Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Labour Right's Kamikaze Act in the East End

I've been following the Tower Hamlets mayoral race with great interest. Tower Hamlets is said to be in line for some of the worst cuts in Britain, and the outcome of the mayoral race will tell us something about how much resistance the Tories will meet in the East End. For those who have not been following the story, what you need to know is that the Labour Party has shot itself in the foot by deselecting its popularly chosen candidate, the former Tower Hamlets council leader, Lutfur Rahman. Rahman had defeated his nearest rival by a clear margin of over 17% of the total vote: of 881 votes, Rahman won 433 votes. His nearest rival John Biggs won 251 votes. Cllr. Helal Abbas received. 157 votes.

Cllr. Abbas responded to this outcome by accusing his victorious rival of having 'pocket' (fake) members supporting him, and of introducing an atmosphere of intimidation in the council. He claimed that the Islamic Forum of Europe had "brainwashed" Rahman, about which more in a moment. I should stress that these allegations would, even if true, have no bearing on the outcome of the selection, which was run by the regional Labour Party, and where only identifiable members with photo ID were allowed to participate. But Labour, apparently determined to replace Rahman, dealt with the issue at a chaotic NEC meeting, allowing the chosen candidate no opportunity to refute the allgations. They suspended him, deselected him by fiat and chose Abbas instead - the least popular of the main three candidates, and the man whom they had previously imposed as council leader after the local elections gave Labour more councillors in Tower Hamlets.

Now Rahman is standing as an independent candidate, backed both by Respect and, I would gather, much of the London Labour left. Eight local Labour councillors have already been expelled for backing Rahman, along with a number of officers and members. Labour's mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone has expressed support for Rahman. He has said that it was a "moment of madness" for Labour to replace Rahman after having just rebuilt the local party following Oona King's defeat in 2005. He's not wrong. Respect had made it clear that they would back the Labour candidate as Rahman was a popular candidate whose policies were close to their own. Labour could have taken this powerful executive post with no difficulty had it stuck with Rahman. Instead, in a spiteful and petty act, the NEC attempted to establish the Blairites' control over a region that has an established propensity for rebelling against such encroachments.

This is the culmination of a Muslim-baiting war by the managerialist right-wing in local Labour circles, fronted by Jim Fitzpatrick MP, with the connivance of Tory media and Andrew Gilligan. You'll recall that a Dispatches documentary for Channel 4, made by Gilligan, claimed that Rahman had become council leader with the assistance of the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), a group close to the Jamaat e-Islami in Bangladesh, and had distributed millions in council funds to organisations supported by the IFE. Specifically, it was claimed, Rahman had helped turn ten million pounds in public funding over to the East London Mosque, which is allied to the IFE. (The mosque refutes these claims). Fitzpatrick alleged that the IFE had 'infiltrated' the local Labour council. The documentary concluded that the IFE was attempting to impose an Islamic social and political order on everyone else. These and subsequent allegations made by Gilligan at his blog on the Daily Telegraph website were cited by senior Labourites in the NEC's decision to suspend Rahman. Indeed, when it was decided that the candidate would be selected by the local members, Andrew Gilligan expostulated in disbelief that the Labour leadership would allow something like this to happen - didn't they know that Labour members were IFE affiliates and would just pick one of their Islamist brothers to lead the revolution?

What of these allegations? Most of the prosecution witnesses, if you like, were either notable Islamophobes or, like Fitzpatrick (then defending an 8000 majority against George Galloway) had a direct interest in representing their opponents as frontmen for an Islamist incursion. The documentary was denounced by a wide array of trade unionists, leftists and liberals for whipping up racist hatred and giving the EDL an excuse to (try to) march on the East End. Discounting for this, for the shrill reactionary politics of the documentary, and for any factual leaps that it may have made, what is left? It is well known that the IFE is influential locally, and that it is socially conservative. It is also well known that the IFE has backed Labour and Respect candidates in the past. There is also a complex and murky history of municipal clientelism, and not only in the East End, wherein Labour politicians make deals with local businessmen and lobby groups to help get elected. Labour Party member Dave Osler describes some of this history here. But I see no evidence that the IFE has taken over the Labour Party, nor is it remotely plausible that the IFE has such weight that it could impose Lutfur Rahman as the leader of the local council. Even if its influence allowed it to extract public funds on a clientelist basis, this is unlikely to be anything more than standard rent-seeking behaviour. And clientelism isn't going to be dealt with and finished off on the basis of racist scaremongering, any more than 19th century 'machine politics' was terminated by scapegoating the Irish. The idea that there's an Islamist plot to impose a theocracy on the East End of London is a paranoid racist fantasy.

Nor, I might add, does it seem plausible that Rahman is the IFE's Manchurian Candidate. Regardless, Fitzpatrick and his supporters continued to push the idea that the East End was on the brink of an Islamist takeover and that Rahman was at the centre of this web of conspiracy. This witch hunt brought to its hysterical culmination in the pages of the tabloids and the Telegraph, the Labour establishment prepared Rahman's auto de fé, deposing him as council leader as soon as the 2010 elections were concluded. Cllr. Abbas' allegations are thus continuous with this witch hunt, inasmuch as Rahman is depicted as an 'Islamofascist' terrorising the community. They are also of a piece with his own previous careerist manoueverings, which at one staged involved him in an alliance with... well, one Lutfur Rahman. No surprise there - the careerist's only permanent friend is himself.

But what is the difference of substance between the two candidates? Judging from their campaigns, there is a straightforward left-right divide. Rahman considers himself a social democrat to the left of Cllr Helal Abbas. Oliur Rahman, the former Respect councillor and recently expelled Labour councillor, says: "Lutfur introduced the London living wage for Tower Hamlets council workers. We bought back council houses and rehoused over 500 overcrowded households. We started building over 1,000 social homes. These are just some of the policies Lutfur implemented. If he’s not mayor, things will go the opposite way. If elected he will fight to save jobs and services." Lutfur Rahman has pledged to oppose the government's cuts. At any rate, the result will make a material difference to the council's decisions. I understand that the council is currently holding back on some of its cuts and job losses until the outcome of the election is known. Abbas' campaign, by contrast, focuses on "social cohesion". You don't need me to tell you what that means. But if you're baffled, I'll point you in the direction of Rushanara Ali MP. Ali, of course, has a personal beef with Rahman for refusing to publicly endorse in the election against her rival, Respect candidate Abjol Miah, and her views were taken into consideration in the decision to suspend Rahman. It's a clear choice, then, between unpleasant bullies who have a patent disregard for democracy and whose message to ethnic minorities is to behave better than everyone else, be above reproach and effectively capitulate to racist hatemongers, and a campaign by the victor in the contest to be the Labour candidate who is foregrounding the material needs of the working class, such as housing and incomes.

The Labour NEC's decision was perhaps predictable, but it is still self-destructive. Dave Hill, no supporter of Rahman, reports 'whispers' from the Abbas campaign that the wind is going Rahman's way. Even if Labour pulls its campaign back from the brink, the fruits of this deranged kulturkampf will mostly be harvested in the form of a depleted and demoralised base, an even more arrogant, tyrannical and disconnected Labour establishment, and a re-fuelled racist hysteria that can only benefit the far right.