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What is actually on trial in the Lutfur Rahman case?

Imagine that the London borough of Barnet has elected a Jewish Mayor, despite a BBC documentary accusing him of corruption, aired weeks before the vote. What does this corruption look like? That the Mayor favours the Jewish community, the synagogues within the borough support him and the demographic of 55,000 Jews living there viewed as voting block that has helped the Mayor into office, despite not being a member of any major political party. This Mayor even shares a surname with 10% of the Jewish residents. Let’s call him Mayor Cohen and his party Barnet First.

Lutfur Rahman, twice-elected mayor of Tower Hamlets
Lutfur Rahman, twice-elected mayor of Tower Hamlets

Imagine an election that after an investigation, prompted only by complaints from Barnet councillors not in Barnet First, made its way to the High Court despite no evidence of fraud found whatsoever. Mayor Cohen, supporters and councillors of Barnet First, who are mainly Jewish and hail from the ex-USSR region, are to be put on trial for electoral fraud.

Now imagine a scene in court where the same line of questioning to each of Mayor Cohen’s witnesses is repeated by the Petitioner’s barrister. A man in a yarmulke takes the stand.

“Were you giving out bagels to people to vote for Mayor Cohen?”

“No, I wasn’t. We had some food for supporters who were out campaigning in long shifts, but that’s it”.

“I put it to you, Lev Goldstein, that it wasn’t just bagels, but latkes and chicken soup. That you even had meats available near polling stations. Stalls offering free plates of chopped liver for passers-by on their way to vote.”

“No…not at all. Just food supplies for our campaigners”.

“You offered cans of Diet Coke and Tango with the chicken soup you were giving out to voters, didn’t you?”


And you spoke to people in Hebrew, didn’t you?”


“Yes you did. And Russian?”

“No, sir”

“But you are from the ex-Soviet block, Mr Goldstein?”

“Yes, Ukraine ”.

“Ah, I see. Where they speak Russian. And you also said to voters they should vote for their Jewish brother. That not voting for Mayor Cohen wasn’t kosher”.

“Definitely not…”

Imagine this being said to every man who takes the witness box wearing a yarmulke or anyone at all who is known or thought to be Jewish. It would appear that Jews, for organising politically in their local area, were being put on trial for being Jews. There doesn’t seem to be any accusation put that can be disentangled from a Jewish Eastern European identity.

The above scenario is exactly what one observes at the trial of Tower Hamlets Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, if one swaps Jewish for Muslim, ex-USSR for Bangladesh and replaces what is assumed ‘typical’ food and language accordingly. The repeated accusation towards Muslim campaigners of, “were you giving out curry”, as if Muslims only cook Curry, is a narrow rendition of Bengali cuisine even for racist standards. That a Tango drink can convince a Bengali who to vote for, as if their brains cannot manage political decisions, relies on a particularly historic rendition of racial category. Whereas white people have developed brains, hold political views and make voting calculations of their own accord, the mind of the lowly savage would never be up to such a task. Offer them some rice and a Diet Coke though and these beasts follow their instincts.

Of course, for anyone not soaked in colonial style racism,the above seems farcical. The other allegations levelled are of similar tract.These include Lutfur Rahman’s brother stealing ballot papers from a polling station in broad daylight. As if not bestowed with a brain that could’ve calculated this as a faux pas, even if we put ethical obstacles aside. That ballot papers had different looking crosses on them, so must’ve been done by different individuals. ‘Mobs’ of brown, sorry, Bengali campaigners intimidating residents, by mere presence of their bodies, into voting for them whilst simultaniously handing out lollipops (a strange contrast of carrot and stick tactics). Basic bribes for basic tribes. There is seemingly nothing else bar these lines of attack.

A pack of Jews. A mob of Bengalis. A Rabbi who says to their congregation which candidate they thinks will serve the communities interests. Muslims handing out curry. Jews speaking in Hebrew or Russian to one another. How these are rendered problematic is only through an equivalence that transforms cultural and racial markers to be of a sinister nature. How they are sinister isn’t necessary to explain. Enough is for them to be stated and racist presumption of mendacity does the rest.

