Why does he do it? This was what ConHome wanted to ask Peter Golds, leader of the five Conservatives on Tower Hamlets Council, who has spent years campaigning against the astonishingly disreputable activities of the borough’s dominant faction, known as Tower Hamlets First. Last week Golds came a respectable third in the mayoral election in which John Biggs, for Labour, defeated that faction. He was recently awarded a CBE. (ConHome had previously called for him to receive an honour.)
But the almost unbelievable shamelessness of Lutfur Rahman, the leader of Tower Hamlets First who was recently forced to stand down as mayor and debarred from public office after being found guilty of extensive corruption, made it impossible to limit the interview to the question of Golds’ motivation.
It became necessary to ask him what should be done to prevent the excesses which have long been visible in Tower Hamlets politics. He replied that in his view there needs to be “compulsory integration”, so that politics ceases to be dominated by Bangladeshi concerns, often expressed in mosques which are sometimes in receipt of public funding, and instead becomes a predominantly secular activity.
Golds, who is himself of Jewish descent, is steeped in the Conservative Party: as will be described at the end of this piece, he introduced John Major to Norma, and worked for many years as a Tory agent. He communicates an unflagging relish for politics, and is alert to its comic as well as its serious aspects.
This is not the place to attempt a complete account of all that has gone wrong in recent years in Tower Hamlets. Golds has himself written a number of pieces for ConHome in which he calls for urgent action to deal with electoral fraud there. ConHome has also published, in full, the devastating judgement on Rahman’s mayoralty. And journalists including Ted Jeory, Andrew Gilligan and John Ware have taken enormous pains to report the various excesses in the borough.
But for a long time no one paid much attention. The authorities who ought to have stopped clear breaches of the law were remarkably slow to act, and many members of the wider public seem to have thought this was just some curious Bangladeshi quarrel, which it would be far too much trouble to try to understand.
In 2010, Golds assembled clear evidence of names being added in a fraudulent manner to the electoral register by Rahman’s supporters: “They were so blatant about it. It was all sent to the police and the police did nothing.”
ConHome: “Why was that?”
Golds: “You must ask the police.”
ConHome: “But were they in fact afraid of being accused of racism?”
Golds: “The fear is of being accused of racism.”
One of the ironies of the situation is that Rahman’s people are sometimes abominably racist. Golds showed me a letter he sent on 28th May 2015 to Sir Bernard Hogan Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, about Ahad Miah, who from 15th July 2014 until 20th April 2015 posted an item on Facebook headed “Let me salute Hitler the Great”, which continued in a crudely anti-semitic vein.
Golds informed the Commissioner that Miah
is currently both a school governor at Blue Gate Fields Infants School and a member of the management committee of the St Hilda’s East Community Centre. In May 2014 he was a candidate for the St Katharine’s and Wapping ward of Tower Hamlets, standing on behalf of Tower Hamlets First alongside Stuart Madewell, both of whom were endorsed and supported by Lutfur Rahman.
St Hilda’s receives substantial funding from Tower Hamlets, and on 21st April 2015 Golds sent a letter asking a senior council officer how it can go on paying money to the community centre while Miah remains on the management committee. He has yet to receive a reply to this question. Nor have Tower Hamlets Police, to whom he copied the inquiry, responded. Hence the appeal to Sir Bernard.
As Golds observed: “If a UKIP councillor anywhere had said ‘Let me salute Hitler the Great’ I suspect that he would have been out of public office in minutes.”
ConHome: “He’d also have been on the front page of the Daily Mail.”
Golds: “It would not have taken the council’s principal lawyer a month to say, ‘We’re looking for an excuse to do sweet FA’”
ConHome: “It’s such a knock-down instance.”
Golds: “And the police are still dithering what to do, just because he’s called Ahad Miah. Frankly, the more these people get away with all this, the worse it’s going to get.”
In his letter to Sir Bernard, Golds quotes an account by Ted Jeory (who happens not to be Jewish) of being told by a Tower Hamlets youth: “F*** off Jew, you’re not welcome here.”
Jeory remonstrates with the youth and his mates, who ask if he is “the police”. He replies that if he was, he’d probably be arresting the youth. But they just retort: “The police don’t have the balls to arrest us.”
As Golds tells Sir Bernard, “This is a view widely held in the borough.”
When so many other people make no protest against such things, how did Golds get involved?
Golds: “I came here in 2000. Moved from Wembley to the house here. There was no Conservative Party here, nothing, a desert. So I thought we can’t have that, let’s get something going. And in 2002 we insisted on fighting every seat in the local election, which they’d never done before.”
It seemed entirely natural to Golds to do this, because he had not only served as a Conservative agent, but for eight years in the 1990s was a local Tory councillor in Brent.
