The first directly-elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, was today found guilty of “corrupt and illegal practices for the purpose of promoting or procuring the election” during his 2014 mayoral campaign.
Though not present in court for the ruling, Rahman has been removed from office immediately and banned from standing in the re-run mayoral election, which will take place soon.
A statement on the mayor’s website described the verdict as a “shock” and maintained that Rahman “strongly denies any wrongdoing”. Ali Khan, a press officer for Rahman’s Tower Hamlets First party, declined to comment further, explaining that “we are taking legal advice”.
Handing down his 200-page verdict in the High Court at the end of a 10-week hearing, Electoral Commissioner Richard Mawrey QC, sitting as a judge, said Bangladeshi-born Rahman, 49, was both “personally guilty” and “guilty by his agents” of breaching election rules and had been evasive and untruthful in court. The breaches are reported to include tampering with ballot papers and postal votes, as well as attempting to exercise inappropriate influence via spiritual leaders in the community.
The legal action against Rahman began earlier this year, when four voters lodged a complaint under the Representation of the People Act alleging improper conduct during the 2014 mayoral campaign. Summarising the complainants’ case, Judge Mawrey said: “In formulating his campaign, Mr Rahman, as well as playing the race card, was determined to play the religious card.
“The campaign would be targeted at Tower Hamlets’ Muslim population with a stark message: ‘Islam is under threat: it is the religious duty of all devout Muslims to vote for Mr Rahman and his party.’” Judge Mawrey predicted that Rahman would criticise his ruling as “Islamophobic”.
The litigation is believed to have cost in the region of £1 million. Rahman has been ordered to pay £250,000 towards the legal costs incurred by the complainants and other parties involved in the action.
The ruling was hailed by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who took the decision in 2014 to appoint special Commissioners to take over some aspects of the running of Tower Hamlets Council following a critical report by accountants PwC:
— Eric Pickles (@EricPickles) April 23, 2015
A controversial figure both in Tower Hamlets and further afield, suggestions of impropriety have dogged Rahman throughout his political career. He created his own party after he was dropped as the Labour mayoral candidate by the party’s National Executive Committee in 2010, following an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme which claimed that an organisation called the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) had been exercising undue political influence in the borough on Rahman’s behalf. Judge Mawrey, however, today condemned this action as “utterly shameful and wholly unworthy of the Party which, rightly, prides itself on having passed the Human Rights Act 1998.”
But elsewhere, Judge Mawrey made a series of highly critical findings against Rahman, saying the evidence disclosed “an alarming state of affairs” in Tower Hamlets: “This is not the consequence of the racial and religious mix of the population, nor is it linked to any ascertainable pattern of social or other deprivation. It is the result of the ruthless ambition of one man.” He added: “The real losers in this case are the citizens of Tower Hamlets.”
Referring to Rahman’s evidence in court, he said: “Faced with a straight question, he proved himself almost pathologically incapable of giving a straight answer.” Rahman had been “evasive and discursive”, and the judge added: “Sadly, it must also be said that he was not truthful. In one or two crucial matters he was caught out in what were quite blatant lies.”
Rahman had exercised power by “bribery” in relation to the doling out of grants, which had been “firmly in the personal hands of Mr Rahman” and “cronies”. On the allegations surrounding intimidation at polling stations last year, he said: “Groups of supporters would approach voters, particularly Bangladeshi voters and harangue them in a manner that appeared to some onlookers to be rather aggressive.”
Some of the most damning criticism was reserved for the Tower Hamlets First party, which the judge described as “shambolic”. He went on: “The evidence in this case all points in one direction. THF was the personal fiefdom of Mr Rahman. He directed its operations, he selected his candidates, and those candidates campaigned on the basis that their job, if elected, was to give personal support to him. THF had no other aim, objective or ideology beyond the continuation of Mr Rahman in the office of Mayor of Tower Hamlets.” The judge, however, went out of his way to say there was no evidence that Rahman was linked to any Islamic extremist groups or movement.
Cllr Rachael Saunders, current Leader of the council’s Labour Group, today said the “heritage” of the borough “has been damaged by Lutfur Rahman and this is a source of huge shame.”
There was an outcry in February when Rahman accused defeated Labour mayoral candidate John Biggs of racism, comparing him to Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Reacting to today’s verdict, Biggs – who said he would contest the re-run election – said he was “relieved that serious but false allegations made against me have been dismissed by the Election Commissioner and I have been completely exonerated.”
Biggs continued: “This ruling is a victory for honest politics. By setting out to break the rules and going to extraordinary lengths to win last May’s mayoral election, Lutfur Rahman and his allies robbed the people of Tower Hamlets of the free and fair election they deserved and betrayed everyone in our community who trusted and voted for him.
“People from across our community have been badly let down by the Mayor. After five years of abuse of public funds and public trust, it’s time that residents have a council that is again on their side, that faith in free and fair elections is restored and divisions in our community are healed.”
The group who lodged the complaints was headed by Andy Erlam, who had stood as a councillor on an anti-corruption ticket. He said: “The ruling today is fantastic – a great result for democracy.” He urged police to investigate and called on prosecutors to consider bringing criminal charges. The Metropolitan Police said they were examining the Electoral Commissioner’s findings.
Some support for Rahman came during an election hustings meeting at Christ Church, Spitalfields yesterday for the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency, which lies within the borough. Sheila McGregor – standing in for Glyn Robbin, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate – described the allegations against Rahman as “Islamophobic”.
Lutfur Rahman verdict: The key findings
• High Court declares the result of the 2014 Tower Hamlets mayoral election void: “The court therefore declares the election of Mr Rahman as Mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets to have been avoided by such corrupt or illegal practices pursuant to s159(1) of the 1983 Act and also to have been avoided on the ground of general corruption pursuant to s164(1)(a) of the 1983 Act”
• Rahman banned from standing in the Tower Hamlets mayoral election: “It is declared that Mr Rahman shall be incapable of being elected to fill the vacancy for the office of Mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets under s164(1)(b) of the 1983 Act.”
• Judgment to be sent to Rahman’s professional body: “Mr Rahman is a solicitor of the Senior Courts and the court is obliged by s162 of the 1983 Act to bring this judgment to the attention of his professional body, the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority. It is ordered that a copy of the judgment be sent to the SRA.”
• Rahman’s “right-hand man”, Alibor Choudhury, found guilty of “corrupt” and “illegal” practices: “The court will also report and certify that Mr Alibor Choudhury was guilty of a corrupt practice contrary to s113 of the 1983 Act and illegal practices contrary to ss106 and 111 of the 1983 Act.”
• Corrupt practices found to extend to council elections in 20 Tower Hamlets wards: “As the court is required to consider the matter under s145(3) of the 1983 Act, the court finds that corrupt practices extensively prevailed at the election both of the Mayor and of the Councillors for the twenty wards of Tower Hamlets held on 22 May 2014.”
• Final conclusion: “Mr Rahman’s election as Mayor on 22 May 2014 was void, that is to say, it is as if it had never taken place. He has not lawfully been Mayor since that date. Secondly, as has been said, Mr Choudhury must immediately vacate the office of Councillor. Thirdly it will be [Tower Hamlets Returning Officer, John] Mr Williams’s task to arrange for a new Mayoral election and for a by-election in the Ward of Stepney.”
Read the full 200-page judgment here: High Court judgment in full (PDF)
Additional reporting by Katharina Schöffmann and Toby Roddham.