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Archive for October, 2010

Remember Shiraj Haque? You know, the millionaire Brick Lane “curry king” and Lutfur-backer who professes to be socially progressive, yet whose commitment to the welfare of Tower Hamlets’s neediest residents is limited to his own living arrangements: he rents a large family home from a housing association. Everyone said he was the power behind Lutfur’s throne; well, either he’s been believing his own propaganda a little too much, or he actually is.

For I understand that he’s been summoning some of Tower Hamlets’ most senior councillors for private audiences at his Clifton restaurant in Brick Lane. At those hearings, I’m told that he’s been trying to dish out cabinet jobs on behalf of Lutfur. Lib Dem councillor Stephanie Eaton has been offered one and her husband, Labour councillor David Edgar, has also been asked (via a third party) if he would be interested. He’s also planning to sound out Tory group leader Peter Golds.

The word “deluded” was used by one whose names he mentioned.

It could well be that he’s just playing games by seeing what words of his leak out to the likes of me, but here’s another taster of his apparent views….that Lutfur’s main ambition is to become an MP and that he will target Rushanara Ali either as an independent, or from within Labour if he’s allowed back into the fold, or even by standing for another party.

Lutfur as a Tory MP….?

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Amid the mess that is the current Tower Hamlets Labour party, it’s good to see that some members have retained (or should that be discovered?) a sense of humour, albeit unwittingly. During a brief survey of some of those who attended a group meeting of councillors in Westminster last night, more than one said to me today that they’re going to “find it difficult being in opposition; we’re not used to it”.

Are they kidding? Ever since I’ve covered Tower Hamlets politics, the faction-ridden Labour group has been constantly at war with itself. Arguably, last week’s mayoral election, aided and abetted by Respect, was merely an extension of that.

That said, the repercussions are a touch more serious this time round.

Last night, although the group of 31 remaining councillors voted overwhelmingly not to co-operate with their nemesis, Mayor-elect Lutfur Rahman, I also sense a certain softening and shifting game-plans.

For many in the Labour group, the £10,000 a year they receive as paid councillors is extremely important and, for some, the loss of earnings from no longer sitting in cabinet or from chairing various committees will be a big hit financially. As the next round of elections approach in 2014, many of them will be desperate for survival. For them, the talk of “new beginnings” and principled purges of rotten influences will be irrelevant.

So, while last night’s motion calling on the NEC to investigate those who campaigned against Labour these past few weeks was undoubtedly based on genuine rage, it does also appear to have been a decent sliced return back into the party’s ruling court.

In the short term, the NEC must now decide how to deal with, fairly, a number of issues, the main ones being the futures of Ken Livingstone, Lord Nazir Ahmed and the group of eight pro-Lutfur councillors.

As I type, I’m being told that the group of eight Labour councillors who campaigned for Lutfur have been formally expelled by the Labour party. If so, in order to avoid accusations of double standards, the NEC will have to expel Lord Ahmed as well. The case against the more slippery, newt-loving Livingstone is trickier. He chose his words carefully – and he’s too big a fish to mess with.

Which way new party leader Ed Miliband nods his brainy head will be crucial. The feeling among senior Labour figures is that he will lay off Ken, but I suspect he will also order an investigation into the so-called “Abbas dossier”, which in fact was authored not only by Helal Abbas, but also a number of others involved in the shambolic Labour selection campaign.

If that investigation finds the dossier was as weak as some suspect and, depending on how Lutfur acts and performs as an independent Mayor, it is not inconceivable that he and others two years or so down the line could be readmitted into the fold.

Meanwhile, what of Marc Francis?

I understand that it is highly likely (actually, I mean it is 99.999999 per cent certain) that he will NOT serve under his friend Lutfur. He is a Labour councillor and he will remain one. He will abide by last night’s democratic motion at Labour group and stay with his colleagues.

However, he will continue to fight his corner from the wings.

I’m also certain of that.

UPDATE  - 9pm, October 26

There is some confusion over the Group of Eight. A London Labour spokesman told me this evening the party’s constitutional unit wrote to them a couple of weeks ago to say their actions appeared to be a breach of party rules and that there seemed to be grounds for automatic expulsion. They were given 14 days in which to appeal and I understand that all eight have done so. He said an appeal process will now be set up and that will take its course….However, I’m also being told by another Labour insider that a disciplinary sub-committee of Labour’s NEC met today to “confirm” their expulsion. One day, Labour will get their act together….


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As last night’s dust continues to choke the Tower Hamlets atmosphere, Mayor-elect Lutfur Rahman is trying settle the shape of his new administration.