Golds: “And then six days later [after the 2002 election] a Labour councillor quit, because he was elected illegally, which was the first time I realised there was something really dodgy here. And in the council by-election, we came within ten votes of winning.
“In 2004 we won our first ever seat. In 2006 we won seven seats. In 2010 we still had seven of us. And in 2014, with the revised boundaries, we dropped to five. But the fact we held five seats in an election year, when the party was doing badly, shows extraordinary tenacity.
“In my ward there is not a street I haven’t called in, there is not a door that you can walk to I haven’t knocked on, and I expect the same of my fellow candidates. They are incredible hard workers. But what we have uncovered pretty quickly is the record of an area that was effectively a one-party state. And it wasn’t a very effective one-party state.”
ConHome: “When did you start to realise it was deeply corrupt as well?”
Golds: “There was an incredibly dramatic change when Lutfur Rahman came in. That was in 2008. There was a coup in the Labour group. Denise Jones, who led it, was the daughter-in-law of Lord Elwyn-Jones, Wilson’s Lord Chancellor. Lutfur came in with a very different agenda and everything altered. And the first thing that was quite seriously disturbing was a very senior, extremely able officer left who was the assistant chief executive. She was called Sara Williams. Very able. I’m sure she didn’t share my politics. I would defend her to the hilt.
“Lutfur came in and they tried to force through – we were appointing a chief executive – a candidate – my jaw dropped – the man who [in 2002] had ceased to be a councillor after six days.”
ConHome: “Oh no! How shameless!”
Golds: “It gets better than that. I took one look at his CV and he’d lied repeatedly. And I kept raising this, and far from listening to me, they tried to have me thrown off the committee…The gilt on the gingerbread was that when it became known publicly there was all this problem about him lying on his CV, another organisation rings the Town Hall to say, ‘Did you know he works for us as well?’ So he had two jobs. He had to leave.
“And that is one of many incidents. The whole way the council was run altered. It became more threatening, more unpleasant, and religion reared its head. There was far, far too much to do with various religious things. Then we came to the extraordinary business of the petition for the elected Mayor where we established that there were almost 7,000 forged signatures on it.”
ConHome: “Crumbs. Out of how many signatures in total?”
Golds: “17,000. And by this time the conduct of elections was suspicious. We started to write to the police. There was some tremendous support from journalists, which is why I’m a great supporter of the free press, and I defend the BBC. Some of the BBC journalists were brilliant.
“I just worked and worked. I studied everything. I watched how they ran the council. We wrote to Scotland Yard and they ignored it. But they’re so wet. Wet, wet, wet.”
ConHome: “It’s terribly demoralising for law-abiding people, to see shameless flouting of the law.”
Rahman’s opponents were subjected during council meetings to ferocious barracking and intimidation by his supporters.
ConHome: “Can you explain a bit more your own motives for going through this?”
Golds: “Because I believe in public service. One of the tragedies we’ve had is this so-called third sector which has been nationalised. There are too many people being paid to do things that were once voluntary. Far better to have the days when people collected money, and ran events and jumble sales.
“You could always get somebody, if you were standing there rattling a tin, who’d put a £20 note in. That is far better, that £20 note, than a £20 note from the taxpayer. We’ve lost that. I’m a deep believer in public service, I’ve met people in public service who I admire and I will continue in public service until the public doesn’t want me to do any service.”
ConHome: “Has Bangladeshi politics been imported into parts of this country?”
Golds: “Yes. It dominates things here.”
ConHome: “And what does that mean?”
Golds: “Issues of Bangladesh are of extreme importance. People of Bangladeshi origin represent 32 per cent of the population of this borough, so yes, their concerns are of huge importance. But I don’t think the borough should be dominated so much by it.
“I think we need to move to be much, much more secular. Lutfur, I think it brought real poison, this, the money that was poured into religious organisations, his so-called faith buildings initiative. Too much taxpayers’ money goes into organisations that are called community associations and then end up as mosques.
“We have 45 mosques in the borough and you only have to look at the names of them, rather too many are ‘something something something community association’. And if they’re a mosque, they’re not a community association, any more than a synagogue or a church or a chapel or a temple is a community organisation. It is a place of religion for a specific religion. And when you sometimes see them with the rack to take their shoes off and separate entrances for men and women, then they most certainly are not community organisations. And they should not be receiving taxpayers’ money.
“Strikingly, when I was in Brent, I was on the committee that granted the planning consent for the Hindu temple in Neasden.”
ConHome: “Oh yes, the magnificent one.”
Golds: “That was built by subscription. Not a penny of council money went into that. They raised that themselves. And it gives it that much more credibility. It is a magnificent building.”
