Rabina Khan. Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Some rights reserved.
Over a month ago the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, was removed from office by an election court on charges of corruption. In the subsequent by-election, sixteen allegations of election fraud are already being investigated by police. As tends to be the case with Tower Hamlets, the news is receiving regional and even national coverage. Perhaps this is because Tower Hamlets politics is used to confirm both the right's worst fears about 'imported corruption' and 'Islamisation', and the left's worst fears about political witch-hunts and institutional racism.
The main allegation, reported in the Evening Standard and BBC Sunday Politics, is that Rabina Khan (an independent candidate and sitting Cabinet Member for Housing) had her leaflets handed out inside the newsletters of the Council's housing agency. The evidence for this is amateur footage from blogger Mark Baynes, who mysteriously has a camera ready in his hand when a leaflet is apparently pushed through his door. Khan denies any knowledge of this canvasser and many in her camp suspect a stitch-up. Baynes, meanwhile, has accused Khan of lying about her disabled child's hospitalisation as a reason for not attending a hustings. His sole evidence for this is a picture posted on Twitter of her during the hustings by a colleague - as if it is unheard of for people to post pictures of earlier events. Khan holds that by refusing to remove false statements about her, Baynes is committing the same election offence that Lutfur Rahman was barred for.
None of this context has made it into the Express, BBC, ITV or Evening Standard's reporting.
Other allegations include postal vote fraud and bizarrely, 'using council resources to sell heroin.' These have been lodged by Andy Erlam, a man who also submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Town Hall demanding to know if the Returning Officer was a Freemason.
Also remaining defiantly unreported are multiple allegations of election fraud reported about the Labour Party, who are portraying themselves as in the best position to 'clean up' Tower Hamlets. A millionaire donor has been reported to the police for 'treating' voters with free food at an event. This donor was harshly criticised when he supported Lutfur Rahman in the past (notably over his fraud conviction), and yet now he supports Labour, the local press have ignored this. A report of postal voting fraud and a second report of treating, as well as a report of misusing council property have also been lodged against the Labour Party. In spite of the intense media focus on the Tower Hamlets election, these remain unreported.
So do other dirty tricks and smears by Labour - including a divisive bandwagon of commenters joining Baynes in claiming that Khan has been lying about her disabled child (or, as claimed by a senior Labour official, that having a child with complex needs makes one unfit to be mayor.) A Tory campaigner who appears on their mayoral candidate's leaflet meanwhile launched a bizarre racist rant on Facebook. She stands accused of not caring about the LGBT community, despite pledging to support the reopening of the Joiners Arms, a much-loved local LGBT venue, for no discernible reason other than her Islamic faith.
The silence on the smear campaign against Rabina Khan is deafening.
So too is the silence on the actual politics of the debate. Khan's campaign insists that she is the only candidate committed to preserving the unique support that Tower Hamlets currently offers people, including a £400 grant to students in further education that Labour's candidate says he 'cannot guarantee' the survival of. She boasts of a record that includes creating more affordable homes than any other borough in the country, opening a £2.2m Preventing Homelessness Fund and subsidising residents following the Tories' bedroom tax that hit 2500 local families. She promises to be 'a mayor for Generation Rent' as well as a 'mayor for women' and a 'mayor against austerity.'
She has not asked much of the media - only that they focus on her vision, rather than claiming she is 'controlled by the men around her', in her words. This does not seem to have been met.
When Lutfur Rahman lost his court case and figures including a professor of law, human rights lawyers, the Spectator's associate editor and a Church of England canon raised concerns about the way he had been treated, they were dismissed as defending the indefensible. Those who claimed that the campaign against him had been informed by racial prejudice and contempt for a left-wing anti-establishment politician were held as evidence that a delusional section of the radical left supports Islamism and corruption.
We are now seeing another independent candidate subjected to a host of flimsy corruption claims in what looks like a desperate attempt to stop her winning Thursday's election by legitimate means. It might be time to finally have a more sensible and sober debate about East London politics, and more broadly about the ability of prejudice, selective reporting and carefully-curated smear campaigns to create scandals from thin air.
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