The Old Poplar Town Hall, in East London, has a secure place in British political history. It was here, in 1921, that radical Labour councillors, led by George Lansbury, began a rebellion against “unfair” rates that resulted in them being sent to prison, and triggered reform of a system that discriminated against poor areas such as Poplar.
Almost a century later, Poplar Town Hall, now absorbed into the borough of Tower Hamlets, is making history of a different kind. It has become part of the spoils in a rather more sinister redistribution of wealth by Britain’s most disturbing local authority. In behaviour described by one councillor as “out of control” and smacks of the days of Shirley Porter, a directly elected mayor with close links to Islamic extremism appears to be abusing public money and council assets to reward his supporters and, in the words of the local MP, Jim Fitzpatrick, to “buy his re-election this May”.
“It is going on under our noses in the heart of the capital city and no one is doing a thing about it,” says Peter Golds, the leader of the opposition in Tower Hamlets. “The authorities — the Government, the Electoral Commission — seem paralysed. This is a test for us all about whether democracy can be bought.”
In 2010, after investigations by The Sunday Telegraph, the then Tower Hamlets council leader, Lutfur Rahman, was replaced, deselected and later expelled by the Labour Party because of his close links to an extremist Muslim group, the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), based at the radical East London Mosque.
But, thanks in part to another campaign by the IFE, Tower Hamlets changed later that year from a conventional council leader to an all-powerful directly elected mayoralty. Rahman stood as an independent, winning on a tiny turnout with the help, as his own campaign coordinator later admitted, of a mass mobilisation by IFE activists. This year’s poll, however, coincides with the local elections, turnout will be higher and voting probably tighter — so Rahman and his friends appear to be pulling out all the stops.
Poplar Town Hall is a case in point. A large and attractive Victorian listed building, a stone’s throw from Canary Wharf and steps from a future Crossrail station, it is worth millions. But The Sunday Telegraph has learnt that in 2011 the council sold it for £875,000, little more than what a three-bedroom Victorian house in the neighbourhood would cost. Poplar Town Hall, though, is big enough for its new owners to be converting it to a 25-bedroom hotel.