. Tower Hamlets: The Last Outpost of the Raj Falls | Ceasefire Magazine

Tower Hamlets: The Last Outpost of the Raj Falls Politics

While most of the national coverage of Thursday's elections has been about the surge of UKIP, one of the most remarkable upsets has gone unnoticed: the re-election of Britain’s first elected Asian Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, in the face of a virulent campaign by the political and media establishment. Ashok Kumar reports.

New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 10:51 - 29 Comments


Demotix 3rd September 2011

Lutfur Rahman at the 2011 EDL counter-demo in Tower Hamlets

One of the biggest upsets of Thursday’s UK elections was to be found in the East London borough of Tower Hamlets. Britain’s first elected Asian Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, secured 37,000 votes, comfortably ahead of the 27,000 tally of his Labour Party opponent, John Biggs, in spite of the latter being heavily favoured by both the press and the bookies.

At 47.8%, the borough saw the highest voter turnout in London. As a Tower Hamlets resident myself, I can attest that there is a veritable gulf between the sentiments within the borough and those endlessly reproduced in the popular press. As thousands of Tower Hamlets residents celebrated the re-election of their Mayor, the mainstream media and politicians sneered, questioning the competency of the borough’s constituents and the legitimacy of its results.

Labour’s battle with Rahman is long-standing. In 2010, as the party was selecting its candidate for Tower Hamlets’ first directly elected mayoral race, and despite Rahman topping the Labour Party’s selection, the party HQ disqualified him on the grounds that he had “extremist-ties”. These claims were widely seen as a political smokescreen, including by many within the Labour party itself who believed Rahman was considered too left-wing and independent whereas Labour wanted someone who would more reliably toe the party line.

Thus, the hierarchy replaced Rahman with the third-placed candidate, who had received less than a third of Rahman’s vote tally during the selection process. (In second-place was none other than John Biggs, but the Labour Party made a political calculation to put forward someone of Bengali heritage.)

Upon his disqualification, Rahman stood as an independent and won the 2010 Mayoral race at a canter, securing twice as many votes as his Labour Party opponent. In Thursday’s elections, standing for the newly formed party, Tower Hamlets First, Rahman would increase that vote share by 60% [the count is still ongoing but Tower Hamlets First is currently tied with Labour for council seats]. And yet, the 2014 election has revealed the extraordinary lengths to which the establishment is willing to go to ensure absolute subservience of the subaltern – in this case, the Bengali community.

Indeed, in a concerted attempt to unseat Rahman, a tidal wave of negative press – propelled by Labour, desperate to secure the mayoral seat – seemed to have washed over the country. A heavily promoted and covered BBC Panorama programme presented Lutfur Rahman as a corrupt, crooked criminal, squeezing all he could financially and otherwise from his borough.

The incendiary documentary was aired mere weeks before the contentious election, and even Rahman detractors conceded its intention was to influence the outcome. In particular, Panorama’s insinuating tag-line of “ongoing investigation” seemed clearly intended, amid mounting election fever, to be read as a “guilty” sign. Indeed, the documentary led to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Tory MP Erik Pickles launching a major anti-fraud investigation against Rahman, whose report, of course, would not be expected for a full month after the election, by which time the intended damage would presumably have been done – or so they hoped.

It was off the back of this brilliantly choreographed assault by a confluence of media, government, and political actors, that word soon got around that the Conservatives and UKIP hierarchies were asking their supporters to back Labour’s John Biggs as their second preference under the banner “get Lutfur out”.

Beyond Panorama’s retrograde and unsubstantiated caricatures, few seem to be aware of Rahman’s successful track record as Mayor. After all, in politics, an accusation wrapped in a question under the veneer of investigative journalism need never be proven to cause irreparable damage. Once the Panorama bombshell was dropped, not even the metropolitan police denials of criminality could dent its course. As a famous propagandist once pointed out “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it people will eventually come to believe it.”

Whispers about Rahman’s alleged ‘sleaze’ in the media became shrieks within the political class. Many will fail to realise that Panorama will have combed over every organisation Rahman had ever interacted with, every person he has come into contact with, and every action he had undertaken. The fact they could find nothing of substance is a testament to Rahman actually being – do forgive the phrase in the context of this article – whiter than white.

