Exclusive: Manchester's deputy leader accused of 'stirring up divisions' as school protests spread
A fellow Labour councillor has written a formal letter of complaint about Luthfur Rahman, one of the city's leading political figures
Dear readers — the controversy surrounding Birchfields Primary School has now triggered an extraordinary crisis inside Manchester City Council, as protests have this week spread to other schools. The Mill has learned that a formal complaint has been made against the council’s deputy leader Luthfur Rahman, accusing him of undermining community cohesion by assisting the parents who have been protesting outside the school, some of whom have been accused of intimidating teachers.
The complaint was made by a fellow Labour councillor Jill Lovecy, writing on behalf of the Labour group in Rusholme, the ward in which Birchfields sits. Sent to Manchester’s council leader Bev Craig on Monday morning, the letter from Lovecy begins:
I am writing in my capacity as Chair of Rusholme Labour on behalf of the Branch Executive to raise with you most concerning evidence that our Deputy City Council Leader, Councillor Luthfur Rahman, has acted in breach of Labour Party rules forbidding political interference in another Ward (Rusholme Ward) and in breach of our Party's core commitments to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. These are actions which threaten seriously to undermine community cohesion in our Ward. They also threaten to bring Manchester Labour into disrepute and to bring negative publicity to our City.
Lovecy accuses Rahman, a highly influential figure in Manchester who narrowly lost to Craig in the council leadership election in late 2021, of supporting the parents who have been organising noisy protests outside Birchfields, an ugly dispute that we reported on this weekend. She cites an audio recording posted in the parents’ group chat in which Mohammed Sajjad, who has been leading the protests about the sex and relationships curriculum at the primary school, claims he has met with Rahman. Lovecy’s letter states:
In this voicemail Mr Sajjad confirms to other group members that Councillor Rahman has been advising the Group, has in person met with The Admin Group, and had initially helped secure at very short notice the booking of the (MCC-owned) Pakistan Community Centre in Longsight for the first meeting of the Parents Group. (This was held, according to the meeting flier, to "safeguard your children from LGBTQ+").
The Mill has been aware of this recording since it was posted in the group chat over the weekend and we approached the council about it on Monday morning, well before we knew about the official complaint against Rahman. The council didn’t send an official response, but when we met Rahman to talk about his involvement with the parents on Tuesday, he denied acting inappropriately. He said he had been contacted by individual parents who live in his ward of Longsight and that he had directed them to the appropriate figures at the council. He told us: "Some parents have known me a number of years, and I've told them what I told you: go talk to the headteacher."
Lovecy’s claim — that Rahman has undermined the council by assisting the parents, including the ring leader of the protests who has been banned from the school grounds, without informing the local ward councillors in Rusholme — is a serious allegation and it seems to be based almost entirely on the voice note posted by Sajjad. Lovecy writes: “Any such actions on his part will have contributed to stirring up unacceptable divisions, stress and tensions amongst the staff, parents and pupils of this large, successful Primary School in our Ward, and to the possibility of this spreading to other local schools.”
Responding to the allegation that he helped the parents who were shouting at teachers outside Birchfields to book a meeting at the Pakistani Community Centre in Longsight, Rahman told The Mill: “I've not helped or assisted in any way in facilitating or booking that centre for them." He also condemned attempts to intimidate teachers and local councillors, telling us: "It's unacceptable, it's outrageous. You can disagree with someone, but you can't intimidate, threaten or try and bully anyone.”
Lovecy’s reference to the primary school protests spreading to other schools is backed up by our reporting this week. We’ve been told that a large number of students were kept out of Oasis Academy Temple in Cheetham Hill on Monday in a protest about similar themes that have been highlighted at Birchfields — sex and relationships education. We haven’t been able to confirm one suggestion that 300 students were kept out of school that day, but there was a protest outside Oasis Academy Temple on Monday morning and we understand that council officials have been “sent in” to try to solve the problem.
Councillors we’ve spoken to are also concerned about potential parent protests at two other schools — one in Prestwich and one in Crumpsall. “There have been murmurings at other schools,” one councillor told us. “It’s become a city-wide issue.”