Lutfur Rahman at Nelson Street Synagogue for Holocaust Memorial Day
Lutfur Rahman at Nelson Street Synagogue for Holocaust Memorial Day

This logic on which the entire case is predicated can be summed up in a witness statement made several weeks ago by an opponent of Mayor Rahman, “if there were less Bengalis in the borough…Lutfur wouldn’t have been elected”. How dare these people have the same rights as the rest of us? How dare their votes count just as much? It’s an objection to basic equality of democracy for all. That particular opponent, so affronted by Bengalis having the same rights as him, forgot to dress it up under auspices of ‘corruption’. Corruption that somehow seems impossible to outline or give example of beyond snacks. But the bribe accusation exists without any evidence, though these curry giveaways supposedly took place openly and frequently at polling stations.

This fits with how the Mayor is considered generally by opponents. All of who politically and personally obliterate him for their own racist projections. How else to castigate him? The Mayor is an anti-Semite. The Mayor allocated thousands of pounds for the restoration of the East London Synagogue. The Mayor is a homophobe. The Mayor recently signed up to support saving Shoreditch LGBT pub, the Joiners Arms, from closure. The Mayor is an Islamist. The Mayor has been photographed on stage with arms around drag queens. Even that the Mayor isn’t outside the political mainstream is ignored. Yes, his policies are ‘progressive’ today, but originally the Tower Hamlets Mayor voted for David over Ed Miliband in Labour’s leadership contest.

But Lutfur Rahman’s subjectivity must be eroded or he cannot be a scaffolding of opponent’s racist projections. This would be dangerous. It would mean A) the ideas they hold are incorrect and B) the actions they’ve taken against him are wrong. In our society it’s far easier to be an islamophobe than challenge yourself – always a difficult task for the privileged, particularly. Beyond the Labour Party affront that an independent candidate has beaten them twice, their individual personal investment in this trial is enormous. If Rahman is found not guilty then why do the case’s petitioners, Labour members in Tower Hamlets and other nominally centre-Left political actors decry a left-wing politician? They’re unwilling to reflect on this because of what would be found. And it has something to do with the assumption that Bengalis proliferate curry.

The trial is due to finish, fittingly, on Friday 13th of this month and the judge will then deliberate, with result announced presumably a few weeks after. If found guilty, Rahman, will be banned from standing in any election for 12 years. They will have caused public humiliation on a national scale and ruined his professional life, past, present and future. The message will be sent: if you stand against mainstream parties and win, we will crush you. A message especially intended to any soul willing to step into the void as a Tower Hamlets First candidate. The Tories and Labour are in discussion for the next Tower Hamlets mayoral election to have a ‘unity candidate’, backed by both, designed to stop any independent.

The trial of Lutfur Rahman demonstrates how politically bankrupt mainstream parties are, something most who don’t bother to vote are already aware of. It also indicates a willingness to consolidate remaining vestiges of power regardless of manoeuvre needed and political pact required. The political field as a Labour vs. Tories run-off must be maintained at any cost. It’s an interesting moment when the Labour party consider the Tories a better force to make alliance with than a Mayor who has kept EMA funding and defies the bedroom tax.


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10 thoughts on “What is actually on trial in the Lutfur Rahman case?”

  1. Not sure if this actually engages in the actual claims made – that there was serious voter intimidation, vote rigging and election fraud. It would be fine if the claim was just that Lutfur did just make curry. But if you’ve been going to the trial for the last few weeks, you’ll hear about people being beaten up for speaking out, money siphoned off for mosques which promoted Lutfur (a criminal offence in itself, using religious podiums to explicitly endorse political parties) etc. These are all really quite serious accusations with lots of witnesses speaking to that affect, and already a deeply inconsistent testimony by Lutfur. Surely it’s right to hear out the evidence given in the courtroom and allow a judge to decide on that basis whether this is a witch hunt and based on valid claims?

    So this article would be fine if it dealt with the reality of what was actually being brought to light by the inquest. Unfortunately, it doesn’t,

  2. The article does deal with the two things you, without substantiation, assert. 1) In an early paragraph it states no fraud was found when investigated i.e no funding was ever ‘siphoned’ off for mosques. I think what you mean is some mosques received funding and you appear to object. 2) ‘voter intimidation’, yet don’t explain what you mean by this. What this has meant in court is ‘mobs’ of brown people standing outside polling stations. This is only intimidating if you’re a racist who thinks brown-skin is scary. Like the entirely of your comment, no example of actual intimidation (visit a few women’s refuges if want to see what that really looks like) was given. You might want to think why you lack examples and can’t process the content of the article which directly addresses people like you. Finally, ‘valid claims’, it’s interesting to know that you count ‘speaking bengali’ or ‘giving out curry’ as a ‘valid’ claim despite speaking Bengali not being an electoral crime and there being no evidence of the curry stalls, but again, you might want to think thoroughly about why you believe this is valid despite lack of evidence.