ConHome: “It is fantastic. I’ve been there.”
Golds: “A huge tribute to the Hindu community. And whereas it’s a sign of their religion, it is also a sign of their integration, because it’s very welcoming. They love taking tourists round. And they can say with pride that the British Hindu community raised the money to build the Hindu temple.
“It is so striking that the Hindu and Sikh communities are like the Jews integrating rapidly. It’s so noticeable.
“Did you read Suella Fernandes’s maiden speech?” He passed me a letter he has just received from the newly elected Conservative MP for Fareham, in which she says: “I will always remember that you were the first person to take me out canvassing in Brent North, a bastion of Sir Rhodes Boyson, and taught me how to do it!”
ConHome: “That’s very nice.”
Golds: “She’s wonderful. I rejoice that the Conservative Party has more and more ethnic, different people, that at one time would not have seemed possible. There’s loads of them. The Conservative MP with the largest majority in Parliament is Sinhalese, Ranil Jayawardena [in Hampshire North East, which he won by 29,916 votes]. I mean that’s a tribute both to his association’s workers and to himself, and the electorate.”
ConHome: “So things are changing.”
Golds: “There was a report the Electoral Commission commissioned earlier this year, and they said the two [isolated] groups are the Bangladeshi and the Pakistani communities, which ever look inward, and I think the news in the last couple of days are communities that are looking inwards. And I really believe that government and local government, I use the word advisedly, must do more than encourage integration. You have to insist on integration.”
ConHome: “How do you insist on integration?”
Golds: “I believe that there has to be a real programme of integration. People have to be brought within basically a country that is European, with an established religion that is legally very secular – in a way, proudly secular. And therefore our laws, although Parliament meets by grace of God, our laws are not God-given. They are parliamentary-given. And our traditions are secular. Indeed, as are most of Europe. We acknowledge religion, but that is it. Religion has a part in religion and law has a part in law.
“There are a large number of very bright young Bangladeshis who I have seen, who are very interested in politics, that get side-lined because these old community leaders, from the mosques, want to end up selecting as candidates – and I’ve seen it too often on Tower Hamlets council – middle-aged men, and they’re almost inevitably men, who can scarcely speak English and have virtually no idea what they’re doing there.”
ConHome: “How are you getting on locally at recruiting Bangladeshis to the Tory Party?”
Golds: “In some ways it’s difficult. We have some. One of the things you have here is you have this awful block voting, where they block vote for Bangladeshi groups of candidates.”
ConHome: “Are you yourself religious?”
Golds: “No. I have great respect for religion, but I’m afraid the whole thing totally eludes me. I’m a great admirer of the Book of Common Prayer and the St James Bible.
“Nowadays we live in a very secular world. I don’t want to see religion damaged, it is important to show religion respect, there is so much teaching in religion, the Ten Commandments are almost the great foundation of what is right and what is wrong, and they predate Magna Carta by several thousand years.
“I think integration is the key. I think integration is essential.”
ConHome: “The Labour Party has in some ways been an integrating factor. It has brought people in, and now the Tory Party is also bringing people of immigrant descent in. But it hasn’t worked in Tower Hamlets.”
Golds: “Or Bradford. Or I suspect in other parts of the country. I think we’ve got isolated communities.”
ConHome: “One aspect of integration would be equal treatment of men and women?”
Golds: “I believe anyone who lives in this country lives by our standards.”
ConHome: “Is it true that you introduced John Major to Norma?”
Golds: “Yes. I was a young lad, I was still at school and I knew John Major. “
ConHome: “Were you at the same school as him?”
Golds: “Oh gosh no. He was at Rutlish and I went to a school in Clapham. And I helped him in his election.”
ConHome: “Did you get to know him through the Conservatives?”
Golds: “Vaguely, yes. He was a local activist in Brixton. My great love in life is opera, and I was a great follower of Dame Joan Sutherland, and Norma was a great follower of Dame Joan Sutherland. And one day in an election, she said, ‘Well I’ll come and help you,’ because she’d been in the Young Conservatives. And John walked in the room and said, ‘Who’s that pretty girl?’ And I said, ‘John, this is Norma. Norma, this is John.’”
ConHome: “And your role at this stage, you were an activist as well?”
Golds: “Yes, and then I became an agent, for Rhodes Boyson for several elections.”
ConHome: “What was your first election with Boyson, then?”
Golds: “1974. Then I did for two elections for Sir Geoffrey Finsberg. I worked first for Brent North Conservative Association, and then for Hampstead and Highgate Conservative Association.”
What a change it must have been for Golds, coming to live in Tower Hamlets. Yet he seems contented there. For as he said with a smile: “I’m a somewhat awkward opponent, because I’m somewhat single-minded.”