At the outset of his independent campaign and as a precondition of the crucial support of Respect and George Galloway, Lutfur said his rule would be a “broad coalition”. Well, given that so far he only has nine councillors openly on his side, it will have to be.

But who will join his cabinet?

Labour’s London boss Ken Clark is understood to have decreed to his councillors that they can not remain in the party and serve with Lutfur. So anyone wanting to take Lutfur’s shilling will have to defect.

During the last month, one of Tower Hamlets’ most able councillors, Marc Francis, was a notable absentee from Labour’s campaign. While Lutfur was council leader between 2008 and 2010, Marc was not only his deputy in all but name, but he was also his brains. When Lutfur was ditched by the NEC, Marc agonised over what to do. Although his friends told him otherwise, he himself thought his Labour career could be over because he’d backed the “wrong” man. He’s a councillor in Bow East, where I live, and if his heart had truly been with Labour and Abbas, the turnout would have been higher here. As it is, there is a strong suspicion among his party colleagues that he could have been helping his mate. I’m told that when he turned up to the count just before this morning’s declaration, he was not wearing a Labour rosette, he hugged Lutfur, and then ignored the Abbas team. I’m also told that he warmly applauded Lutfur’s speech and stared in silence during Abbas’s apparently faltering effort.

So, could Marc jump? He could well be offered the position of deputy mayor. And he could well take it. It would end his career with Labour, but Marc might take the view that there is life outside politics and that a four year stint pursuing his own goals in social housing – despite a backdrop of massive Coalition cuts and the probable lack of co-operation from Labour’s two neighbouring mayors, Jules Pipe in Hackney, and Sir Robin Wales in Newham – would be worth the aggro.

Even more intriguingly, I understand that Lutfur’s camp have also made informal approaches to Tory group leader, Cllr Peter Golds, and Lib Dem boss, Cllr Stephanie Eaton. I don’t think Peter would touch the new regime with a barge-pole (he was one of those most disgusted by the Lutfur Ali affair), but Stephanie’s position is more ambiguous.

What would you advise the pair?

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Abbas: “A sad night”

I wasn’t there for Lutfur’s acceptance speech last night (despite all this, I have a day job! And today, I’ll be writing about the devastating cuts faced by councils such as Tower Hamlets which will soon have more control over their finances: is that good or bad? Discuss), but the East London Advertiser reports that he said:

“All I want to do is serve Tower Hamlets, whether black or white and whatever religion they come from. Join with me to unite the people of Tower Hamlets.”

I’d imagine there is some video footage out there, so do post any links if you have them.

Meanwhile, I awake to see the following press release from Labour:

For immediate release: Friday, 22nd October 2010

Labour’s Abbas on Tower Hamlets result

Following the declaration of the result of the election for the first directly elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Labour’s candidate Helal Abbas said:

“This is a sad night for those of us who want to build a better future and a united Tower Hamlets.

Lutfur Rahman has won tonight but not as he wanted, as the Labour candidate.

Thankfully, Labour’s ruling National Executive had the backbone to stop him from being the Labour candidate.

We may have lost tonight, but at least the Labour Party has clean hands.

I am proud that we fought a clean, decent campaign and refused to get in the gutter with the candidate backed by George Galloway and the so-called Respect Party.

I promise to carry on working tirelessly as an elected councillor for the people of Tower Hamlets.

And as the party with the largest number of councillors at Tower Hamlets Town Hall, Labour accepts our responsibility to work hard to hold the new Mayor to account and to stand up for ALL the communities of Tower Hamlets, not just one.

We will not let the people of Tower Hamlets down.”

Ends

Result: Labour 11,254, Green 2,300, LibDem 2800, Conservative 5,348, Independent 23,283.

As you know, Lutfur won on the first round on a turnout of 25.6 per cent.

To all those psephologists out there, please feel free to post your ward analyses when you have the time. I think this will paint an interesting picture.


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Mayor Lutfur, it seems

As counting got under way at York Hall just after midnight tonight, it seemed certain that Lutfur Rahman had taken control of Tower Hamlets and become its first directly elected mayor on a turnout of about 25 per cent. According to the early samples, he’d outscored Helal Abbas right across the borough, apart from on the Isle of Dogs where the Tories’ Neil King appeared to have come top.

Labour councillors were huddled in groups, seething and perplexed in equal measure. They were also trying to work out which of their number were “rats”: which of them had quietly worked behind the scenes pretending to campaign for Abbas but in reality encouraging their own ward fan bases to come out for Lutfur.

