On Friday, one of the most sordid episodes in Tower Hamlets politics finally came to an end. MP Apsana Begum was declared not guilty on all three charges of fraud relating to social housing. Her opponents’ hopes of a by-election were unceremoniously dashed.
The whole case fell apart, as the jury found that she was not guilty on the three charges.
The disappointment of the unholy alliance that had come together to unseat Begum was palpable. The tabloids – who have gleefully presented every allegation made against her in big bold headlines – were suddenly quiet. The council investigators walked from the court with their tails between their legs, and later published a very defensive statement saying they “accepted the outcome”. The Tories in the courtroom were overheard muttering threats and abuse.
Social media lit up with congratulatory statements from all parts of the Labour left, as well as from the trade union movement and from local constituents in Begum’s Poplar & Limehouse seat.
Notably absent were any messages from Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner, or any of the local councillors. Local Labour right-wingers were also notably quiet. Obviously, they were unable to overcome their disappointment sufficiently to offer any kind words, even opportunistically.
From the whole case, you can see the collusion between these different elements, who have all played their own particular role. But to understand how this came about, it is worth looking back at how it came to be that Begum became the MP for Poplar & Limehouse.
Selection in 2019
The whole sorry saga started during the selection process. Apsana Begum won the selection against the united opposition of the councillors, bar a couple. The local Tower Hamlets Mayor, John Biggs, initially refused to congratulate her on her selection, instead commenting “let’s see how it unfolds”; and the councillors refused to help fund the local general election campaign, which is otherwise common practice.
I personally remember that, in a conversation during the celebration after her selection, I was told by a seasoned party activist that we had to be prepared for a fight, because Apsana has made some powerful enemies. He didn’t specify who they were, but it wasn’t hard to guess: the councillors and the local notables inside the party who had their noses put out of joint by the election of a young socialist.
In the process of getting the nomination, in August 2019, the local Momentum group organised hustings for the position. In that process, one ex-council leader, Helal Abbas, put his name forward. He was a leader during the Blair years, and oversaw the outsourcing of a number of council services.
For completely opportunistic reasons, a small minority of the local group supported him. This group included Begum’s councillor ex-husband. When they failed to get their candidate, they denounced Tower Hamlets as racist and stormed out.
The Labour Party eventually imposed an all-women shortlist, which completely pulled the rug from underneath Abbas’ candidature. In the end, only two candidates remained, which was councillor Amina Ali and Apsana Begum.
Apsana Begum got the support of the left unions, Momentum (locally and nationally), and left MPs. Amina Ali was supported by almost all of the councillors, and Begum’s ex-husband was prominent in Ali’s campaign. In the photographs of the phone canvassing sessions, it was obvious that the councillors were the backbone of the campaign.
The dirty tricks really started here. Completely unsubstantiated rumours circulated about Apsana Begum being homophobic. They were basically implying that because she wore the hijab, she must be homophobic. Her subsequent Parliamentary record proves just how unfounded those rumours were.
Nor was there any evidence for the claim that she was a puppet of former mayor Lutfur Rahman – but this didn’t stop the right wing spreading the rumour inside the Labour Party and beyond.
The selection meeting itself, in October the same year, was attended by 500 or so members, and the vote was won by Begum by quite some margin. However, the right wing attempted to overturn it with all kinds of accusations. At that time, of course, the bureaucracy of the party was at least partially under the control of the left wing, and nothing came of their complaints.
Tower Hamlets council cuts
Why were the council so adamantly opposed to Apsana Begum’s nomination? After Labour took over from Lutfur Rahman’s administration in 2015, with the help of Eric Pickles and the Tory press, they embarked on a programme of cuts.
One of the reasons why Begum faced such fierce opposition from the local councillors was that she had been involved with a number of public campaigns against the cuts that the council had been carrying out. This included campaigns against the closure of the last local authority run nurseries in Tower Hamlets, as well as cuts to Community Language Services.
The Labour council knew that, should Begum get elected, they’d have one MP constantly on their back when it came to the upcoming cuts. Indeed, that is precisely what happened. She continued her support for the Community Language Services, and made a public statement in support of the council workers that were subject to fire and rehire.
On the eve of the nomination deadline for parliamentary candidates, a complaint was made to the council regarding Apsana Begum’s social housing application. This complaint was made by none other than Begum’s ex-husband’s brother-in-law.
The allegation was also given over to the Sun at the same time – although they waited some time to publish the accusations. This had no effect on the submission of the nomination papers though, and Apsana Begum became Labour’s candidate for the constituency.