Mollie and Jack have been reporting on this story all week and have written an update below — which includes further insight into what exactly is motivating the parent protests at Birchfields and how the school sees this dispute. “We don't teach kids to masturbate,” one source at the school told them. “There are no graphic videos. You know, it’s just misinformation. What we’re fighting here is a battle against misinformation.”
As always, this edition of The Mill is members-only, so if you want to read their reporting — and support us so that we can do more reporting like this — please join up as a member if you’re not signed up already. Complex stories like this require diligent and careful reporting, and the long read we published on the weekend, and today’s story, are good examples of that. This kind of work requires a lot of interviews and late nights working through claims and counter-claims and we love doing it because we think it helps readers to think about the dynamics and undercurrents in this city that need to be better understood. If that’s the kind of journalism you want about your local schools and other institutions in Greater Manchester, please join our community of 2,266 paying members now. The more members we get, the more local journalists we can employ to do work like this from our office on St Ann’s Square, and the more sustainable The Mill will become.
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Is the deputy leader of Manchester City Council ‘stirring up unacceptable divisions, stress and tensions’ amid the growing primary school protests?
By Jack Dulhanty and Mollie Simpson
Since we published our weekend read about the parents’ protest outside Birchfields Primary School, we have been monitoring the situation closely. There was a second protest on Monday. It started directly opposite the school and then moved to the adjacent main road, where the week before — as we reported — placards were held that read “This school exposes kids to graphic sexual content,” and “This school can’t be trusted with kids”.
The chair of the protest group, Mohammed Sajjad (sometimes referred to by his middle name Wahab), gave speeches about the school trying to “vilify” him and being banned from the school grounds. The latest protest was organised on the group’s very active WhatsApp group chat, which currently has nearly 400 members and helps to organise the activities of the Concerned Parents of Birchfields Primary School Parents Unity. The conversations on the chat veer around wildly, from parents raising apparent safeguarding concerns to whether a stomach bug from a badly-cooked burger is spreading among the children.
Then, on Sunday night, a screenshot of an old tweet was shared, posted in 2019 by Marcus Johns, a Labour councillor for Deansgate. In the tweet, Johns — who is openly gay — said he was “proud to have raised the issue of LGBT sex and relationship education at Full Council today.” Johns also thanked Luthfur Rahman — then the council’s lead for schools and now its deputy leader — for reiterating “our unequivocal commitment to LGBT inclusive SRE [sex and relationship education] in Manchester”.
When the tweet was posted in the Parents Unity group chat, it was accompanied by the question: "Can someone clarify with Cllr Luthfur Raman, whether he is supporting the Labour council or supporting this parent group as he said during his with admins?" It was followed by a correction: it had meant to say “during his meeting”. Responding to the question, one parent wrote: “What else do you need it’s blatantly obvious what he is supporting and it’s not his electorate.”
The group’s chair Sajjad quickly stepped in to tamp down the suggestion that Rahman could either be supporting the parents or supporting LGBT-inclusive teaching. Remember, Rahman has repeatedly insisted that his campaign against Birchfields is motivated by concerns about age-appropriate curricular material rather than homophobia or socially conservative religious values. He responded to the messages about Rahman, saying in a voice recording: “highlighting his unequivocal commitment to inclusivity of everyone, we are all for inclusion.” He added: “if you think this WhatsApp group is for people bashing or anything derogatory or discriminatory, just remove yourself.”
But Sajjad said something else that was significant: "Luthfur Rahman has been advising us. He's given advice within council, how to work.” He then referenced a meeting at the Pakistani Community Centre, in Longsight, where he alleges the council tried to get the group’s meetings cancelled on multiple occasions.
“Even Pakistani Community Centre,” said Sajjad, “Luthfur is the one who said we can hold our meeting there." Strikingly, here was the suggestion that the powerful deputy leader of Manchester City Council has been quietly supporting a group whose chair has since been banned from the premises of a council-run primary school by the city solicitor. As soon as we heard it, we contacted the council.
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