Spiral Notebook: What happens when local councillors play at international geopolitics



By Giles Broadbent

Pro-Palestininan campaigners clog up Blackwall tunnel in support of the victims of the Gaza confict. Jewish organisations report an increase in anti-Semitic attacks.

And what does the mayor of Tower Hamlets do? Tweet a picture of a Palestinian flag outside the Town Hall.

He figleaves his act with (no doubt) sincere comments about peace and ceasefires but the gulf between words and actions cannot be bridged with bland patter.

When Lutfur Rahman won the mayoral election he asked for a clean slate. He was no longer interested, he said, in dog whistle politics, playing to his Muslim core.

His was a come-one-come-all, rainbow administration, he pledged, arms wide in a statesmanlike embrace.

This is important because the council sits on the frontline of diversity, where different ethnic groups sit cheek-by-jowl - mostly without friction, sometimes uneasily.

It is a frontline recognised in One Tower Hamlets, an initiative to bring communities together. Yet the Palestinian flag flew outside the Town Hall in one of the country's Jewish heartlands, the scene of the Battle of Cable Street, the location of the East London Synagogue and the East London Mosque.

So not One Tower Hamlets, then but two. Us and Them. Not promoting peace but prompting division.

How stupid. How facile. How pointless.

Few can fail to have been moved by the plight of those subject to the Israeli onslaught - the relentless attacks are roundly condemned as disproportionate. But it is not Tower Hamlets' job to choose sides in a war in which they play no part.

Of course, it is not Tower Hamlets' job to engage in this kind of indulgent gesture politics at all. It is the mayor's job to manage a borough that surely requires his full focus.

Labour's contribution to this regrettable episode should not be ignored either. GPs who turned up at the Town Hall to discuss surgery closures found themselves bumped by local councillors playing at international geopolitics.

• Vandals rip down Palestinian flag

That a mayor with question marks over his ability to govern can run up a flag at all suggests a competence of sorts - but the wrong kind, the old kind. The kind that can orchestrate political groupies but not dustbin lorries.

The mayor has enough trouble with his links to the hardline Islamic Forum for Europe which he disputes. He often overcompensates to neutralise potential criticism. ("How can we protect Jewish heritage?" he opined.)

Yet, as Jonathan Arkush, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Evening Standard: "Mayor Rahman should remember that he is flying a flag from a British town hall in support of an organisation that is regarded as terrorist."

Rahman has nailed his colours to the mast and destroyed, at a stroke, his claims to be Rahman 2.0 - the unifying force.