A Mayor Lutfur will need 17 councillors – a third of the 51 – on his side to ensure he can push through his budget. Eight have currently declared and Harun Miah of Respect will make nine, which means he needs another nine from Labour to defect. As Lutfur will have the power to appoint councillors to paid positions, I don’t think he will have too many problems getting his numbers.

To get a flavour, I repeatedly asked two Labour councillors tonight – Rofique Ahmed and Abdul Asad – if they had placed Abbas first on their ballot papers today. Both refused to say, which is very curious for supposedly proud Labour men.

There are serious fears over how the £1billion budget will be spent, particularly in a climate of harsh post-spending review cuts. And councillors from all parties seemed up for a united Opposition fight.

What I also heard repeatedly tonight from members of all parties that the “white vote” simply hadn’t bothered to vote. The lack of mainstream media coverage did nothing to help that apathy, but there has to be extremely serious questions over this whole system of directly elected mayors. It’s madness having such an important election outside the normal electoral cycle of local council polls.

If Lutfur has won, many congratulations to his team. I’m sure they all know that many eyes will now be watching them and the way they spend our money.

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The Conservative commenter PWE Ingham this morning posted the below on this thread:

It looks as if the massed ranks of intimidating Bangladeshi “Polling Agents” have started early this time. Normally they only appear, to block the pavements, importune hapless voters and generally create an atmosphere of menace around the Boroughs polling stations on the day itself. This time a large gang of “Lutfurites” were seen outside the Teviot Centre in East India & Lansbury ward on Wednesday Afternoon! What were they up to, not even they seemed to know? Ted, will you monitor this increasingly ugly local phenomena?

Unfortunately, I have a day job to do, but I thought it would be interesting for you, dear readers, to post your own observations of the good, the bad and the ugly at the borough’s polling booths today. Remember the house rules and that anything potentially libellous will be removed. Please be careful when it comes to naming anyone.

Over to you…

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As I sat through George Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review in the Commons today, I was reminded of a remark made by a senior Labour party official last night. “The spending review is going to help us,” he told me. “It’ll get people out to vote.”

I wasn’t so sure – and I’m still not. Where I live in Bow, until tonight, it’s been almost a campaign-free zone. I’d had one leaflet delivered through my door – from the Lib Dems – and that was it. I’d guess that most around here hadn’t even known there was an election taking place.

Then Ken Livingstone, in his pre-Maltese period, entered the fray – a move that, ironically, could have helped Labour because it attracted the attention of BBC London and other national media.

And tonight, as I walked back from the Tube, I even saw ACTUAL CAMPAIGNERS. Labour ones. At 9pm, delivering leaflets. And leaflets that have an edge – ones that try to invoke the spirit of anti-Galloway.

Here’s one side:

And here’s the other:

They are leaflets that insinuate without any right of reply. Allowable, but just about I’d say.

And here’s the Lib Dem leaflet that also dropped on my doormat this evening.

Will they be enough? Who knows?

Today’s Coalition spending review announced a revolution in local government. Councils, even corrupt and badly run ones, will have far more powers over how to spend our money. That means even more power to a directly elected mayor.

So to anyone who moans about bin collections, extortionate council taxes, cowboy council home repairs, dog mess, graffiti, broken pavements, litter, missing recycling bags, soaring service charges, lack of police, or dodgy local politicians: you have a responsibility to spend just two minutes registering a vote.

Alors…

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In previous posts I’ve made reference to the poisonous comments and allegations made by anonymous individuals on this blog. While some have been directed against Lutfur Rahman, the target of most has been Helal Abbas. Those levelled against Lutfur have been dealt with elsewhere and denied (or not, as the case may be) by the man himself.

Until now, I’d decided not to repeat possibly the most outrageous of the lot. But a non-event tonight has helped me change my mind. And I also have Abbas’s permission to publish it.

Last week, this leaflet was handed out by supporters of Lutfur Rahman around the borough.

It was also published as a page 8 advert in the current disgraceful edition of the London Bangla newspaper, which I posted about here last week.

As you can see it alleges that Helal Abbas beat his former wife and that there would be a rally tonight outside Labour’s office in Bethnal Green to protest against domestic violence. The advert also provided a mobile number and said the organisers were a group going by the name of Domestic Violence Forum East.

Every time I tried the number, the phone was switched off. When I called Tower Hamlets council’s domestic violence support officers, they were aghast. They do have a forum, but it’s not called Domestic Violence Forum East. They’ve never heard of this supposed outfit. They were also furious that someone seemed to be passing themselves off as one. More on that later.

