’s director of compliance and a former director of the East Midlands Labour party.

July 26: A delighted Lutfur issues his own leaflet and holds a press conference claiming victory. Meanwhile, party general secretary Ray Collins has gone ballistic. After talking to Jim Kennedy and other senior HQ officials, Lutfur’s exclusion is confirmed. Collins demands to know what’s happened.

Party sources say questions are asked about the role of Keith Vaz MP. [For some reason, he certainly seems keen on an elected mayor system for Tower Hamlets (he appeared alongside Ken Livingstone and George Galloway calling for it at the Brady Centre in February, see report here. The sources also point out that Vaz was keen on Lutfur during the first interview process and that he later complained it was a fix. Perhaps significantly, they also point out that Vaz is a Leicester MP and is said to be close to Roy Kennedy, the former East Midlands party boss and the man who sent out the strange letter to Lutfur].

Collins demands Kennedy explain himself. At 7pm, Labour “clarifies” the situation by announcing that the shortlist will remain at five, ie Lutfur and Siraj remain excluded.

July 27: Furious Lutfur indicates to friends that he is now considering a judicial review. Labour sources now say that should that happen, they will now fight it. “We’re determined to clean up the party in Tower Hamlets,” one says. Meanwhile, Lutfur’s supporters claim: “It’s a racist stitch-up.” One supporter sends out the following email:

The Labour Party has made another major blunder, this is the third time they have gone back and forth with the Tower Hamlets Mayoral elections to stop a Bengali candidate getting on to the shortlist. Please see below and attached.

Labour & Tower Hamlets: Patronising – or just plain racist?

It’s over a decade now since the last time Labour members in Tower Hamlets were last allowed to properly select their council candidates so we should not be surprised at another stitch-up. However, the latest shenanigans takes it all to a higher, more dangerous level.  For the selection of the candidate for Mayor of Tower Hamlets, the shortlist imposed on local members included during the first round only three names: two from the local Bangla community, seemingly chosen to minimise the chances of selecting a Bangla candidate, and one white. Both the current Leader of the Council and his predecessor, both from the Bangla community, were both excluded. The first shortlisting was suspended due to major procedual flaw which was designed to exclude a strong Bengali candidate not to get in. The second round, saw an inclusion of two more members and the total candidates shortlisted grew to 5 but again they leave out the strong Bangladeshi candidate. After an appeal and legal challenge on Friday 23 July 2010, the strong Bangladeshi candidate, Cllr Lutfur Rahman was added on to the shortlist it also included further candidate, Cllr Shirajul Islam, and the total grew to 7. On Monday 26 July 2010 at 7.30pm, the Labour party head office sent a letter contradicting the appeal and excluding the final two candidate that were added, one of them being Lutfur Rahman.

In the last round of council “selections”, local party members had no role: the panel was chosen by regional party appointees, and then allocated to wards by the Regional Director.  Councillors were often allocated to wards other than the ones in which they lived or represented, and in some cases only shortly before the close of nominations. Normally regional interference in council selections is designed to remove any voices critical of the council leadership but in this case, the whole exercise was designed to topple the then Leader of the Council, Lutfur Rahman, who was the runner up in the parliamentary selection in Bethnal Green and Bow.

Lutfur stood accused of being a little too closely associated with the East London Mosque, which is, amongst other things, the headquarters of the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) which, alleges local MP Jim Fitzpatrick <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/labour/7333420/Islamic-radicals-infiltrate-the-Labour-Party.html> , is a fundamentalist group committed to the creation of an islamic state that “has been infiltrating and “corrupting” Labour like Militant did in the 1980s.” For good measure, the IFE is alleged to have helped George Galloway and Respect too. Andrew Gilligan has outlined various allegations against the IFE in the Daily Telegraph <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/labour/7333470/The-infiltration-of-Labour.html>  and a highly cntroversial and unconvincing Chanel 4 Dispatches <http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/video/series-54/episode-1/east-london-mosque> , although Ken Livingstone <http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23810835-tower-hamlets-accused-of-being-infiltrated-by-islamic-extremists.do> ,dismisses them out of hand:

“This furore smacks of racism and Islamophobia. Of course Tower Hamlets council is not infiltrated by Islamists. Just because some people are Muslim and go to the mosque is not argument enough that they are Islamists.”

Although Tower Hamlets is not without membership and voting irregularities, allegations have been made (but not necessarily substantiated) in many directions – including against Shiria Khatun <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article7116273.ece>  who is one of the lucky shortlisted candidates for Mayor. Lutfur Rahman, a university-educated partner in a respected local law firm who had been happy to describe himself as “New Labour”, has been accused (publicly at least) of nothing more than associating with people who have themselves been accused of no crime. The first beneficiary of the selection shenanigans was Councillor Helal Abbas who duly became Leader after Labour’s spectacular council victory (the best result since the landslide of 1994 at the height of the then Tory Government’s unpopularity).

