Thursday, 20 September 2012

Respect: the case against allowing extremists into the Labour party

Last week there was much speculation about whether or not Salma Yaqoob, the former leader of Respect who understandably resigned rather than share a party with George Galloway, might join the Labour Party, should she so desire. Indeed, local Labour MP Richard Burden on Thursday extended the hand of friendship, saying she would “be an asset”.

Yaqoob is a young, articulate politician about whom we know relatively little, given that she is, in terms of real administrative power, an ex-backbench Birmingham councillor and has had few years of exposure to the national media.

But as a former party leader she still has political weight and, unlike her erstwhile colleague Galloway, she has not had time to make many serious gaffes or enemies although, as Dan Hodges pointed out, describing 7/7 as a “reprisal attack” came pretty close.

On a brief examination of her party and her politics though, the vast majority of us, if we bothered to do so, would probably find that our gut reaction would be that we didn’t care very much for either.

But that is not the point. Everyone has rather been asking the wrong question: instead of asking, do we want this person in Labour, we should be asking, is it in any party’s interest to invite people in from the extremes of national politics?

In other words, a grown-up political party should not be in the business of opining on specific cases, but have a robust, general policy; some universal principles about why it would or would not want to engage with another political group’s cast-offs. Not to do this makes us look at best subjective and, at worst, cronyish – arbitrarily picking and choosing only our mates for our party, and throwing out anyone who dissents. Not a good look for a democratic party.

Neither is this about banning, rarely a good idea in politics. And that is because, self-evidently, the only terms on which a known politician would want to join Labour – a classic “defection” – would be if they could see a well-lit path to becoming a Labour MP.

So, if someone is not invited to join and welcomed by the party’s top brass, there will be no defection. And, hence, there is no question of any silly “banning”, as various people have recently tried to do with Progress members. In reality, there is simply a decision to be made, either way, by the party leadership.

No, a party should be asking a simple question: before we invite them in, could this person be reasonably expected to damage the party in any way?

For example, are they joining from a political environment with a history of entryism, and are therefore not to be trusted? Based on past behaviour, do they display a realistic likelihood of embarrassing the party in the future with their public statements? Do they come from a political party with a history of supporting sectarians, homophobes, sexists or racists?

Not unreasonable questions, are they? And neither would they be likely to apply to any defectors from the political centre (i.e. from mainstream parties), only to those on the extremes of right or left. But if you were to answer yes to them, any sensible party would surely at some point say: look, we’ve got enough borderline nutcases on the fringes of our party already; for the protection of our good name, perhaps we should try and avoid having any more. Is that not also reasonable?

So the answer to the original question is no, it’s not in our interest to invite in members of Respect, any more than it’d be in the Tories’ interest to admit someone from the BNP (or from UKIP, for that matter). The message it sends to voters is that we are obsessed with things others don’t care about, or worse: things they are repulsed by.

Now you can apply this argument to all parties; but let’s turn to Labour. A lot of decent people have, surely, re-joined the party because they prefer the direction of Ed Miliband to that of New Labour. Fine: a change in political direction to the left or the right will always result in some joining and some leaving. Welcome to the Lib Dems who have defected, and any Tories who might.

The only difference is that the effect is asymmetric: a party moving towards the centre is unlikely to pick up extremists, a party moving away from it is. So movement one way requires, at the very least, more care than movement in the other.

There was a time, in the late 1990s, say, when the memory of Militant was still fresh, and successful entryism unthinkable, because the whole organisation was still reflexively vigilant; it knew the damage that Derek Hatton and co. had inflicted on the party, and all swore that it would never be repeated.

The signs are, sadly, that this is no longer the case. That was New Labour paranoia: now we are a broad church of many different faiths (and besides, our numbers are low and we need all the activists we can get). Well, that much is probably true, but you can be a broad church and still guard against the extremists who can bring it all crashing down. We used to understand that: smart parties watch their backs.

Suddenly less well-known individual far-leftists, such as ex-SWPer and Stopper Andy Newman have rejoined; aside from backing the Galloway position on rape, the man is delightfully noted for describing the bombing of Pearl Harbour as “the opening salvo in a war between two rival imperialisms for control of the Asia-Pacific region”.

But this is not about letting in one extremist who might damage your party individually: while undesirable, the party can probably handle that. The real issue is, by landing a bigger fish, the signal it sends to all the others.

What matters is not what we say, but the interpretation they put on it: We say, magnanimously, “we celebrate the repenting sinner”. Imagine how it sounds to the ears of an SWPer: “come on in: our bourgeois party is ripe for entryism. We have grown flaccid and naïve, full of useful idiots who will embrace you as a comrade, even though you are not. More useful idiots in our trade unions will help ease the path. In fact, your people are already members of some of them. Don’t wait: the moment is now.”

In short, inviting in a figurehead for an extreme group would be an act of dangerous naiveté. There’s not much historical precedent, and it is not putting too fine a point on it to say that such a decision might be remembered down the Labour generations to come: when we gave the signal for a swarm of wing-nuts from Respect, Stop The War Coalition and the SWP to descend on Labour’s membership department in search of a toe-hold in constituency politics.

But hey, we’re undoubtedly worrying too much. It’s surely the case that the Labour leadership would not dream of engaging with this kind of extremist, regressive politics. There will be no misguided, dangerous revival of religious and ethnic politics to avenge the party’s defeat by Galloway in Bradford West. And it would not dream of rolling out the red carpet to modern-day entryists, a problem which last time took more than a decade to clean up to the point where the party was electable again.

Of course we wouldn’t. Only, given the party has recently readmitted Lord Ahmed, a man whose politics extends to rather comparable extremist views…well, it just seemed worth repeating.

You know, just to be on the safe side.

STOP PRESS: Regular readers, if you think you've heard of Richard Burden before, you have, here. Explains quite a lot, doesn't it?

This post first published at Labour Uncut, and chosen for Progress' daily "What We're Reading" list


  1. Do you ever remember the late Labour MP and Peer Michael Cocks who was known to be a scourge of the loony left and how do you think he would react that they are on their way back? Wouldn't you agree that he would probably share your despair that the battles that people thought were won could be making a comeback bigtime?

  2. Can't remember him, I'm afraid. But, from what you say, yes.


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