The true shock for many was not so much the crimes, horrific though they were. The true shock was the conspiracy of silence around them, both inside the Pakistani community and outside it.
And that is not, one likes to think, because we are intrinsically a nation of racists casting around for a reason to heap abuse on British Pakistanis among us, but mostly for the opposite reason: we didn’t want to believe that there could be a clear link between a particular culture and a particularly nasty crime.
There is a link, of course, but it is not a simplistic one: clearly a small number of Rotherham’s population have not become rapists because of the colour of their skin, or where they worship.
What, then, is that link and why should it be anything to do with Labour?
It’s an uncomfortable question, but it’s also one which we really need to ask.
For a long time, as we highlighted in Labour’s manifesto uncut (Chapter 2, section 2), Labour has had a cosy – too cosy – relationship with some ethnic communities around the country. Not all, but some. A few are Sikh. Most are Muslim, from Pakistan or Bangladesh.
And the deal goes like this: we will scratch your back, and you will scratch ours. We will support you and mute our criticism of the odd dodgy practice, and you will get out the vote in your communities and deliver it for our candidates. This is not particularly difficult when there often exist numerous members of a given extended family who will, either by habit or peer pressure, vote the same way.
A perfect example of this, as has been clocked before at Uncut, is the manipulation of membership lists during parliamentary selections, which has resulted in thirteen CLPs being put in “special measures”. It is admirable that something has been done in these thirteen; not so good that the approach to this ever-worsening problem is to contain it, rather than solve it.
We seem unable to face the plain fact that these thirteen are virtually all for the same reason: the importation of biraderi (clan) politics, or similar, to our committee rooms. The culture is to protect one’s own, but with that protection goes a strong obligation to toe the community line.
In addition, the council – and the police – often choose to approach the community over sensitive issues through “community leaders”: imams or other local figures who claim to speak for those sharing their religious or cultural background. Those (often self-appointed) leaders are not necessarily the first people to want to wash the community’s dirty laundry in public.
And sometimes the community reacts against them anyway: Bradford West, as Demos’ David Goodhart wrote, was largely about young Asians annoyed with the arrogant assumption that they would automatically vote the way the biraderi advised.
More disturbingly, the leading lights of local government still have a not inconsiderable influence over the police, even now the PCC structure has mostly removed their direct power. A streetwise Chief Constable will try and keep the local dignitaries on side, and so the preference for “not disturbing community relations” can slowly become a dogma.
The equation is simple: diminish the fear of punishment for some crimes and incidents will, well, increase.
The toxicity of this kind of relationship is that it corrupts both sides. The politicians, who start to think that this kind of back-scratching behaviour is normal. And, of course, in the communities themselves, where a handful of dishonest or sick individuals end up in an environment where they find they can commit crimes with impunity.
Child abuse, like honour killing, is the far end of the spectrum, of course, but it is like the “broken windows” approach of former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani: lesser evils, tolerated over a period of years, make a corrosive soup. In recent years we have seen serious allegations of corruption, professional misconduct, misuse of public funds and electoral fraud in Labour or pseudo-Labour “independent” councils.
Alternatively, if an investigator were short on time, they could just scratch around superficially in Tower Hamlets, where there are allegations of pretty much all these things in the same place.
Take elections. As early as 2008, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation wrote, in Purity of elections in Britain: causes for concern, about “anecdotal evidence” of the biraderi link to British Asians (the report specifically mentions Pakistani Kashmiris and Bangladeshis).
But the evidence is no longer merely anecdotal, if it ever was. As Democratic Audit pointed out in 2010, British Asians made up more than half of all those convicted of electoral fraud in the preceding decade – extraordinary in an ethnic group which constitutes only 7% of the UK population. Should we ignore this inconvenient fact, or deal with it?
And now to Labour’s role in all this. It has not been the only party to have been associated with the negative impacts of the biraderi system. But it has probably been the worst, for three reasons.
The first is just demographics: Labour is the party of the inner cities, and therefore deals with biraderi more than any other party. Simples.
The second is that it knows about the “cosiness” problem in numerous local parties and councils, – one which is obviously getting worse not better, judging by the “special measures” metric – but has not put in place any kind of strategy at party level to actually combat it. It needs one. “One more heave” by Labour in Tower Hamlets, for example, will not fix the serious flaws in the borough’s politics.
The third? All the while, too many in Muslim communities generally have been busy isolating themselves into parallel worlds, as Dan Hodges pointed out last week. Meanwhile, we play identity politics with them. We allow them to separate their schools from the mainstream. We speak to them only through their self-appointed leaders. We fail to call out specific community problems which cry out for attention, for fear of being branded racists.
These facets of “different” treatment all originated on the left, with us. And then we are amazed when British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis feel different. Isolated. Victims, even: a deadly narrative which the extremists in their midst are all too happy to peddle, to further their own, poisonous agenda.
Imagine a dynamic of reinforcing a community’s feeling of “otherness” over long years and, at the same time telling them – as David Aaronovitch recently described Obama’s foreign policy – that “the cops have left town”. Anything can, and will, happen.
Labour seems utterly in denial about the impact of its own party’s behaviour in all this. To his credit, this week Simon Danzcuk MP called out the Pakistani link, while understandably stopping short of naming his own party.
But Miliband does not even mention the elephant in the room in his statement on Rotherham, let alone have a strategy for dealing with his party’s own unhealthy relationship with that community and others. How long before the thirteen CLPs become twenty, fifty?
Labour is not the sole culprit, naturally. Neither can we put all the responsibility on Miliband: it is shared by all its leaders since 1 May 1997. They left the party organisation to its own devices, as Tony Blair freely admits in A Journey.
But it is, of all parties, the most complicit. After all this, we can hardly be amazed when biraderi politics is found to have replicated itself over here, along with all its failings.
And with the insular, even above-the-law, culture which we have helped foster under Labour councils, even its most extreme manifestations – of disturbed young men evolving into murderous jihadis off to Syria, or abusers of young girls back home – should not entirely surprise us, either.
This piece first published at Labour Uncut
UPDATE 16/09/14: My friend and former Millbank colleague, Howard Knight, has pointed out that the headline of this piece could be misinterpreted or twisted. Although I think the piece itself makes things fairly clear and it attempts to call out a much broader issue than just Rotherham – the influence of the biraderi culture on a whole range of areas – I should like to make it clear that I do not, for example, think there is any evidence that the leaders of the Rotherham clans were somehow directly involved in the abuse. It is also clear that there were extremely serious, perhaps criminal, failings on the part of the police and the local authority and we should note that.
I find it extraordinary difficult to believe, however, that the abuse was carried out without anyone in power within the clans knowing about the abuse of 1,400 girls. The real problem is this: in a healthy societal model, the control which would have stopped the growth in this abhorrent abuse would have been its reporting by all the people who knew these men to the police.
Many women bravely did, and were ignored; the men, largely, did not. That is a failing which it is difficult to explain away, except in that they either (i) believed that no serious crime had been committed, or (ii) knew that one had been committed and were covering it up all the same. Neither are acceptable and both are products of a parallel society; of living under a system where the law of the land is not the only law, and sometimes not even the primary one.
It is also striking that, as Times reporter Andrew Norfolk, who worked on the case for over two years, comments: “this is a normalised group activity”. In this it is completely differentiated from comparable abuse by white men, where this kind of activity is anything but normalised.
For those who have argued – wrongly, I believe – that this case is comparable to that of Jimmy Savile, and that there is no cultural element whatsoever, that is the crucial point.