Umpteen UK politicians – as we know thanks to the expenses scandal – have darkened their names, merely months in office, with wrongful use of the expenses system, underhand dealings and openly making decisions that benefit their friends and personal investments. Yet none of these misdeeds were racialised when covered by the media the way Panaroma had done in Rahman’s case.

This wasn’t accidental, but a tactic that was, at its most fundamental level, a political calculation: The population of Tower Hamlets is 45% white and 32% Bengali. Much of the white residents are the working class that remained in the borough after their more well-to-do white neighbourhoods had fled further out to Essex upon the arrival of non-white – mostly Bangladeshi – immigrants. The white population that remained tends to be reactionary, especially in the southern tip of the borough, in the Isle of Dogs.

Labour Party officials seemed to have decided that by running a white candidate, painting Rahman as an Islamist and a racist, and leveraging the second preference commitment from UKIP and Tory mayoral candidates, they would be able to overwhelm Rahman’s strong base of support in the second round count. However, when the second preferences came through, Rahman had beaten Biggs by 3,000 votes. Undoubtedly, in the coming months the Labour Party will attempt to court Rahman to ensure that those 37,000 votes are delivered to Labour by next year’s general election. After all, that’s the way this game is played.

Even Rahman’s Election Day victory could not shake-off long-held stereotypes. Racist comments whirled around social media, echoed and amplified across news outlets. When Biggs took to the stage on Friday night to concede and a few boo’s were heard in the audience, he couldn’t help himself from barking, “Be a bit respectful. This is democracy and you listen to what we say” – spoken without a hint of irony. Rahman’s supporters seem to understand how democracy works rather well, after beating Biggs by a margin of thousands. Somehow, even after losing, Biggs still thought of himself as a “we”, while we, the children of immigrants, will always remain a “you.”­

The election result came as a shock to many outside of Tower Hamlets. In the months leading up to the vote, accusations and smears had run the gamut – from ‘village strongman‘, to third world-style chaos, corruption, and clientelism – entwined with outright racist depictions. Even cries of “intimidation” – allegedly by Rahman’s campaigners at polling stations – fell flat when the evidence was no more than the same unsubstantiated tropes.

Still, despite little evidence of foul-play, the police were called in, stationed at almost every polling site, in order to ‘protect’ the white constituents of the borough from Rahman’s ‘unruly’ campaigners. Instead of Tower Hamlets First campaigners being heralded as committed, politicised local residents, they were portrayed as aggressive and untrustworthy. In another borough – presumably one with the ‘correct’ demographic – such a show of mobilised local community would have been celebrated as a triumph of citizen engagement.

Similarly, outside of the borough, Rahman’s support-base has been routinely and dismissively presented as agentless tribal-loyalists who are set on getting ‘one of their own in,’ to change the face of Britain. Even reactionary UKIP voters are afforded a level of political objectivity, portrayed as rational actors and “disaffected” Labour or Tory voters.

Twitter vitriol invoking the rise of a ‘Tower Hamlet-stan” and policy centers announcing “the Islamic Republic of Tower Hamlets” have exemplified the drive to portray Rahman as the head of a sinister plot to use Tower Hamlets as a conduit to insinuate religious extremism into mainstream UK politics. Of course, such accounts, which seem to have forgotten about the potency of traditional party political loyalties, tend to grant the ‘civilised’ white majority ample levels of political agency in their decision-making while the Bengali community of Tower Hamlets is presented as marching in lock-step to the polls, blindly following community dictates.

In spite of this onslaught, Rahman has managed to supersede party-politics by winning independently, bucking trends of voter apathy induced by the increasing ideological amalgamation of the main political parties. What the election shows is that Rahman is more popular now than he was before he started – 60% more popular, to be exact – despite a wall-to-wall smear campaign. Instead of admiration, or at least recognition, most in the fourth estate are questioning his legitimacy. It’s almost as if democracy wasn’t supposed to involve the participation of all citizens, but merely those of whom the rulers approve.

