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.
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?”
“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”.
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.
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.