Wednesday, 24 October 2012

“Miliband booed.” How many more times do we want to see that headline?

Yesterday Mark Ferguson suggested that it might be the time to bring Alastair Campbell back to Labour. He’s right that we need someone with Campbell’s skills, but perhaps not to guide Labour’s social media strategy, as Mark suggests; rather, someone who will reliably raise their hand and get involved, whenever there is a potential media disaster to be avoided.

Campbell’s great strengths were always his instinct for good and bad press; and his willingness to challenge his boss. To say: don’t do that, they will kill you. And perhaps, just perhaps, Miliband could use someone with similar antennae.

One clear problem with Saturday’s TUC march, like the previous one in March last year, was the lack of clarity of the objective. Many were there for different reasons. While “cuts, but not so far, so fast” is Labour’s official, defensible, position, “No Cuts” banners predictably dominated the march.

It is a respectable position: but it is not Labour’s official position. So Miliband, if he went, was always going to be forced to defend a distinct position in front of 100,000 marchers. It was never going to end well.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

On Islam, free speech, and, er...demonstrating against Google?

Image from the really rather dreadful film "The Innocence Of Muslims"
 (the Centre Left ventures to opine that it is frankly more offensive to good
 taste than anything else)
On Monday, the Telegraph reported an attendance of over ten thousand at a demonstration outside the UK headquarters of Google, over the controversial film “The Innocence of Muslims”.

The first point to note is that these are only a small handful of the 1.6 million Muslims who live in Britain, and who care passionately enough about the subject to get up and do something, in this case to try to ban it. Yes, we can and should respect the fact that some of our population are annoyed at the negative portrayal of their religion, and that they have the right to demonstrate (the vast majority of Muslims very likely see this news and merely shrug, or are possibly even irritated by the counter-productivity of the protests themselves).

But perhaps it is important is that those other thousands of sensible, free-speech-loving Muslims do not merely shrug, and that they can engage with the idea that, however irritating, banning is not the answer. In particular, it is important that their religious leaders, and so-called “community leaders”, do not merely shrug, or worse, indulge this silliness.

In part, it’s about free speech, but in part, it’s also about the long-term health of this religion: because there seems to be an existential crisis developing within it, a polarisation between moderate and extremist which has been slowly brewing for decades over the twentieth century which is making for an explosive collision with progressive, humanitarian values in the twenty-first.

To condone, in short, is to
encourage the sense of grievance which is insinuating itself into the minds of a small proportion of Muslims, and which demonstrably feeds extremism. And there is something else: that controlling impulse, to prevent criticism, smears millions of decent adherents to that historic religion with that same unhelpful image of illiberalism which dogs it in parts of the middle east and beyond.

Given that no other religion is seriously attempting to limit the right to free speech, in Britain at least, Islam is setting itself apart from the rest. And the extreme manifestation of this is a real and present danger for it: those whom the gods wish to destroy, as the old Roman quote goes, they first make ridiculous.

What do we mean? Well, the same Telegraph report that is hyperlinked above quotes the imam Sheikh Fayez al-Aqtab Siddiqui:
“…terrorism is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well. The makers of this film have terrorised 1.6 billion people.”
Kill human “feelings”? “Terrorise” 1.6 billion people by making a film, probably only a tiny fraction of which will ever see it? What terrible rubbish.

Hearing this quote, it is difficult not to have not so much one’s sense of the ridiculous touched, as to be transported into the realm of outright satire. As if making a film, however obnoxious, can be compared with terrorising, killing or maiming people.

And, what is even dafter, we are not even talking about the people who made the film, who presumably have now long gone into hiding for their sins. We are talking about people several removes away: the company which allows people to access it through the internet, for heaven’s sake. Perhaps next we will see demonstrating outside the offices of BT, who provide the internet infrastructure. Or whoever supplies their offices with milk and biscuits. It’s madness.

If this kind of foolishness came from a TV evangelist, most Christians would probably shrug. Then again, there are not so many TV evangelists, in the UK at least, who might be open to encourage one of their flock go off to a training camp and learn how to carry out terrorist acts. In contrast, the
evidence of radicalisation, leading directly to terrorism,that has taken place at British mosques is all too abundant.

Also, again in contrast, if this kind of intolerance were indulged by the British government, the entire Monty Python team would have been locked up long ago, for having done something far more damaging to Christianity:
made a film that laughed at a religion, and used that humour to deadly effect in getting people to examine it with a critical eye. But no, Cleese, Palin and co. are still happily walking around as free men, although they were also, in their day, subject to death threats; an idea that now seems faintly ridiculous, and yet we almost accept it as an expected result of criticising Islam, thirty years on.

