Monday 10 December 2007

Are the attacks on Lee Jasper just dirty politics?

The Evening Standard has kept up its attacks on Lee Jasper, race advisor to London Mayor Ken Livingston, over allegations that he influenced the London Development Agency over £2.5 million of funding paid to organisations with which he had strong links. The paper alleges that Jasper is at the centre of a network of groups controlled by by himself or his close friends that have received large sums of public money in return for little or no work. Specifically, it says that:

  • Hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money paid to the companies is unaccounted for or has disappeared.
  • • Up to £295,000 of this funding is the subject of possible legal action for return of sums from Diversity International, a company controlled by a long-standing friend and business associate of Lee Jasper called Joel O'Loughlin. It received LDA funding for the Diversity Dividend, a web-based tool for London business, even though it allegedly has no expertise in IT and is based in Liverpool. The website does not exist, the company has now gone into liquidation and all the money paid to it has apparently vanished.
  • LDA officials had severe doubts about Brixton Base, a "creative training hub" for the black community whose patron is Lee Jasper and whose director is Errol Walters, another of Jasper's friend. Brixton Base has received £287,000 from the LDA over the past two years for "premises" - even though it has occupied an LDA-owned building throughout that time and was charged no rent in the first year. The Evening Standard alleged that the LDA wanted to evict the organisation from its building, but that in an email to the LDA's senior director, Tony Winterbottom, Jasper gave an order to "ensure that this action [the eviction] is withdrawn immediately and ensure I am consulted on all major decisions affecting [Brixton Base]".
  • Several of the organisations are based in the same small room at a business centre in Kennington.
  • The same people, friends or business associates of Mr Jasper - including Errol Walters and businesswoman and reality TV show star Yvonne Thompson - appear as directors or staff members of each organisation.
The Greater London Authority has refuted the allegations and called upon Andrew Gilligan, the reporter leading the story, to hand over any evidence to the police, saying that his failure to do so suggests that "the allegation is without any substance."

Unsurprisingly, groups like The 1990 Trust, where Jasper was once Director, and Operation Black Vote, run by Jasper's friend Simon Woolley, have launched a counter attack on the Evening Standard. Karen Chouhan of the 1990 Trust has highlighted significant inaccuracies in Gilligan's reports, whilst Woolley has said (rather melodramatically) that the accusations are "an attack on the capital's African, Asian, Caribbean and other minority ethnic communities." Both accuse the paper of using the story to discredit Livingston as part of the coming electoral fight for the London Mayor's office. And certainly the latest attacks are so personal that they suggest an bitter vendetta - include the revelation that Jasper, who earns £117,000 a year, lives in a £90 a week housing association property in Clapham.

The problem for most of us, looking in from the outside, is to separate facts from rhetoric on both sides. Those who have known Lee Jasper for many years would find it hard to believe that Jasper would personally seek to involve himself in corruption - his main interest has always been political, not financial. However, hearing the story for the first time, it's hard to forget that Jasper has always surrounded himself with a coterie that he has protected, and that when Livingston first came to power, many of them ended up in City Hall. That's the problem - there is often a grain of truth in even the most outrageous lie. Certainly, if Gilligan and the Standard have evidence of criminal activity, they should put up or shut up, by passing their dossier to the police. But if they decide to do so, Jasper has to stand down until the case against him is thrown out or taken to court.

As for the idea that attacking Jasper means attacking London's minority communities, there is a grain of truth in this too. I spoke to a friend in one group in Newham that receives LDA funding, on the day the Standard's first story appeared. She was concerned that it would lead to an attitude of greater suspicion towards black-led organisations, which is a real concern. But in spite of the impression that Jasper has fostered over the years, his persona and London's black communities are not interchangeable. Most funders are likely know this, even in the event that there might be an unfair level of extra scutiny given to some organisations in the future, simply on the basis of past association with Lee Jasper.

Indeed, even if you accept the ludicrous idea that there is such a thing as a 'spokesman' for black Londoners, Jasper has long given up any credibility to hold such a role. He has firmly supported the Mayor's staunch defence of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair and defended the police on two issues that continue to anger many black Londoners - stop-and-search, which black communities are around four times more likely to be targeted for than white people, and the introduction of the police DNA database, which will soon encompass around three-quarters of young black men.

Jasper represents a wholly different approach to "anti-racism" from the progressive, community-led politics that once meant there was something resembling an 'anti-racist movement' in Britain. The road he has travelled, largely abandoning work with local communities to stride the corridors of power, has depoliticised the fight against racism, created an 'anti-racism business' rather than a movement, where black communities are clients and where the fortunes and reputations of the 'leaders' are more important than the impact that anti-racism is able to make on the ground.

Lee Jasper is now more like any corporate business leader, liable to hostile briefings from rivals and open to outright attacks from the press at any point. In the rough and tumble, the 'business' is likely to get hurt.

But considering his profile in the past, it's just surprising that it has taken the newspapers so long to turn on Jasper.

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