Ode to the Blairites (with apologies to the late, great Phil Ochs)

Here’s a little reworking Phil Ochs’ brilliant ‘Love Me I’m a Liberal’:

I cried when they caught out Stephen Byers
Tears ran down my spine
I cried when they got poor Peter Mandelson
And when Tony Blair was forced to resign
But Unite got what was coming
They got what they asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a neo-liberal

I go to the odd TUC rally
And slag off ‘the trots’ afterwards in the bar
I love talking about social mobility
I hope every young working class kid becomes a star
But don’t talk about socialism
That’s going way, way too far
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a neo-liberal

I cheered when Blair was chosen
My faith in the system restored
I’m glad lots of lefties were thrown out of Labour
And the rest of them were just ignored
I love all Iraqis and Afghans
As long as they don’t move next door
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a neo-liberal

The people who don’t bother voting
Should all hang their heads in shame
I can’t understand how their minds work
Didn’t we invest in education again and again?
But don’t ask me to send my kids to a state school
Because deep down I know they’re just not the same
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a neo-liberal

I read the Guardian and Indy
I’ve learned to take every view
I’m proud to have moderate opinions
And you should hold them too
But when it comes to times like Iraq, Libya and Syria
War is the only thing that we can do
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a neo-liberal

I proudly vote for New Labour
They want business and enterprise to be strong
I’ve seen Billy Bragg at Glasto
He sure gets me singing those songs
I’ll post all the Tweets you could ask for
But don’t ask me to come on along
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a neo-liberal

Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to Tony Benn’s meetings
Learned some of the Welsh miners hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why it’s Progress that I’m now in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a neo-liberal

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Selective Secularism and Islamophobia

I really didn’t want to return to this subject. However, sadly in the light of recent developments, most notably yet another arson attack on a mosque – this time in Harlow, Essex – I feel that it’s necessary. Islamophobia continues to be a stain on our society.

In the last few days we have had Rupert Murdoch claiming that ‘multiculturalism has failed’ and ‘Muslims find it hardest to integrate’. As someone better known not for his sociological insights but rather his inability to abide by British law (phone hacking scandal anyone?), you’d like to think Mr Murdoch (who after all is himself an immigrant) would have a bit more humility. Bigotry from the proprietor of the Sun is not at all surprising. But what was shocking to me was when Stephen Fry took to Twitter to declare the following about Muslims (not Islamists or Jihadists or Islamic extremists, but Muslims): ‘Have a look around the world and see them slaughtering each other let alone others. So charming to women too’. This really is worrying; after all, Fry is a liberal and one of the most well-known ‘public intellectuals’ in Britain. So, you’d expect a bit more nuance than labeling 1.5bn people as inherently murderous and misogynistic. (And before I’m accused of inconsistency – if someone were to make sweeping negative generalizations about Christians or Jews, saying they were violent, homophobic or misogynistic, based upon a few quotations from the Bible or the Torah it would be unacceptable to me and I would challenge it. Such a claim would be unreasonable and simply false).

We have also seen a British judge rule that a Muslim woman must remove her burqa if she wanted to enter a plea. (Fair play to Judge Peter Murphy though I suppose; telling others what they should and shouldn’t wear when you’re a bearded bloke in robes with a 18th century-style wig on your head certainly takes some nerve). This news delighted our friends over at the Daily Mail, whose readers heralded it as a victory for ‘common sense’. But surely the real common sense solution would have been for a female staff member to have gone into a private room with the woman in question, verified that she was indeed who she claimed to be and then continue with the proceedings?

No doubt this will embolden those who want the UK to follow France’s example and ban the burqa. My view is this: while the burqa or niqab is not compulsory in Islam if an individual Muslim woman decides to interpret a Quranic verse in such a way that leads her to wear this piece of clothing, then in a free country that is her right. Let’s also remember that the full veil is not exclusive to Islam and is also worn by some Orthodox Jewish women. If there is any suspicion that a woman is being coerced into wearing it then of course legal authorities should intervene. Equally, in a free society, no-one should be coerced to do anything against their will.

But saying that something is offensive to you and therefore should be banned isn’t good enough. The problem is that people can find lots of things offensive, ranging from expletives on a T-Shirt or tattoos, to public displays of affection and Mumford & Sons. We have to live and let live. I understand why some see the burqa as a symbol of the oppression of women and this is the most likely explanation of its historical origins. However, some people maintain that women wearing make-up is a product of patriarchy, yet no British court is going to start demanding that women remove their make-up before they can enter a plea, and if someone went around telling women not to wear make-up, they would rightly be told to mind their own business. To reiterate, if a Muslim or Jewish woman chooses to wear a piece of clothing which after all, does no harm to anyone, who are you or I or the British state to tell them what’s actually ‘good’ for them?

