Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman

How the mild man of Tower Hamlets made political history

Lutfur Rahman, Britain’s and perhaps Europe’s first Black elected Mayor talks about his election and the future for minority communities in British Politics.

This week we celebrate Martin Luther King day. It has been more than 40 years since the great man gave his life for the cause of equality. With a black President in the White House and the Jim Crow laws a distant memory, a lot has changed in that time, but there should be no doubt that racial and religious prejudice are still holding back people from ethnic minorities, both in the US and here in Britain.

As you may know if you’ve followed the fractious world of Tower Hamlets politics, I’ve experienced some of that discrimination first hand. In the months leading up to my election, certain right-wing journalists and unscrupulous politicians pushed the idea that I was a Muslim supremacist who had been "brainwashed" into infiltrating mainstream politics with the aim of setting up an "Islamic republic" in east London. Thankfully, the electorate in Tower Hamlets rejected these ludicrous narratives, but it is clear racial and religious bias is still a big issue in this society.

Most examples of it are not as overt as the wild-eyed claims made against me, and they are certainly not enshrined in law as they were in the US, but the barriers do exist.

For me and many others of my generation, fighting racism has meant direct action -I cut my teeth in politics marching against the National Front in Brick Lane in the '80s - but the next generation are facing more subtle and ingrained forms of bias

In today's tough economic climate, and in the context of the government's overzealous cuts, I think the next fight for ethnic minorities will be for social mobility. Of course, the cuts hit everyone, regardless of race, but ethnic minorities are proportionately poorer than the general population and that gap will tell in the years to come.

My biggest concern is for young people. Not only will social mobility issues hit them hardest, but there is a real fear they might disengage from politics altogether. This is the result of increasing frustration with a political discourse that doesn't speak for them; repeated knocks to the credibility of politics and politicians and the point blank failure of successive generations of politicians - most recently the Lib Dems to live up to their promises.

But it is to our young people we entrust the future of our democracy. And we need to do more to engage the increasing number of young people from ethnic minorities. It is inspirational, even for old hands like me, to see the energy and belief they bring to important issues.

But few things are more dispiriting than a young person who doesn't feel like they can change things. And that's why nearly half a century after Dr King changed politics in the US, the work of Operation Black vote is still important.

I owe Simon Woolley and the others at OBV my personal thanks for bringing some scrutiny to the recent murky politics in Tower Hamlets; but as Britain's first ethnic minority Mayor I want to thank them for helping to open the way for many politicians who otherwise might well have been judged by colour of their skin rather than the content of their character

Mayor Rahman was elected as Mayor of Tower Hamlets in November last year.

Picture: Campaining in October 2010.

Archived Comments

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Ethnic leadership of councils will make London more diverse

Now that the people of Tower Hamlets have voted for an ethnic minority mayor to represent them, the large number of minority ethnic residents of Newham and Hackney must wake up and call for change of leadership if their mayors do not represent them or the diverse demography of their boroughs. The mayors of Hackney and Newham who have declared their unwillingness to work with Mayor Rahman of Tower Hamlets because he is black (Asian!) is testament to their prejudicial style of thinking. This should be challenged. And challenged further, in electoral terms, with perhaps voting in an Asian mayor in Newham and a black mayor in Hackney, to reflect the ethnic diversity and needs in these boroughs, respectively.

Wrong description and portorial

His not black, he is an Bangladeshi and Muslim.

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