Honestly just when you think the Labour Party can't sink any lower you find find out that Apsana Begum's abusive ex-husband was on the housing subcommittee of the council that was suing her for housing fraud.— Agree to disagree 🍊 🍊 🍊 (@StefGotBooted) July 30, 2021
The Sun’s article, published in November 2019, was entitled “CORBYNISTA'S 'HOME SCAM' – Labour candidate faces probe over whether she wrongly secured £330,000 council flat”. Alongside this aggressive headline, the article included a picture of herself, and a picture of her house.
Murdoch’s writers are too clever to openly claim that this has anything to do with Begum’s religion – but the comments section (now deleted) didn’t miss the inference. One of the comments stated, quite bluntly: “You just have to look at her and you know she’s guilty” – clearly a reference to the hijab. To the racists on social media, her guilt was never in doubt.
During the election campaign, there were persistent rumours coming from the press, right-wing bloggers, and the other candidates for the constituency. An investigation had clearly been started without informing Begum of the fact, but plenty of other people – including Tories – had been told by someone in the council.
Guilty until proven innocent
The general feeling among this layer was of course that Apsana Begum must be guilty. The imagined link to Lutfur Rahman, was cited as another reason for this. Presumably the logic was: Here’s another Muslim standing for a prominent position in Tower Hamlets; and because the previous mayor was found guilty of corruption (in their minds), then surely, she must also be corrupt. Some in the Labour Party and beyond clearly started believing their own nonsense.
Once the court process had begun, Begum’s ability to make any kind of public statement was severely limited. Instead, the accusation was allowed to stand unanswered for 18 months.
Alongside the accusations that were actually made, a few more were concocted in the minds of the right-winger. For example, how could an MP get a council flat? She must have used her connections. They were smelling a big corruption case. And why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Throughout, no one seemed bothered to correct the falsehoods that were being spread. For example, there was the obvious fact that she was not an MP when she got the flat; that she didn’t have any connections with the council; and that this wasn’t actually a council flat, but a housing association flat. Instead, the increasingly fantastical accusations were allowed to fester.
The Labour right wing were obviously clever enough not to make any statements publicly, lest they be accused of interference in the court proceedings. Yet in private they were rubbing their hands. They were all waiting gleefully for the moment they could get rid of this bothersome left-winger.
Exclusive: Labour ‘vultures’ hung around court to announce by-election and line up right-wingers to replace Begum – until she was acquitted https://t.co/gVcbY4eZDK— The SKWAWKBOX (@skwawkbox) July 31, 2021
Some of the Tory councillors were a bit less circumspect. One (who recently left the Tory Party over the EU) decided to publish a list of possible measures to get rid of the MP, should she be found guilty. He also talks to Begum’s ex-husband – a fact he doesn’t hide.
This ex-Tory councillor and the only remaining Tory councillor in Tower Hamlets decided to take it in turn to observe the trial. They were clearly looking for all the juicy details. There was a palpable disappointment from the two when they realised the flimsiness of the case against Begum.
Probably the fact that the case went to trial was unexpected for the council officers. They are clearly used to the subjects of their investigations rolling over and accepting whatever punishment is meted out on them.
We should also consider the type of crime we’re dealing with. The rich are never put on trial for having fraudulently gotten social housing, nor for fraudulently claiming benefits. These types of crimes are the reserve of the poor. The punishments are also extremely harsh as a result. The maximum sentence for Begum would have been two years – for the crime of not having told the right council department that she had moved.
To top it all off, of course, this was a case that involved a period of Begum’s life that carried a lot of unpleasant memories: the death of her father; the estrangement from her family; the abusive relationship with her ex-husband and so on. The prosecution cared little for such matters. The real important question was whether the sitting room in her parents’ flat was a fourth bedroom or not.
Any sensible person – and clearly the jury contained a number of sensible persons – could see that there was nothing to this case. The whole thing should never have been brought to court. The reason it was brought was because this was a political case.
Other than the tabloids, elements within the council were involved. Begum’s lawyer said that complaints had come from two councillors: one from Labour, and one of the two Tory councillors. But who else was involved is not clear.
The prosecution’s case was full of racist innuendo and attempts to denigrate Apsana Begum’s character. One can see why. Without much in the way of evidence, what option did they have?
The prosecutor had to prove that Begum had done this maliciously, intending to gain advantage. But they had no actual evidence of this. Instead, they had to try to present Begum in the worst possible light – and playing on people’s prejudices was clearly helpful to this end.
The verdict really should have been a foregone conclusion, but the jury decides. The prosecutor did his best to muddy the water; and the press headlines were thinly veiled declarations of Begum’s guilt. In order to avoid criminal prosecution, they always add caveats such as “court told” or “accused of” hoping that these will not be noticed.
In the end, the jury returned the not guilty verdict. In her statement after the trial, Apsana Begum rightly condemned the accusations for being vexatious.