Meanwhile, the borough had voted to have a directly-elected Mayor. Labour’s policy (decided by the regional/national party without consultation locally) had been to oppose but, in Respect’s one victory of the night, the vote had gone in favour. Cllr Abbas would have been a strong candidate to be the candidate (indeed reports suggest that he has been announcing himself as such to community groups for some weeks) as would Cllr Rahman. The party bureacracy was clearly intent on stopping both. That decision is a disgrace.

In a borough in which only 42% of the population is white British and where Banglas are the clear majority of the rest, many people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds feel that Labour should be standing a Bangla candidate – especially when Labour’s support among Banglas is so fragile and in the face of the continuing presence of Respect in spite of their recent defeat. To impose a shortlist of only three and deprive party members of the chance to select either of the two most prominent Bangla candidates is a clear attempt to prevent the selection of any Bangla candidate. No-one is fooled by the inclusion of two lesser known and less experienced Bangla candidates, Shiria Khatun and Sirajul Islam. At best, it is manipulative and intensely patronising of the Bangla community; at worst, it is simply racist. Former Council Leader (sic) and current London Assembly member, John Biggs, who is the third person on the shortlist is not implicated and will almost certainly win the selection ballot to be held on 31st July.

Leaving aside the depressing language of this email (surely, this whole saga has proved conclusively that communities are not homogenous blocs to be delivered on the basis of skin colour), where does the process now stand?

If Lutfur does go to court, I’m told that Labour is confident it will win. At that point, Lutfur will have two main choices: he can either stand as an independent (something that most expect – he has serious financial backers among the Brick Lane business community); or he can remain in the Labour party and try to forge a deal with one of the existing candidates. His goal, and that of his backers, would be the ‘Mayor By Proxy’, so that he would actually be the power behind the throne.

How would he do that? Well, he could say to one of the shortlisted candidates, “You let me pick a few of your cabinet members and the chair of the scrutiny committee, I’ll tell my supporters to vote for you on Saturday.” I’m told that Lutfur believes he has 270 votes within the Tower Hamlets Labour membership. Of those, 150 are said to be wholly under his direction whether he stands or not. In a contest in which the turnout is expected to be about 700, this is a significant number.

Who would be tantalised by such a deal? There is some relief within Labour that Siraj Islam, widely considered a long shot, was eventually dropped from the list.

And while all that was going, as the Guardian’s Dave Hill reports here, Neil King has been selected as the Tory candidate for Mayor. It may well be that given the above, they thought Neil’s background as a criminal barrister would come in handy….

UPDATE – July 28.

It’s been pointed out to me that the “email” sent out by a “Lutfur supporter” was in fact an update of an article written on a website called Left Futures. The original post is here. The site is edited by Jon Lansman, who lives on the Isle of Dogs. He is a researcher to Labour MP Michael Meacher. Mr Lansman is not well liked by many other Tower Hamlets Labour members, it seems. In matters of fact, he is also inaccurate: John Biggs was never council leader. [UPDATE:  I take that back: as Terry Fitz points out in the comments below, and as his London Assembly profile points out here, he was - I apologise!] He also levels allegations against Shiria Khatun: she rejects them out of hand, something she also did at the time.

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He’s back….

….or is he?

More on Labour’s continuing fiasco to pick a candidate for Tower Hamlets mayor later. (And they want us to believe they’re capable of running a £1 billion borough!)

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Taking a break

Like John Biggs, I thought the Labour selection would be done and dusted by now. Unike Mr Biggs, I’m not rearranging my hols.

Last night’s decision to include MichaelKeith, Rosna Mortuza and Helal Abbas on the mayoral shortlist will certainly liven things up.

Somehow, though, I don’t think we’ve yet heard the last of Lutfur Rahman. I get the feeling he’s now finished within Labour and I don’t think he’ll be selected by the party hierarchy for anything significant ever again.

Happy hols to all.

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Isabella Freeman is the £121,052 a year chief legal officer at Tower Hamlets council. Her job is to protect the council’s backside.

So it would be extremely illuminating if she could spare a few minutes from one of her manic days next week to explain her statement concerning a former fellow officer who was caught with his pants down moonlighting for extra money at another organisation.

I refer of course to Lutfur Ali, he of Private Eye infamy and not much else. You’ll recall that he lost his job soon after Andrew Gilligan’s Channel 4 Dispatches documentary; it became clear he’d been selling his mighty intellect to another organisation while trousering the best part of £130k a year from the likes of you and me.