And, on that note, there’s more from the same Telegraph piece:
“Self-employed businessman Ahmed Nasar said he was worried the video could lead to violence in Britain in the same way as it had abroad. ‘If you push people too far,’ he said, ‘You will turn the peaceful elements into violence.’ ”
That is not what it might appear at first glance, a benign expression of peaceful protest, that we should all be civil to each other. It is rather a veiled threat: do what I say or there will be violence. It is passive aggression, writ large.

A couple of weeks ago, journalists
Mehdi Hasan and David Aaronovitch debated “the right to offend” at the LSE. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Hasan was on the side of Hasan was on the side of self-restraint tantamount to onerous levels of self-censorship although, to be fair, he has also criticised British Muslims (it is something of a sign of the times we live in that the only liberals who seem to be able to get away with this are Muslims themselves). But there is a vital point here about the right to be offended: as Aaronovitch said, we “simply cannot afford to be offended every time someone retweets something obnoxious”.

And this is especially true in the age of the internet. Banning is futile: on the internet things will find a way, especially if controversial or funny, regardless of your efforts to suppress them.

But there is not even the need to be absolutist about this, as are many journalists and commentators. Free speech, for many of us on the left at least, does not have to include allowing the BNP to march into your neighbourhood and spit at people. It is for that that we have the crime of incitement to racial and religious hatred, for all its faults. And this particular issue is miles from
this definition (in fact, a Lords amendment specifically excluded “abusive and insulting” texts from the Act, precisely because the concept is too vague and subjective).

As the New York Times’
Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted on Monday, referring to the astonishingly brave 14 year-old Pakistani girl, shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out about girls’ education:

“If only British Muslims would hold a mass rally against Malala’s would-be assassins, rather than against Google.”

It’s a good point. Let us not on the left, please, licence this idiocy through our support, tacit or otherwise. Free speech, even when caveated by the law to avoid true extremes, still includes this silly film. And even if it were right to try to ban the film, which it is not: to lobby Google is about as relevant and effective as lobbying Tim Berners-Lee for having invented the worldwide web.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

Friday, 12 October 2012

Julia Gillard. You rock.

Ok, I know many of you have probably seen it, but just in case...surely one of the best parliamentary speeches of recent years. Perhaps not a naturally gifted speaker, but with the passion of righteous rage, the Australian Labor Prime Minister brilliantly takes down the obnoxious Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, with a deadly attack on his barely-disguised sexism. My favourite:
If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia he doesn't need a motion in the house of Representatives. He needs a mirror.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Why One Nation is a great attack strategy for Labour, and why that is not enough

Between Miliband’s speech last week and Cameron’s imminent one, there have been many pieces on Labour’s audacious, and slightly unexpected, pitch for the centre ground. It still has drawbacks: it does not deal with the state of the party organisation, and it does not deal with the deficit. But it is a good strategy, and there seems broad agreement that it is the right one. Barring an extraordinary conference comeback by Cameron which leaves it on the floor, it has put Labour back in the game.

Few, it seems though, have commented why it works so well in terms of putting Cameron on the back foot.

It is not just the fact that jumping into the centre of the political squash court forces Cameron either to fight for it, or abandon it. Or the way it correctly identifies that the way to hit the current Cabinet’s Achilles heel, its connection with privilege, is not to play a clumsy class war tactic, but simply to remind everyone of the obvious, that they are not like us, the great majority, and therefore struggle to understand us. Or simply that it is Labour landing a punch on Cameron, almost for the first time, which is down to the party itself and not some screw-up of the government.

No, the real secret lies in the words, “One Nation”. It cleverly plays on the fact that Cameron cannot easily have the Tories try to take it back, because the whole One Nation concept is anathema to them. I know, I know: they invented it. But, if truth be known, they are words which nowadays make most of the back benches squirm with discomfort.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Labour, Venezuela, and the strange tale of “official observation”

This morning, news came in of Hugo Chávez’s not entirely unexpected win in Venezuela’s presidential election. Now, today is not the time to review the man’s record in office on areas such as the economy, human rights or foreign policy, although these things are important – but, from this election result hangs an illuminating tale of the British left.

Despite Chávez’s regular use of state TV for campaign broadcasts, and concerns about voter intimidation, he has always gone out of his way to preserve at least an appearance of democratic choice to his electorate. The problem was, that with its hi-tech thumbprint identification, many voters were frightened away from using it, worrying their details might be used to find out how they voted (by the way, just think about how civil liberties groups would react to a national database of thumbprints in the UK).

This time, though, Chávez didn’t even try that hard to keep up appearances.

For the first time this election, there was no official, institutional election observation (EU, UN, and so on) other than the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a relatively new organisation rather dominated by Chávez and his friends among South American leaders. His supporters have recently become fond of quoting President Jimmy Carter of the Carter Centre, who praised their voting process. They fail to say other vital things outside the technical voting mechanism, such as media access, were criticised and remain unaddressed.