A revolting alliance
On one level, of course, this is an example of how the bourgeois justice system can be extremely harsh on working-class people, for the smallest of infringements. It brings to mind the campaign during the Tory-LibDem government about benefit cheats, when neighbours were encouraged to report on each other for fraudulent claims.
This was a case where an ex-husband had done precisely that; or, to be more precise, her ex-husband’s sister’s husband had done that. Of course, the details of the complaint could only have come from the ex-husband himself.
Why complain now, one wonders? Had the former husband and his in-law had a sudden epiphany on the day the nomination papers went in, and discovered their civic conscience after four years of silence? Well, this is clearly not the case. This was a clear attempt to bring Begum down.
During the court case, Apsana Begum’s barrister queried whether, as the case involved Begum’s ex-husband, it wasn’t a conflict of interest for council officers to investigate the case, given that the very same man sat on the audit committee. One of the council officers also was caught telling an untruth in the witness box, claiming he did not know the ex-husband, when in fact they’d been sat in at least one meeting together.
Because the prosecution was done by Tower Hamlets Council, it didn’t face the same tests as would normally be required for a case brought by the Crown Prosecution Service. It was a massive waste of money and resources, as was pointed out by former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal, normally not a friend of the left.
Apsana told me she was the victim of domestic abuse, honour based abuse & coercive controlling behaviour.— nazir afzal (@nazirafzal) July 30, 2021
The local authority were told this and still continued with their prosecution
A waste of public money
The amount of money spent by the council must be in the six figures, if you count the salaries of the investigating officers. Wouldn’t this money be much better spent actually building or buying a flat, rather than wasting it on fruitless prosecution?
But from the point of view of whoever pushed this case, clearly there were more important things at play than providing housing.
The complaint was carried by the right-wing Labour council and its top civil servants, who thought they could rid themselves of a prominent opponent. Exactly who was responsible, we can only guess. But at the top of the hierarchy is the Mayor and his chief executive, Will Tuckley, both well-known enemies of the council workers.
They were cheered on by the racist tabloid rags, starting with the Sun and the Daily Mail, and working their way down to the local newspapers and blogs. The fact that Begum was a Corbyn supporter made the whole thing all the juicier, and they didn’t fail to capitalise on this in the headlines.
So, here we have an alliance of an ex-husband, the right-wing Labour council (in dispute with the local trade union movement), and the national Tory press ganging up to remove a young left-wing MP, who has suffered domestic abuse and a difficult relationship with her family. The whole thing is enough to make you sick.
The vile racism on display on social media and in the comment section of the newspaper articles was not a surprise; and there was no discernible attempt on behalf of Begum’s detractors to reign them in. On the contrary, someone was constantly feeding stuff to Guido Fawkes and other right-wing trolls.
After the trial, one Bangladeshi journalist describes an elation in the local Bangladeshi community. For once, someone had stood up to these forces and was not crushed. By contrast, the Labour right wing – nationally and locally – remain completely silent on this question. Apsana Begum was trending on Twitter on Saturday as angry party members were demanding that Starmer congratulate her, something he refused to do.
On the last day of the trial, Amy Fode, the Labour Party’s regional director for London was seen skulking around the corridors of the court. They appeared ready to announce the by-election right there and then. After the verdict she was visibly shaken. This was clearly not the news she had been hoping for.
Clear out the council
When we called for Corbyn to clean out the Labour Party, this is what we were talking about. The call for open selection – of mayors, councillors, and MPs – was a call to rid Labour of this stain on the banner of the party. What we demanded was a party of workers, for workers.
Instead, we have these gangsters continuing to harass the membership of the party, using the dirtiest tricks in the book to rid themselves of their opponents.
Behind them stand the ruling class, with its money and its newspapers, always ready to offer a helping hand. In this case, they also had the help of the state, which was providing a helping hand to the persecution of the left.
The lesson is clear: the right wing is prepared to go to any lengths to defeat the left. It will stop at nothing to rid itself of the left in the party.
Now, the left needs to show the same determination in response. An urgent investigation needs to be held to determine who was pressuring the council officers to prosecute. This must be independent of the council, led by the labour movement.
There must be a clearing out of the council, with anyone found to have participated in this charade removed from office. The trigger ballot for the mayor has started, and we should start by voting for open selection in that ballot. The same should be done for the councillors when their turn comes in the next few weeks.
The people of Tower Hamlets deserve a council that represents them; that is prepared to fight the cuts; and that does not work with the Tories in order to attempt to remove their democratically-elected representatives by spurious accusations and slander.
This article was updated on 5 August to clarify that Lutfur Rahman was not convicted or tried for corruption.