At the time I wrote a letter to my former employers at the East London Advertiser in which I wondered whether he had received any pay off, including pay in lieu of notice period, for what appeared to be an open-and-shut case of breach of contract.

The consistently excellent Lib Dem councillor Stephanie Eaton was also concerned. So she wrote to Ms Freeman for clarification.The grimacing lawyer replied:

“I confirm that Lutfur Ali did resign… I am not able to confirm any details about staff payment as this is a confidential matter protected under the Data Protection Act. However we did confirm that there was no pay off.”

“There was no pay off”: pretty emphatic stuff, I’m sure you’d agree.

So what’s this interesting little footnote to the recently-released council accounts?….See p123 of the agenda/p27 of the accounts for details of the officers’ emoluments for the financial year 2009/10; have a look at the payments made to the ‘Assistant Chief Executive’. That’s Lutfur Ali. Under his stated salary payment for those 12 months of £113,694 (he “quit” in March, just a fortnight before the end of the financial year), you’ll see it refers to a footnote 2, which says:

2 The former Chief Executive and former Assistant Chief Executive received severance payments during 2009/10. Details have not been published in this document due to confidentiality agreements in place.

What was it that Freeman told one of our councillors? Er, “there was no pay off”.

I’m sure that Freeman has a copper-plated legal explanation for this. She could well argue that a severance payment is legally different from a pay off. But a councillor and the wider public to whom that politician, in good faith, communicated that statement, would understandably feel misled.

I suspect that what’s happened is this: Lutfur Ali, knowing that he has been exposed yet again as a charlatan, has resigned. But he has demanded to be paid for his notice period (which I understand was three months) and any accrued holiday. And not only that, I suspect he’s managed to get that payment (probably about £30,000) treated as a severance cheque and therefore as a tax-free lump-sum.

Why Freeman did not explain that to Cllr Eaton (and therefore to the taxpaying public she represents) is something only she can answer. But I doubt she’ll bother to do so, she’s like that.

In the meantime, I think we now have the full, sorry picture of the Lutfur Ali scandal. I just hope any future employers are reading this.

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Over the years, I’ve witnessed some quite jaw-dropping decisions at Tower Hamlets council, but a decision by the Labour administration – yes, a Labour administration – to sack almost the only eight people who have ever made any sense at Mulberry Place wins first prize.

Blink and you might have missed it: a small item here in last week’s East London Advertiser reported that the council is getting rid of eight unfailingly polite switchboard staff. The ELA reported that this would “save” £208,000 and quoted a council spokesman as follows: “The council’s new voice-recognition telephony system has considerably reduced the volume of calls being manually handled by the switchboard team, as residents now have access to a quicker and more efficient service.”

Here’s the fuller story…In November 2009, the supposedly cash-strapped council implemented a new telephone system at a cost of…£5.4million. This bought them 4,000 new handsets and covered 6,000 extensions. It also included the dreaded “automated voice-recognition software”, the gadgetry that drives people so mad that the person eventually answering the call puts down the phone after suffering a torrent of abuse.

The system would be bad enough in Royal Berkshire, but in Tower Hamlets, which is home to rich variety of English accents, it is almost unworkable. The council even admits it failed to test the software with local residents.

Try it for yourself: dial the switchboard on 020 764 5000 and ask for, well, let’s say the ‘press office’ (and why not, as a taxpayer you’ll surely want to know why that department spends more than £1.5million a year producing the weekly propaganda sheet, East End Life).

I tried saying “press office” three times. On the first, I was directed to a Patrick Ahmed in Children’s Schools and Families PFI department; the second I got a Terry Evans in HR; and in the third, I was put through to a Bev Thomas, but in which department she works I don’t know because there was no answer (it was 5.10pm after all).

Each time, I had to go back to the automated voice system, just waiting silently to speak to a human. But now they’re going.

The head of communications at Tower Hamlets is Takki Sulaiman. He’s a former Labour councillor in Haringey, where he was renowned for affectedly clutching his waistcoat Churchillian-style as he spoke. He now earns £100,000. I know he also reads this blog.

So, Takki, can you please explain why you should stay and the switchboard staff should go? And can you explain why it’s appropriate to “save” £208,000 by sacking eight decent people (after spending £5.4million on a faulty system) but at the same time continue to waste millions on communications and a vanity publication called East End Life?

I tried calling you, but the system kept putting me through to the recycling department.

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I’ve never really seen Lutfur as a comedian, but his legal challenge to the Labour party over his omission from the Mayoral shortlist has injected something of a farce into the process.