And, whether or not Carter was right, this time he was unwisely making a statement on Venezuela’s fairness without actually having sent observers; the Carter Centre, the only other 2012 invitee, rejected its invitation, sent only two months before the election, and no other institution was even invited.

It was also the first important election which he had a chance of losing (the only other which came close was a referendum about abolishing presidential term limits in 2007, but Chávez just kept right on going, until he got the answer he wanted two years later); no, this time it was UNASUR alone, and Chávez was left with a conundrum: how to lend credibility to elections in which it was sorely lacking?

Step forward, a few hundred helpful individuals from abroad, invited to “observe”. Now, we do not know whether people leaning towards Capriles balanced out in number those leaning towards Chávez. But the idea a few hundred individuals, however they might be chosen, can substitute for bona fide, independent electoral observation by a respected institution is absurd.

Think: why would a democrat want to abolish term limits on a presidency, if not to cling to power? Why would a democrat decline to invite election observers from the EU or the UN, after previously inviting them? Why would a democrat use the advantage of state TV over their opponent? Can you imagine the outcry if Obama were to do any one of these things?

And for the really hard questions, you cannot hope to know the answers: you have to use your gut from what you already know about the man.

Do we honestly believe this man would have gone quietly, had he lost? And that, with a government machine stuffed full of his own party members, he would not simply have supplied a different voting figure, had his state-of-the-art computer system produced an unpalatable one? The answers to these last two questions we will probably never know, but the fact that we cannot reasonably give a negative to them in all conscience leaves a highly unpleasant taste in the mouth.

And then there is the British connection. Labour MPs Grahame Morris and Diane Abbott, long-time Chávez supporters, have been out in Venezuela for the elections along with such reputable figures as, er, George Galloway and Jody McIntyre.

More interestingly, with no trace of irony, Abbott and Morris are going in the capacity of “official election observers”. Official observation, naturally, implies unquestionable neutrality. Diane Abbott even went to the trouble of tweeting me from Caracas that she “made a point of saying I wasn’t supporting a particular candidate”. But let’s look at that a little closer, shall we?

Abbott is patron of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign an organisation which claims to be a friend to Venezuelan democracy but, strangely, does not seem to contain a single supporter of Chávez’s opponent, Henrique Capriles. One of its stated aims is “To defend the achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution”, i.e. Chávez’s political movement.

In any event, the state apparatus is so stuffed full of Chávez’s party members, and the vital democratic dividing lines between party and state so faint, that anything which supports the Venezuelan government effectively supports the party of Chávez and the man himself. In short, the organisation might as well be called the Chávez Solidarity Campaign.

It is also difficult to imagine, had Capriles won, that the VSC would not have immediately challenged the result and campaigned for his ousting. But that last part, of course, is merely speculation.

Even in the cognitive-dissonance-soaked world of the far left, it is difficult to countenance the idea these MPs can reasonably claim to be honest brokers, neutral to both candidates. At least Galloway is honest about his love for Chávez; “Chavez fears no-one but God” and “Viva Comandante!”, he tweeted this morning.

Finally, Capriles has accepted the election result because, frankly, he has no choice. You cannot choose to stand and then decry the process when you lose. He made his bed, and he has to lie in it, for the good of his country. But that does not mean the election has been free and fair.

Neither can we really even know if Capriles would have been a better president than Chávez. But he certainly deserved the opportunity for Venezuelans to find out.

The simple truth is you are either fully democratic or you are not democratic at all. There are no in-betweens. You cannot be “almost democratic”.

But even if, against all odds, you believe Venezuela have just had free and fair elections, it is simply astounding to find our own Members of Parliament expecting us to accept the story they were acting as observers of unquestionable neutrality.

This post first published at Left Foot Forward, with comments added by Diane Abbott MP and Owen Jones from Caracas

Thursday, 4 October 2012

A pretty good conference Ed, but neglect your party at your peril

It’s been a pretty good conference. It started on Sunday with both Miliband and Balls saying sensible, pleasingly non-contradictory things on splitting the banks and a bottom-up spending review (if only Harriet Harman had got the memo).

If we merely smile patiently at Len McCluskey’s “throw out the Blairites” sabre-rattling, and nod appreciatively at Miliband’s firmness in rebutting them, there was really only one cloud on Sunday’s horizon: the mad decision – for it is difficult to describe it as anything else – by the party to extend the quotas in its already-contorted selection processes for MPs. A bewildered delegate might have been forgiven for having missed the part where it was proven beyond doubt that their usually painfully right-on party was systematically trying to block gay, disabled and working class people from being candidates. But more of that later.

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