Abbas’s first marriage broke up a couple of decades ago. His ex-wife lives in Manchester and they have a 22-year-old son who I understand is at university. I also understand that Abbas met his ex-wife and son for lunch during the Labour party conference three weeks ago. I’m told that they get on well, that their divorce was amicable and that their relationship failed because, like many others, they married too young.

As for the allegations/smears, Abbas tells me he “totally and entirely” denies them.

I went along to see the demo at 6pm tonight, but guess what? Not only were there no speeches and “info stalls” being run by those dedicated to tackling domestic violence, but also there was not a single protester. It was all a despicable charade.

When these leaflets first appeared last week, I texted Lutfur Rahman and his aide, Cllr Oli Rahman, to ask whether they endorsed or condemned their content. Neither has replied.

Abbas said: “The people behind these kind of smears are utterly desperate. They are trying to assassinate my character. What does that say about them. They are disgusting.”

He has also found an ally on this issue in Cllr Peter Golds, the leader of the town hall’s Tory group. In fact, to his vast credit, Peter, who has been subject to homophobic and anti-Semitic abuse in this borough, seems to be sticking out his neck far more than his Labour opponents in fighting the thuggish elements of Tower Hamlets politics. Last week, he wrote to Ofcom to complain about the biased coverage and possible breach of broadcasting laws by the Bangla TV and Channel S satellite stations.

Today, he wrote to the Press Complaints Commission to report his concern over the London Bangla newspaper, which some observers also think could have breached election law. He copied his letter to Tower Hamlets Returning Officer Kevan Collins and Paul Ricketts, the Met Police’s Borough Commander.

Importantly, he makes the point that genuine victims of domestic violence could have been misled by the London Bangla advert into believing that forum and that phone number were genuine. The Advertising Standards Authority would also, no doubt, have a view.

Peter’s letter is below:

October 19th 2010

Stephen Abell

Press Complaints Commission

Halton House

20-23 Holborn

London

EC1N 2JD

Dear Mr Abell

Re: Electoral concerns complaint regarding London Bangla

On October 21st voters in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets will be electing an executive Mayor. This is a high profile position that has created considerable excitement within the Bangladeshi community who make up some 33.4% of the population according to estimates published in our borough guide.

The Labour party selection process was controversial and as a result there is an official Labour candidate, Cllr Helal Abbas and an Independent candidate, Cllr Lutfur Rahman, who had been selected as Labour candidate but was deselected by the national executive of the party. This is an internal matter for the Labour Party and the 1,600 or so local members. However, it has exploded into the campaign and has become the dominant issue amongst a vociferous section of the Bengali community.

Bangla News is a free newspaper, targeted at Bengali residents and published on a Friday. It is usually found in shops and Mosques.

As a private paper it is fully entitled to an editorial stand and also the freedom to endorse whichever candidate in an election it wishes. However, it’s coverage of the Tower Mayoral election goes beyond anything that a responsible newspaper would normally do. The coverage is wholly slanted towards the candidature of Cllr Rahman and the paper repeatedly makes unsubstantiated slurs and allegations about Cllr Abbas.  The three other candidates representing the Conservative, Green and Liberal Democrat parties are ignored.

On page eight, the paper publishes an advertisement, purporting to be from the  “Domestic Violence Forum East”. It makes extraordinary allegations regarding a candidate. It gives a (mobile) contact number and a yahoo email.

The Domestic Violence Forum is a much respected nationwide organisation. It has a proper email address and maintains confidential helplines. There is no Domestic Violence Forum East. This advertisement is a fraud and usurps the name and credence of a responsible and important organisation for pseudo electoral advantage. No credible newspaper would have accepted or published such an advertisement.

Furthermore what would happen if someone who was subject to violence used this (usually unanswered) telephone number or email address? What kind of advice or assistance could or would be offered. Certainly it there is no indication of a proper counsellor with back up.

To make matters worse this paper has been, for the first time ever, hand delivered to addresses across the borough. Hand delivered so subtly, that non Bangladeshi residents appear to have been targeted.

This paper is totally is completely irresponsible and this issue is a public scandal. I believe that a full enquiry is required.

I attach a copy of the paper for your consideration.

