Thursday, 29 November 2012

This short conflict has shone a light in Labour’s dark corners

The attacks on both sides have ceased in Gaza and southern Israel and the death tolls have ceased to mount – a sure-fire way to get the issue off the news bulletins again – and an uneasy ceasefire holds. For now.

But, during those eight days, the focus of popular attention briefly fell on what is probably, for the vast majority of its citizens, an issue at the very margins of their daily thinking. Even many of those interested in international affairs have simply given up trying to understand the complex debate on the territorial and governmental rights of Israel and Palestine, or simply feel “a plague on all your houses”. And that is for those who think about it at all.

Except one group of citizens, of course. The political class: not necessarily politicians, but that odd and strangely passionate group, those actively involved in politics. If you are reading this, you are very likely one of them. Everyone has an opinion.

What has happened on the British left during this short period, therefore, is that the somewhat strange, yet long-held, views of some of its members have suddenly had a public airing, where no-one would normally even listen. Often all the complexity of the Israel-Palestine situation, with respectable arguments on both sides for ends if not means, has been reduced to the infantile football-terrace chanting of “my side’s right, your side’s wrong”; and oh, what a revealing set of quotes it has provided.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Labour and Gaza: Hamas is not Palestine

In recent days, bombs have been dropping on Gaza while rockets have continued to rain on southern Israel, as they have been for months. As usual, there is a premium on accurate information and a discount on propaganda. As usual, people stick to instinctive positions.
So, instead of trying to argue the rights and wrongs of a centuries-old conflict, we might note one thing. The events which have dominated the last week’s news do not relate to a dispute between Israel and Palestine, because a large part Palestine is not involved – at least, not yet. Currently this is a conflict, specifically, between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza, a regime with which Labour has some prior history, to which we will later turn.
Hamas is not the Palestinian people, just as the Likud party is not Israel; in fact, it does not even govern most of the Palestinian people, at least in a de facto sense, only the small area of Gaza. And the self-determination of Palestine is a manifestly just cause which few on the left or right can reasonably disagree with. Unemployment is high in Gaza and living conditions can be grim, even when its citizens are not being subjected to bombing. Ordinary Gazans deserve to live in freedom, in prosperity and free from attack. They do not.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Rotherham is the most important election of all

It seems that, over the next two weeks, we are now suffering a plague of elections: six by-elections, plus the rather-important PCC elections.

But the one which has the most compressed timescales of all – where candidate Sarah Champion was selected yesterday, with a mere two weeks until polling day and after a walkout at the selection meeting – is going to be the toughest, nastiest and arguably the most important of all. Why?

Denis MacShane’s resignation a fortnight ago, over the falsification of invoices, was a tragic, shabby end to what was an otherwise rather admirable and productive career, including three years as minister for Europe and some brave work fighting anti-semitism. And whilst there was never any question of personal gain resulting from his actions, it was also clear that his behaviour was inexcusable and that he had to go, to avoid dragging out the pain for him, Labour and his constituents over a further half-parliament.

What has not yet been focused on, however, is the considerable headache that his departure gives Labour.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Me, Galloway and the appreciation of irony

Imagine my surprise when, after my debut piece at the Independent on Thursday, a critique of the Respect Party, yesterday appeared a rebuttal-cum-personal-attack on me from none other than the Honourable (that’s his official title) George Galloway MP. I suppose I should find it flattering, that a British Member of Parliament should take time out of their busy schedule appearing on obscure Middle Eastern TV stations to do a hatchet job on li’l ol’ me.

So, I suppose it is now incumbent on me, for my sins, to at least set the record straight. Now, let’s be fair: he did make one – just one – valid criticism in the whole piece. There was a mistake in the original piece, up for all of two hours on Thursday night before it was noticed and rectified, where I said he was being paid by a Syrian TV station. Al-Mayadeen is in fact Lebanese, although, with the recent history of Lebanon as a virtual client state of Syria, it is fair to say that the difference is 
probably, in the eyes of most people, fairly academic. But it was fair to point out the error, and we fixed it.

We removed the whole paragraph, just to be on the safe side, in the process removing the important point that Galloway’s recent visit to Lebanon, to meet a key ally of Assad, ex-President Emile Lahoud, was reported in the Syrian press as him expressing support for Assad. I should stress that this is, by the way, something which Galloway denies: rather than being pro-Assad, he claims to be “against the enemies of Syria”. Whatever that means. And then the Independent generously allowed him the right to reply.

That said, the piece was the usual victimism, bluster and bombast: the obsessive hatred of Blair; the wild accusations of Labour changing its policy because of unnamed big donors; the inevitable raising of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, like they were big everyday concerns for most citizens struggling to pay the bills; and the phrase “pack of lies”, when there was not a single criticism of the original piece – for example, the video of Tower Hamlets Respect chair Carole Swords shouting “go back to Russia” at a Jewish man – which he had an answer for.