  3. Avatar photo

    Also since when has religious leaders backing a politician been a criminal offence? You think MPs spend all that time going to churches because they enjoy it?

  4. I’ll take a bit more time to set this out, because I don’t want to encourage any caricatures of the serious point I’m making.

    I think the overarching issue I have with the article is that it’s kinda orientalist. What I mean by this is that you’re starting from a point of noting identity differences as primary, and call out a different set of standards in the way you approach the reasoning in this article. The reasoning seems to be this: they accuse a Muslim guy of election fraud, so you begin from ‘we have prejudices about muslims, and this accusation/related claims are derived from those prejudices’ rather than ‘what is the merit or content of those claims? If they are clearly unsubstantiated, then we should understand them in the context of racism and prejudice.’ I think the point is that by jumping that first step, you’ve committed a kind of double standard orientalism. The comparison to other religions is illuminating – I would as a Jew first want to ask of a Jewish mayor if the claims are valid in the sense of ‘did this guy empirically break the law, were there lots of witnesses saying this, are those witnesses all racist or can we only really account for their testimonies by recognising they have a common thread of validity etc etc.’ before calling out the claims as point blank racist. That’s the difference between double and single standards. The point is that the accusations are not that he gave out food or got campaigners to speak Bengali – there are a raft of really serious allegations and people who said their votes were stolen, who were beaten up, who were intimidated etc. To brush these off with caricatures about Lutfur’s identity seems to strip him of any real agency (or responsibility) that isn’t directly related to his racial identity. That’s what I take to be orientalist.

    That’s the theoretical point – I’m leaving it to the fact that there’s an ongoing enquiry currently hearing witnesses in the defence to bring out the facts. If you’re interested, read the transcripts. They are pretty damning of Lutfur, and it has been claimed by lots of BENGALI and BANGLADESHI witnesses that there was voter intimidation, ballot stealing etc. I can’t be expected to ‘substantiate’ beyond what’s in the transcripts

    Now, to respond to the issues raised in response, I’d clarify the following:
    1. I don’t object to mosques getting funding. I do think it gets iffy when legal funding allocation regulations are not followed. For example, there is a procurement process for funding grants which has to be independently evaluated. Evidence was given by the chief officer on the council who had her (due-process) funding allocations arbitrarily re-written by Lutfur to award to institutions including but not limited to mosques who had induced members to vote for Lutfur. This evidence was given last week. This is actually quite illegal and has nothing to do with the facts that it was mosques.

    2. Voter intimidation laws apply to the number of people who can gather outside a polling station. The rationale is that people will be put off voting if they have to go past a hostile gang to get into the centre, or will feel intimidated against voting for another party. There were also lots of claims of people ‘accompanying’ voters inside their booths to ensure they voted correctly. This is in addition to other claims made that people’s postal ballots were stolen, and identities stolen so that people were told they had already voted when inside the booth. This is the case irrespective of skin colour, and it’s wrong to assume that only people of colour can break the law, as you seem to be saying.

    3. Why is religious influence different in this case to normal practice? If the allegations are true, then the imams had induced the congregation with spiritual threats ie. you’re a bad muslim if you don’t vote for one of your own. (nb, these are allegations from within the community, so hold your racist horses). Spiritual or physical threats count as forms of undue influence, and are somewhat different than seeing politicians in church.

    It’s great that we look to defend minorities from what looks like a race motivated trial. But the reality is that the race element to the trial is only there insofar as Lutfur campaigned on a divisive, sectarian and identity based platform. The extent to which that is brought out by the trial doesn’t reflect on an inherently racist society.

  5. ‘they accused a Muslim guy of fraud’ – that happened and no fraud was found, originally. Already. Now, the only lines of attack in court are the above. It isn’t orientalist to point this out, it’s accurate. You don’t outline any others. Almost as if they don’t exist…why bother to distort and obfuscate an article that everyone can read? Doesn’t really work.

    It has already been stated the accusation of ‘mobs’ of brown people outside polling stations. Why you think this is a ‘hostile gang’ is an insight into your psychology, Gabriel.

    You haven’t even quoted the transcripts re this supposed ballot stealing – why not? We an only speculate. No one’s asking you to substantiate beyond simple evidence of claim. The above article quotes Lutfur’s brother being accused, why can’t you give any example? Running on empty. Your language is telling. People in mosques ‘induced’ to vote! Yeah, those silly beasts can just be hypnotised.