Of course, there is a pattern at work here. Poll volunteers are presented as “intimidating” rather than a mobilised community; higher voter turnout is painted as ‘tribal loyalty’, and progressive policies are presented as Tammany hall-style patronage systems. Despite inviting all parties to his cabinet, the hiring of Muslims is depicted as nepotistic at best and “reverse racism” at worst. But, one might argue, this is to be expected under a coalition government whose cabinet of millionaires has come to represent the status quo.

Even on Election Day, as two thousand mostly young supporters anxiously awaited in the rain into the early hours of the morning, erupting into celebration upon hearing the results, major news sources cynically presented it as an example of sycophancy, with references to crowds ‘mobbing’ Mayor Rahman as he exited the building where the votes were being counted, his supporters were portrayed in the press as uncontrollable and hostile – and willing to cause damage and disorder at any moment.

Joyous residents were presented as a threatening horde rather than representing an excited electorate and a rupture from the apathy. Teams of police were called in because “overzealous crowds could spark violence”, to protect the predominantly white Labour Party members and press core inside. If this were a crowd of white supporters dancing in the streets, mainstream media, politicians and the public alike would watch on and praise the political activity and enthusiasm of local residents.

Rahman, who undertook the full restoration of the Old Synagogue in White Chapel (Panorama misrepresented this as a ‘small grant’) and who stopped a Limehouse gay bar, The Old Ship, being closed down (awarding it a 15 year license after it had been threatened with closure), is still labeled a homophobe. When will racists in Britain realise that Muslims are not the one-dimensional projections of the absolutism that exists only in their minds?

If Rahman was white and not a Muslim he would probably be branded a hippy, or fluffy peacenik, a financially incompetent socialist, giving away the borough’s money to free school meals, paying the bedroom tax for the poor and not ‘investing’ (read: giving it to the private sector) it properly. Instead, because he’s black and Muslim, no such gentle ribbing can be applied, as it would be too kind. Rahman is ‘corrupt’, in league with Bengali school children! (Though white children benefit from free meals, too.) Rahman is only there to represent his own community, a tribal leader of the stone-age era, even though impoverished white families also had their bedroom tax paid, of course. Rahman hates women! Even though he supported an anti-sexism event held after young women were allegedly assaulted and abused by a Labour campaigner.

Mayor Rahman’s policy successes over his first term would be the envy of any progressive politician – were he white and a member of the Labour Party, no doubt he’d be celebrated as a rising star. No other council in the entire country has built as many council or affordable housing units, has reinstituted the full Education Maintenance Allowance after the government abolished it, kept elderly personal care free, expanded the living wage for all contractors, allocated a £1,500 for every student attending university and introduced free school meals for every primary school child.

Under Rahman’s leadership, the council has kept the full Council Tax Benefit for every recipient, is in the process of refurbishing every council home, has not only ensured that every children’s centre, library, leisure centre and youth services stay open but expanded them despite deep government cuts, making TH the first council in the country to ban contracts with firms that blacklist trade unionists.

Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest boroughs in the UK, with one of the highest level of child poverty in the country, but with an area that borders the City of London and Canary Wharf, it brings in an enormous amount of tax revenue. That revenue could be spent on corporate welfare or handouts, yet it is being distributed to the young, poor, and elderly of Tower Hamlets. These policies are unmatched by any other council, yet mainstream media outlets have failed to highlight any of them.

Of course, while impressive, Rahman’s policies arguably do not go far enough. His second term should deepen and expand these policies in order to make a real dent into structural inequity. Indeed, Rahman has promised not to enforce the government’s draconian bedroom tax and to introduce a mandatory landlord registry in his second term, but this will mean little to Tower Hamlets’ working class if it fails to include significant rent controls. Certainly, if history is any measure, it will take the mobilising of the poor, the workers, and then tenants of Tower Hamlets behind such radical policies to ensure their fruition.

[UPDATE 27/05: Unconfirmed reports have emerged of a possible legal challenge to Rahman’s win by the Conservatives and Labour.]
UPDATE 30/05: You can read Ashok Kumar and Richard Seymour’s account of the ongoing post-election campaign to delegetimise and denigrate Luftur Rahman here.

The author would like to thank Jennifer Izaakson for her valuable comments.

Ashok Kumar

Ashok Kumar is a writer, activist and a PhD candidate of Economic Geography at Oxford University. He was a contributor to The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance (Pluto 2011) and It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest (Verso 2012). He tweets at @broseph_stalin.