Oh, and the words “foully Zionist”. The worst insult in the Galloway lexicon: someone who dares to think that Israel might have a right to exist. It is perhaps interesting to note that, according to a widely-accepted definition of anti-Semitism, denying that Israel has a right to exist is considered plainly anti-Semitic. But hey.

Then, in the process of a somewhat laboured ad hominem, he makes various accusations about that excellent website for freedom and democracy, Harry’s Place (their own rebuttal is here): one of which was that they have criticised “John Pilger, the two Kens, Livingstone and Loach, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War…”. Well, apart from Amnesty and HRW, who occasionally merit criticism and often do not, that entire list is pretty much united in obsessive anti-Americanism and support for some pretty awful and repressive regimes. Why would any reasonable person not want to criticise them?

“Now Marchant isn't going to let facts get in the way of a bilious rant” – hmm. I’m not quite sure where the “rant” became “bilious”, or where he thinks there is an absence of facts; every point I made was meticulously linked to evidence – something noticeably absent in his response. In fact, the only link in his entire piece was to my own article. A remarkable lack of evidence for a man so sure of himself.

Then, there was the pitiful defence of the indefensible: his comments on rape, which have all but done for the Respect Party as it was, and was swiftly followed by the resignation of party leader Salma Yaqoob. And in doing so, he chose to question the motives of the two Swedish claimants against Assange (“Assange was set up”), rather than accepting what to most of us is obvious: that, well-founded or not their claims might be, they had a right to a hearing before a judge.
“So I can live with his cheap jibes. What I can't live with is his deliberate misrepresentation of my election victory and Respect's programme and ideology.” 
Honestly, what ideology, George? Apart from, arguably, a rabid hatred of America and the West, and a propensity to stir up ethnic and religious tensions? 

Then we are blown off at a tangent into Galloway and Bradford. Except he doesn't seem to have done anything noticeable for Bradford: he is seemingly limited to attacking the Labour council. Now, its members may or may not be at fault in their management of Bradford – I don’t really know, to be honest – but whatever they do, they do not spend their time appearing on dubious foreign propaganda TV stations, reality TV, or making trips to the Middle East which have precisely zero to do with the lives of their constituents. They are, at least, actually in Bradford most of the time.

Oh, and as for my “despicable” attack on Lee Jasper: well, the comment is bizarre. I’m also not sure how stating someone was “cleared” qualifies as an “attack”: in fact, I was being generous to Jasper, and specifically acknowledging that this scandal was not the biggest thing in the world – although it did not leave Jasper without criticism – but that his later public statements are more disturbing. I am not quite sure where the thirty-seven inquiries came from that were supposed to have found in his favour, but I’ll take Galloway’s word for it.

I didn’t have space in the original article to mention that, although Jasper was cleared of wrongdoing by an inquiry, it’s a bit more subtle than that. Ken Livingstone first insisted on a police investigation. The police then said, rightly, that they were not responsible for investigating misconduct, only criminal activity, so it was dropped. The District Auditor found that Jasper did “fail to declare interests”, and there were serious failures of governance in general, especially with regard to showing value for money from projects commissioned, but no evidence of fraud. It’s all in this report.

Finally, there was one point at which, I confess, I laughed out loud: where he accuses, we assume, the British government:

“We've put in place and supported corrupt kings and sheikhs all over the Middle East and we continue to do.”
Of course. You see, the man who saluted the “indefatigability” of Saddam Hussein, who works for the Iranian government’s TV channel, and who praised Assad as “the last Arab ruler” has never really quite understood irony. It requires a certain level of self-awareness which he appears simply not to possess.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Respect: is anyone still listening?

Delighted to announce the publication of my first-ever piece for the Independent's online comment section, Independent Voices, here. It's about the lovely George Galloway and the Respect Party, a misnomer if ever there was one.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

News International – the gift to Labour that just keeps on giving

As David Cameron ponders the deeper strategic meaning of Romney’s defeat for his fractious party, in the back of his mind I suspect there is something a little more prosaic distracting him disproportionately from this and the everyday great affairs of state.

So, this weekend has revealed a few silly texts between the Prime Minister and a newspaper editor – so what? Is it anything more than that staple of good, old-fashioned tabloid reporting, to spread innuendo about impropriety (preferably sexual, if possible), for the titillation of the Great British Public?

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Labour: juggling with Occam's razor

As any economist will tell you, we live in a world of incomplete information. A change in information can serve as a shock, and change the economic landscape all by itself.

But this is also true of politics. Changes in information can also change the political landscape, and Labour has just experienced one of what ought to be seismic proportions: it now knows which voters it has lost.

However, surprisingly, this fact went almost unreported in the press: in fact, in the broadsheet press it was initially only reported by the Telegraph; on the left, barely a whisper.

So there are two stories here: the event itself; and the lack of attention it has received.

Why is this event so important? Well, during the last half-parliament, conventional wisdoms as to why Labour lost the last election have built up, fallen and built up again. On the left and on the right of the party, we have all had our theories but, as so often in politics, based more on intuition than hard facts. A rigorous post-mortem has been noticeable by its absence.

Until now.

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