Yours sincerely

Councillor  Peter Golds

Copied to:

The Returning Officer

Commander Paul Rickett, Metropolitan Police

 

 

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A fairly angry Labour source has highlighted this article from the Times of Malta to me:

Monday, 18th October 2010 – 16:52CET

‘Unique opportunity’ as top UK travel agents meet in Malta

Photo: Jean Louis Wertz viewingmalta.com

ABTA, the association of British travel agents, which represents the majority of travel agents and tour operators in the UK, will be holding its annual Travel Convention in Malta as of tomorrow at the Hilton Malta Convention Centre.

The theme of this year’s Convention is “Drivers of Change”. The convention, which will see over 700 of the UK’s top travel and tourism executives convene in Malta for the first time, will also feature presentations and addresses by a number of well-known speakers, including British Airways CEO Willie Walsh, ex-Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, Lord Norman Fowler, former UK Cabinet minister, as well as Christopher Rodrigues, chairman of VisitBritain, amongst many others.

Josef Formosa Gauci, Malta Tourism Authority CEO, said that this was a unique opportunity for the Maltese islands to be showcased among an elite selection of the top British travel trade executives.

“The UK remains Malta’s foremost source market for tourism and this is precisely why the MTA, Air Malta and various other local tourism stakeholders worked tirelessly to bring the Travel Convention to our shores. Many distinguished speakers will also be present for this event, as will a significant number of journalists from the UK’s media and travel trade media. This is undoubtedly a unique, high profile event which will almost certainly prove to be very beneficial for our islands’ tourism industry”.

Well, I suppose that after his high-octane stroll around Brick Lane yesterday, Ken needed a quick get-away break in the sun.

According to the itinerary, travel expert Ken is due to speak (for half an hour) tomorrow…on “Driving Change” – just before the session entitled “Loose Talk”. Haven’t they got that the wrong way around?

 

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With all that has been going on in the mayoral election, one of the most important issues that I was involved in while at the East London Advertiser, the successful campaign to save Bancroft History Library and Archives (we won a press award for it), has slipped under my radar.

When he was council leader, Lutfur Rahman changed his mind about the need to save the old Vestry Hall in Mile End despite a desire by a coterie of councillors led by Josh Peck and Denise Jones to sell it to Queen Mary University. Lutfur’s was a welcome decision.

Earlier this year, I understand that a senior council officer (I will name her once I get confirmation) promised that £350,000 of section 106 money from a Telford Homes development in Bethnal Green would be used to fund Bancroft’s leaking roof.

In August, the council’s strategic development committee decided to use that Telford Homes s106 cash to bail out the failing Rich Mix arts centre. Councillors on the committee agreed to transfer £500,000 as a first instalment, with the possibility of another £1.5m to come.

The Save Bancroft Library campaign tell me that this means the £350k promised to repair the history archives has been ditched, diverted to Rich Mix instead. If so, that is a disgrace.

Some 14 councillors had objected to the decision to help Rich Mix and they included Lutfur Rahman and many of those who now back him. It is to their credit.

I’ve just put the following question to Helal Abbas:

Under your mayoralty, would the local history library and archives remain at the Bancroft vestry hall?

His answer was this:

Yes, it will.

This suggests that Bancroft is safe whoever wins.

My next question to him is whether the building itself will remain under council ownership so that the downstairs section, which is currently empty, will be also be used for an expanded archive and history service – something that will protect the multicultural heritage of our borough.

I’ll update later.

UPDATE – 8.15pm, Tuesday October 19

Abbas has just called me to discuss Bancroft. Here’s what he said:

“I guarantee that Bancroft will remain in council ownership under my mayoralty. But I can’t make any commitment on funding at the moment because we don’t know yet what our finances will be. What I will commit to is trying to source funding for the building, either from the council budget, or section 106 money or through some kind of sponsorship. I want the library and archives to be a place of excellence and a resource for my children and for all other children in the borough. Our shared heritage is vitally important to our community.”

I then asked whether s106 money had been diverted from Bancroft to Rich Mix at cabinet meeting in July. Here’s his answer:

“The s106 money from the Telford Homes development was for Bethnal Green and that’s why it is going to Rich Mix under very strict criteria. When Lutfur was leader, he had the chance to put Bancroft into the s106 pool, but he didn’t.”

I have a problem with the first part of this. The details of the s106 agreement for that development can be seen on p47 of this document.

Point 4 of the document states:

“£2,093,098 for cultural, social and community products and for the provision of work space offsite.”

There is no restriction on where that money can be allocated, although, arguably, the phrase “work space off site” could be a valid interpretation.

As I mentioned above, I’m told that £350k of s106 was agreed by senior council officer Heather Bonfield earlier this year. If anyone has the minutes for the relevant minutes of the Bancroft Steering Group, please email me them.

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