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May 27, 2014 12:30

Interesting read, thanks. If the accounts in this piece are true (some quantitative measures would have helped), one can only admire the achievements by this mayor. It would have been interesting to know by how much TH has grown economically under Mr Rahman leadership. What support did he get to achieve this and in what form, given that this is a very poor borough? This guy is either a genius in management (in which case he deserves more credit) or a guy who got the support of the local community. The author did not mention the make up of the remaining 23% of population of TH and their possible influence on the results, making it simply Bengalis vs whites. How much support from whites does Mr Rahman get? Also, the fact that 45% of population in TH are ‘white working class’ is no guarantee they will vote for a Labour candidate (even if white) because Labour are not particularly liked by such section of society, especially of late. These facts would make the article more objective. The tension felt through the article regarding the issue of race/ethnicity weakens the arguments a bit in my humble opinion, which should have been more about quantitative measures of success for Mr Rahman, and let the readers decide.

May 27, 2014 13:04

I live in tower hamlets and all I heard were terrible things about rahman – wish this had been written before the election! Now I’m glad he won

May 27, 2014 13:19

I’m not surprised further accusation onwards Mayor Lutfur Rahman hasn’t stopped, this will go on and on throughout he’s 4 years as Mayor and we’d probably again see Panorama air another episode just before the next elections.
I have not previously been interested on politics and not will I be as much but as a Tower Hamlets resident I can see what this Mayor has done. The people of Tower Hamlets want a Mayor who will represent and lead the borough in to one of the best in the London regardless of which party he represents and this latest election shows it is Mr RAHMAN. Purely because he has delivered and will.
In Newham Sir Robin Wales has been elected for do key years and I’m sure if Panorma looked in to him there’d be a can of worms opening.. But they won’t because he doesn’t hit the headline as he isn’t a minority nor he is a Muslim.

Raz F
May 27, 2014 13:26

This article is infuriating. Fuck BBC Panorama. How can they get away with this?Does anyone know how we can fight them? this might happen again and again!

May 27, 2014 15:22

Well done Luthfur Rahman

abdul choudhury
May 27, 2014 16:22

Really good article, our mayor has many challenges ahead, my hope is, his critics will give him the time and space he needs, he is reaching out, hopefully so will others. he has a mandate, he is a legitimately elected Mayor and people should not try to constantly undermine this by listening to outsiders who clearly have their own agenda and motives, however he could do worse then listen to critics from within this Community of which there are some with legitimate grievance.

John Michael
May 27, 2014 17:57

To interpret opposition to the appointment of Lutfur Rahman purely in terms of racism and colonialism is quite to miss the point and do a disservice to the thousands of Bangladeshis who didn’t vote for Rahman. The media bandwagon in recent months can indeed be criticised, but should be seen in the light of years of expensive town hall propaganda run by the mayors PR team in which a reader of the free weekly East End Life might believe that Tower Hamlets had no Labour Parliamentary Member of Parliament, Rushanara Ali, and that Lutfur was the only active politician. He was photographed at every new development as a master builder, when those developments were actioned by others. Recently I received a letter from him saying that he had visited a me and was sorry I was not in, when I was in fact standing at my door, talking with one of his council paid postmen. At Public Meetings, as so often in Council Meetings, he avoids, in Modi like manner, any direct questioning. The Panorama investigation was similarly blocked, to the frustration of the reporter John Ware, when questions were leaked to the Town Hall. The writer, Ashok Kumar, may well not live in Tower Hamlets to have missed these matters from his article. I suggest that he investigate the similarities in other professional public relations campaigns. To invent a new name “Tower Hamlets First” for a political party is as clever a piece of PR as I can imagine to confuse the public away from politics, to popularism. I commend the hard working members of the Labour Party who with a limited budget, no weekly Council Newspaper, volunteered to stand against the Tower Hamlets party machine. They were by far ordinary intelligent Bangladeshi socialists, and to suggest that they were some sort of sepoys defending “the Last Outpost of the Raj” is an insult that requires an apology! There are infact sad similarities of money controlling the media, and influencing elections. Mr Modi has done it in India, overwhelming minority concerns.. and is rightly criticised. The Tower Hamlets PR department, paid with my Council Tax, has done the same in the East End.