Following my last post on the John Biggs email, the London Assembly member tells me that went out by mistake. He said he had not authorised it and blamed an “over-enthusiastic” volunteer.

I’m pasting the edited version here, so we can all play spot the difference. What fun.

Dear Friend,

Yesterday, following a complaint,the selection procedure for the Labour candidate for the first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, was suspended by the National Executive of the Labour Party. The NEC will re-interview all the long-listed candidates this Saturday, the 17th July, and construct a new shortlist. I have been invited for re-interview, and informed that the all-member ballot will now take place on Saturday, 31st July. All members will receive a formal notice of this.

Over the past few weeks I have been deeply honoured by the number of people who have offered their help and support. It has been a humbling experience. I want you to know that I remain passionately committed to Tower Hamlets, my home for nearly 30 years, and remain keen to serve as its first directly elected Mayor and, if I win, to become the unifying force Tower Hamlets Labour Party and the wider community needs. Once the new shortlist has been published I will be able to make a decision about how to proceed.

We were just five days from polling day after several weeks of entirely comradely campaigning. I am very proud of all three candidates, myself included, at the way we have conducted ourselves and feel strongly that to re-start the process at such a late stage is puzzling and obviously very disappointing. However, I am happy to stand for selection against any member who is shortlisted, and simply hope for the privilege to be able to do this.

I hope that the process may be resolved satisfactorily but in the meantime I wanted to let you know the situation. If you have any queries, please contact me at this email address or, for a quicker reply, at john.biggs@london.gov.uk or by calling or texting me on xxxx.

Finally, for your information, the press statement issued by the Labour Party on Monday evening reads:

“Following a complaint regarding the procedure to select Labour’s candidate in this autumn’s elections for the first directly elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee has this evening agreed to re-run the shortlisting process.

“The complaint has been looked at carefully. While the Labour Party does not accept that it has any substance, to ensure transparency and fairness to all potential candidates, all long-listed candidates will be re-interviewed by a different panel to be appointed by the NEC.

“A new time-table will be announced in the coming days.”

Yours,

John

UPDATE – 4.10pm

A senior Labour figure–er, make that a very angry senior Labour figure–tells me: “Lutfur’s lot are trying to make out that this is some kind of grass roots uprising against the selection process. Don’t believe a word of it. Actually, it’s a group of businessmen looking for influence and they are promising to back any challenge with money. They’re also saying they’re dong this on behalf of the black and minority ethnic community. Again….wrong. This is about self-interest.”


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This is an email sent to party colleagues by Labour London Assembly and Tower Hamlets mayoral hopeful John Biggs. It was sent following Lutfur Rahman’s legal challenge to the selection process, which I broke here on Sunday evening.

The email and its angry and disappointed tone speaks for itself.

Dear Friend

Yesterday, following a complaint,the selection procedure for the Labour candidate for the first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, was suspended by the National Executive of the Labour Party. The NEC will re-interview all the long-listed candidates this Saturday, the 17th July, and construct a new shortlist. I have been invited for re-interview, and informed that the all-member ballot will now take place on Saturday, 31st July. All members will receive a formal notice of this.

Over the past few weeks I have been deeply honoured by the number of people who have offered their help and support. It has been a humbling experience. I want you to know that I remain passionately committed to Tower Hamlets, my home for nearly 30 years, and remain keen to serve as its first directly elected Mayor and, if I win, to become the unifying force Tower Hamlets Labour Party and the wider community needs. Once the new shortlist has been published I will be able to make a decision about how to proceed.

We were just five days from polling day after several weeks of entirely comradely campaigning. I am very proud of all three candidates, myself included, at the way we have conducted ourselves and feel strongly that to re-start the process at such a late stage is puzzling and obviously very disappointing. I am disappointed that, as appears to be the case, a person or group of people with access to enough money to threaten the Party with legal action it cannot afford if they do not get their way, can hold the party to ransom. However, I am happy to stand for selection against any member who is shortlisted, and simply hope for the privilege to be able to do this.

I hope that the process may be resolved satisfactorily but in the meantime I wanted to let you know the situation. If you have any queries, please contact me at this email address or, for a quicker reply, atjohn.biggs@london.gov.uk or by calling or texting me on xxxxx.

Finally, for your information, the press statement issued by the Labour Party on Monday evening reads:

“Following a complaint regarding the procedure to select Labour’s candidate in this autumn’s elections for the first directly elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee has this evening agreed to re-run the shortlisting process.

“The complaint has been looked at carefully. While the Labour Party does not accept that it has any substance, to ensure transparency and fairness to all potential candidates, all long-listed candidates will be re-interviewed by a different panel to be appointed by the NEC.

“A new time-table will be announced in the coming days.”

Yours

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