Tory target: Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman

One of the hit squad sent in by the government to investigate Tower Hamlets council is a former British diplomat who has endorsed Islamophobic social media posts.

The east London council is led by independent mayor Lutfur Rahman, who is a Muslim. Communities secretary Michael Gove sent in the inspectors—for the second time in a decade—in an effort to destabilise a council that has annoyed the Tories and Labour.  

They are supposed to judge “whether the standards expected for effective and convenient local government are being upheld”.

One of the investigators is Sir John Jenkins, who was British ambassador to Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia. He is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange, the right wing think tank founded by Gove and others in 2002.

A group that includes Jewish and Muslim community organisers, as well as academics and local politicians, has sent a letter to Gove questioning Jenkins’ role. The letter, seen by Middle East Eye website, noted Jenkins’s apparent approval of “really worrying… Islamophobic” social media posts.

One accuses Sadiq Khan of having “small man syndrome”, after the London mayor called for a ceasefire in Gaza. Another questions why the BBC was covering Islamophobic comments made by Lee Anderson, former Tory MP who was suspended by the party over the remarks.  

Jenkins, who collects £1,100 a day plus expenses for his role, liked a tweet from assistant Telegraph newspaper comment editor Sam Ashworth-Hayes. It said that “protesters will, inevitably, scream Islamist slogans calling for the death of Jews, and the police will do nothing” at the 11 November Palestine demonstration in London.

Another tweet from Ashworth-Hayes liked by Jenkins champions the recently elected far right president of Argentina, Javier Milei, for clamping down on “illegal migrants convicted of sex offences”.

Jenkins’ own articles include one he wrote for the Telegraph headlined, “For Islamists, Jeremy Corbyn is a useful idiot.” Another one in the Spectator was titled, “There’s nothing wrong with Macron’s war on Islamism.”

Between 2012 and 2015 Jenkins was ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He described some of the executions that took place there as “understandable”.

The lead Tower Hamlets inspector is Kim Bromley-Derry who is just ending a post as government commissioner appointed to sort out Sandwell council in the West Midlands. It’s a lucrative task.

Figures out this week showed Bromley-Derry and fellow commissioner Jim Taylor took home £581,000 between them from March 2022 until the end of last year. Bromley-Derry will collect £1,200 a day for his Tower Hamlets probe.

With Rahman as mayor, and his Aspire party with a majority of councillors, Tower Hamlets council has implemented some reforms that go beyond Labour. This week Aspire councillors voted to reject proposed allowance rises worth £114, 000 a year, “because every penny must be put into public services”.

Its 2024-5 budget proposes measures such as 4,000 “affordable” homes by 2026 and 72 extra street sweepers. It also included free swimming for women over 16 and men over 55 and an extension of the university bursary scheme.

It’s hardly transformative, and Rahman doesn’t confront central government. But it’s well beyond Labour’s vision.

However, showing its limits, the council used scab workers against a bin workers’ strike last year. And, while applauding support for the Palestinians, Rahman has been careful to seem moderate.

When school students walked out over Gaza in November, Rahman told them, “Yes, go to the marches, encourage your parents to go to the marches. Lobby your MPs who are not supporting a ceasefire. But please, please do not leave school and try not to miss classes.”

This week the council has begun to take down Palestinian flags from its buildings after legal threats from UK Lawyers for Israel.

“Until now, the council has decided not to remove the flags because we believe it could destabilise community cohesion,” he said.

“However, the increasing focus on the issue, coupled with some unfair and divisive sentiment about our borough and its communities in recent weeks, has meant that the issue of flags has become part of a wider negative discourse used by some to misrepresent Tower Hamlets and our residents.”

But Islamophobic slurs need to be fought, not conceded to. An electoral court removed Rahman in 2015 by trampling on democracy and using Islamophobia.

Its judgement perpetuated the racist myth of Muslims as passive zombies manipulated by their leaders. It said, “A distinction must be made between a sophisticated, highly educated and politically literate community and a community which is traditional, respectful of authority and, possibly, not fully integrated with the other communities living in the same area.”

It upheld the claim that Rahman used “spiritual influence” and cited a letter signed by 101 imams stating it was a “religious duty” to vote. 

But there was no outcry in the same year when a letter from Catholic bishops was read out at masses across England and Wales. It urged people to “think carefully” about who to vote for in the general election.

The latest inspection is another attempt to remove by racist administrative means someone who won an election. Everyone should oppose such attacks.

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