Robert Morgan
May 27, 2014 18:32

He won an election get over it you racists

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May 27, 2014 19:53

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Mark Ellis
May 27, 2014 23:32

And you might well have added that he has presided over the fastest improving schools in the country.

However….. much of the vitriol coming TH’s way is less to do with the outcome of the vote as it is with the time it took to count it. To make London one of the last areas of Europe to report the outcome of the European election is not going to endear the borough to anyone. The investigation by the Electoral Commission is clearly as much to do with the inability of the borough to organise a trustworthy vote counting process as it is with claims of initimidation.

Still, very grateful to the person who linked to this story on Twitter – I’ve been looking for a few days for the opportunity to hear another side of the story. I don’t have any doubt that the Labour Party are capable of intimidation and scare mongering: Alistair Cambell would be proud.

May 28, 2014 5:07

I would of believed all this, but for the lie that UKIP would advice anyone to ever vote labour, no way would that ever happen. Totally wrong to accuse UKIP of something that their is no evidence of and never will be because it does not exist. Nothing on this earth would make a UKIP supporter ever vote labour or any member advice them to.

May 28, 2014 6:00

If there is a “subaltern” in Tower Hamlets it is not the Male Muslim, as this piece makes out. Lutfur Rahman and his support base do not see “Lutfur bhai”, and certainly not themselves, as “Black, Muslim”. That trendy lefty catchall descriptor was done away with ages ago. He does not even see himself as left wing. His identity politics is specifically “Muslim Sylheti” and he and his supporters wear that identity like a badge, at the cost of the rest of his electorate who are not of that identity: Somalian, White working class, women and non-Muslims. They are the authentic “subaltern” in Tower Hamlets today.

May 28, 2014 6:04

Kate the point is whether UKIP members would vote Labour [actually if argue most we’re actually ex-labour voters and there’s some evidence to support that] but it’s no secret that every single party in Tower Hamlets was against rahman. Also the fact that he received most no 2nd preferences supports the claim that there was some coordination. Anyways this is a much piece nowhere else in the media that I’ve sent to everyone I know in TH

May 28, 2014 6:21

john your comment is a joke mate. Calling yourself “Tower Hamlets First” is no more “PR” than calling yourself “Labour” and not giving a shit about workers.

Mayor Rahan, look at last 3rd/4th paragraphs. He has large tax revenues. In Cantley we only want £50000 to keep our library as it now. | Doug Wright Save YOUR Services
May 28, 2014 7:04

John Michael
May 28, 2014 9:25

Dear Usman.. I hope I have better jokes than that… but I agree with you.. as we know Labour has not been without its spin. My comments were to express some realities and challenge a broad brush article that I felt was inaccurate and disrespectful to those who question past actions of Lutfur Rahman. My comments are not against Lutfur personally, and I sympathise with him in having been racially abused… but in order that we learn the truth of the matter Maybe this discussion will enlighten.

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May 29, 2014 13:24

Its an important continuation of the second wave of post labour politics of the area. Well done to all THF team, long may you improve on your journey.

Part of me feels really sickened that Bangladeshis like Helal Abbas and Rushanara Ali have stood back and allowed, even encouraged such a racialised campaign against Bangladeshis. The things people to for power?

There is another dimension that people are generally missing here, that Bangladeshis now equate the Labour Party with the Awami League government in Bangladesh, which massacred hundreds in may last year and just elected itself in again.

Decolonial duas to folks in Tower Hamlets and the future of housing and education and elderly welfare.

Stephen Watkins
May 31, 2014 22:01

Lutfur Rahman: a defence based on lies – Telegraph Blogs
Jun 2, 2014 11:08

[…] Tower Hamlets. Ashok is the man who celebrated Rahman’s election victory under the headline: “The last outpost of the Raj falls.” There are also interesting things online about Richard which open, shall we say, new windows […]

Jun 2, 2014 19:50

Mmmm… what is Bangladesh’s rank in Transparency Internationals Corruption Perceptions Index? Oh that’s right – 136.