    ‘Lutfur campaigned on a divisive basis’, again, no example (whether true or not) even put. If you think supporting synagogues, launching anti-violence against women campaigns, supporting the poor and saving LGBT pubs is ‘divisive’ I’d hate to see what you think inclusive is, as apparently terms mean their opposite for you.

    Who’s been beaten up? Again, no details, just a hope that if enough mud is slung people will assume some must be good enough to stick. ‘funding allocations not followed’ – that’s already been investigated and nothing untoward found. I realise it’s hard to get through to reality for some people, but do try.

  6. I think here the point is that, apart from pointing out that language is never going to be neutral if someone really wants to read an agenda into it (you’re apparently quite set on me being racist, in quite a psychologistic way), you’re just disagreeing with me over what actually happened. Which is fine, because I’m not intending to prove anything here. So let’s see what happens in the inquest and the people who actually are listening to evidence will be able to see if any of this ‘shit’ (probably quite non-neutral, I’d say) allegation ‘sticks’ (ie is proved to be beyond reasonable doubt)

  7. Gabriel, not at all surprised to see the responses to you don’t deal with the allegations and just try to insinuate that you are a racist – that’s been the standard m.o. of the Mayor’s supporters to any criticism for years, as it was Respect party supporters before. Your comments were not racist at all.

    Clearly the author hasn’t lived in the borough very long, doesn’t know the history of the Respect and doesn’t know many Bengali people – otherwise she would know that there isn’t just one ‘Bengali community. There are loads of Bengalis who don’t support THF. If you’re hanging around with only Respect supporters (as I think you are) then you won’t get this.

    Oh yes, the mayor has been divisive. I guess you (the author) weren’t around in the Respect years, or else you would have seen the tactics that Galloway is using against Naz Shah up in Bradford used by Respect supporters against Rushanara Ali during Galloway’s time. If you don’t like Labour policies then fine – oppose them. But slut shaming women, accusing people of being bad Muslims, jew-baiting – all things Respect party activists (i.e. THF) engaged in – not ok. A lot of people remember all this. It’s got much better, but all that wasn’t too long ago.

    Your examples of the heroism of Lutfur are pretty shallow. ‘Organising violence against women campaigns’ – oh really? what did he do beyond the opportunistic rally (after thuggish behaviour by a Labour supporter)? Is there some campaign the rest of us don’t know about? Saving an LGBT pub – yes, that’s good, but THF also supported the campaign against venues against strip clubs, alongside the religious right of course, that was opposed by sex worker rights groups, feminists and LGBT groups who realised this threatened gay venues. Support for synagogues – well… synagogues with nobody in them maybe. Luther himself is no bigot, but he surrounds himself with bigots. Respect was plagued since day one by anti-semitic supporters. You make things worse for everybody by not acknowledging this.

    I don’t think Rahman is terrible; his administration has acted as a decent left Labour council. I also think there are other councils just as corrupt which aren’t under similar scrutiny. However, you don’t do any favour to those you call Muslims (some Bengalis are, some aren’t) by holding them to a lower standard than everybody else. Lutfer doesn’t deserve racist attacks but neither does he deserve the racism of lower expectations evident in the fantasies of too many white lefties.

  8. What a disappointment! I only stopped by the website because I loved the two Jewdas events I’ve been to and thought the whole project is great. Didn’t realise that you don’t have a critique of communalism in general, only in the Jewish community.
    Some Islamophobes oppose the communal politics in Tower Hamlets, yes, but that doesn’t make it Islamophobic to oppose communal politics in Tower Hamlets….really basic stuff, guys. Find some secular Bengalis to hang out with please!

  9. In light of the court case outcome I want to comment on my own last comment….to be very clear, the court case wasn’t’ about ‘secular’ vs ‘Islamist’ Bengalis. That isn’t relevant to the LR case.

    My 2nd comment was directed not at the author of the piece but to the Jewdas folks in general. I was expressing exasperation that people who are all about poking holes in the idea that there’s one unified Jewish community, lead by our community leaders, seem to be comfortable with thinking that with ‘Muslims’ it’s different. Well, it’s not – there are differences within Bengali and Muslim ‘communities’ and no one element is more ‘representative’ or authentic than others.

    Izaakson has shown elsewhere that she feels comfortable speaking about who is and who isn’t part of the Muslim community. Take this with a grain of salt.

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