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[…] Tower Hamlets. Ashok is the man who celebrated Rahman’s election victory under the headline: “The last outpost of the Raj falls.” There are also interesting things online about Richard which open, shall we say, new windows […]

Jun 5, 2014 22:21

Clearly the author hasn’t lived in the borough for very long and hasn’t felt the need to research the history of the last 5-10 years, (let alone much further back). So if he refers to ‘living memory’ that’s not very long…
I agree with some of the article. First, the racist scrutiny of Lutfur. Racists are obsessed with Tower Hamlets and media scrutiny is much more than for other elected mayors, many of whom could do with more media scrutiny (it doesn’t follow that anyone who scrutinises him is a racist). It must be demoralising to face personal vilification endlessly.
Second, progressive policies. Lutfur Rahman has been better than I and many others thought, and clearly he has a broad base of support . At least he sees the state as there to provide some protection to poor people. However, the achievements are fewer than the author realises (did you take these straight from a THF leaflet?). Things like the Decent Homes programme have nothing to do with the mayor, and most of the major housing projects were planned before he came to office. The schools improvement predates him too. I don’t care if he brags about things that have nothing to do with him, that’s normal for a politician, but you shouldn’t be quite so gullible. Still, he’s probably better than a Labour mayor would have been.
What’s wrong with the article – for one, very odd and selective memory regarding the Labour Party and its history among British Bangladeshis. The story of Lutfur’s expulsion from Labour doesn’t cover that party in glory, but I’ve never before heard the theory that he was too independent and leftwing for Labour. You seem to think he is Martin Luther King and Hugo Chavez rolled into one. But he was actually promoted and elected in 2010 by a mix of left and right wing elements.
Speaking of which, there is no mention of the Respect Party, without them we would have no elected mayor. If Labour behaved badly, the Respect Party was worse. Is Respect being erased from the record? You can’t understand what’s going on now without knowing what went on during that period. I see that some of it lives on in your language. To Respect, whites who had any disagreement with the party were racists and Islamaphobes, and Bengalis who did were inauthentic, Uncle Toms, ‘house Muslims’ and so forth.
Depressing to see you entering these waters, and pronouncing on who is and isn’t part of the Bengali community. A lot of Bangladeshi Labour supporters are older and many don’t speak that much English. I think you should be a little more respectful of them, and also working class people in general. Labelling TH whites as reactionary and inferring that many thousands of Bengalis who aren’t Lutfur Rahman supporters serve ‘the Raj’ might score you some populist points in the short term but doesn’t help create the conditions for radical politics we’ll need for the future.

Jun 10, 2014 15:56

Bangladeshis represent only 32% of Tower Hamlets’ population. And yet, the video you put up of Lutfur’s supporters celebrating, is more suited to Sylhet Borough Council than a London borough council – 100% Bengali support, whooping and hollering.

You talk fatuously about colonialism and the Raj, but who speaks for the 68% of Tower Hamlets population who aren’t Bangladeshi?

Jun 15, 2014 22:15

Ashok take off your blinkers. Mayor Rahman in his first term made lots of decisions in private and showed a complete disregard for transparency. It is as if he was on a sponsored silence during and before the election. French mime artists have more to say than him and they don’t control a £1.2 billion budget. If you want to get answers about anything in the borough you have to resort to FOI requests and then months after they are supposed to answer you get a fraction of the info you asked for with heavy redacting (to “protect human right”).

The morale of staff is low and there are a huge number of what are in effect “political” appointments where the ability of those managers to do their jobs is seen as secondary.

The lies told to me by THF on my doorstep about other candidates: “He was thrown out of Labour 25 years ago for being a racist” are despicable. The use of the terms racist and islamophobe against anyone that you disagree is very worrying and to my mind should be a criminal offence.

Ashok if you want to blame the press and media for distorting things then you are fooling yourself. Lots and lots of local people have formed a distrust for the mayor’s administration through first hand experience. You insult us by suggesting the media has hoodwinked us. The Mayor’s team fought a dirty, mud-slinging campaign and won. But criminal investigations of voting fraud are ongoing as is Pickles’ PWC audit; the Mayor is also being taken to court by a non-politician funding by donations from individuals like myself who want to see Rahman held to task for his dubious techniques.

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