What is quite discernible is that there are now a number of high-profile ‘liberal secularist’ media commentators such as Richard Dawkins, Nick Cohen, Douglas Murray and Anne Marie Waters whose particular focus is on Islam and Muslims. On the other side, the Independent’s Owen Jones and the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan are seemingly the only mainstream voices offering any serious and consistent defence of Muslims in Britain.

For example, in the aftermath of the sickening murder of Lee Rigby, Douglas Murray’s piece ‘Nothing to do with Islam?’ had this to say:

‘Anybody can pick up a Quran and read a verse such as ‘the verse of the sword’ (‘slay the infidels wherever you find them’)… They will also notice that (Muhammad) had some very unpleasant things to say about those who are ‘enemies’ of Islam. He did not, to draw one obvious comparison, always advocate turning the other cheek’.

Murray had to reduce this cherry-picked quotation to just seven words because if he gave any more context or background it might reveal that this verse refers to a very specific case where in the 7th century, Muslims were being repeatedly attacked during pilgrimage by a group of polytheistic Arabs. Mainstream Islam interprets this passage as meaning that killing someone in self-defense was permitted, even if the conflict took place on holy ground. Only in the imagination of both Douglas Murray and the crazed followers of Bin Laden does this mean that the Quran states that it is okay for Muslims to murder non-Muslims in the 21st century.

Moreover, Murray’s final sentence demonstrates that underlying the argument of these secularists is the decidedly anti-secular idea that Christianity is superior to Islam. In other words, ‘All religions are bad but Islam is the worst of all’. Yet, Murray is obviously unaware that the New Testament contains its own ‘sword verse’ in which Jesus, far from turning the other cheek declares, ‘Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword’. (Matthew 10:34). Will Douglas Murray follow this up with an article entitled ‘Nothing to do with Christianity?’ discussing the crimes perpetrated by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army or the terrorism of Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik – who is after all a self-professed ‘Christian Crusader’? And if not, why not?

I think Islamophobia is particularly apt term because there is an undeniable hysteria around all things Muslim. The mere mention of Sharia law immediately results in references to the repugnant beheadings, stonings, lashings and amputations that are carried out in Saudi Arabia and Iran. But as Mehdi Hasan has pointed out, ‘there is no book of Sharia law’. Just because these vicious, repressive, anti-democratic regimes engage in cruelty and injustice and call it ‘Islamic law’, doesn’t necessarily make it so – just as the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Democratic Unionist Party shouldn’t be held up as the embodiment of democracy.

The issue at hand is the function of Sharia courts in Britain, which bear no relation to the obscene punishments perpetrated in Riyadh. As that notorious Islamist Dr Rowan Williams, during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury explained, Sharia law in the UK plays a role in ‘aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorised structures of mediation and conflict resolution’. Likewise, another obvious Jihadist sympathizer, this time Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers, during his spell as Lord Chief Justice of England made clear that:

‘The key issues are family law, finance and business. In practice many Muslims do turn to Sharia guidance for many of these day-to-day matters, particularly family disputes… Muslims are increasingly looking to the example of Jewish communities which have long-established religious community courts… the Treasury has approved Sharia-compliant financial products such as mortgages and investments’.

The comparison to Jewish Beth Din courts is an important one. Again, self-appointed ‘anti-Sharia campaigner’ Anne Marie Waters, (who thankfully failed in a recent bid to become a Labour parliamentary candidate), claims to speak from a secular standpoint, yet curiously I cannot find a single word written by her against Jewish Beth Din courts. Why the double standard? When purported secularism is so blatantly selective, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is another agenda at work.

The reality is that religious courts whether Jewish or Muslim simply cannot under any circumstances override British law and can only deal with civil and never criminal matters. Many people might well be opposed in principle to the existence of any religious para-legal systems based upon the very legitimate concern that both Sharia and Beth Din courts are dominated by male judges, but let’s at least have this important discussion with reference to the reality of the situation and not indulge in alarmist misrepresentation and fear-mongering.

I feel that one of the problems on the left is that we sometimes don’t do enough to directly take on the arguments that are circulated by Islamophobes. Our perspective is that all forms of racism and prejudice serve only to divide and weaken the working class movement – and I agree wholeheartedly with this – but I often wonder how effective this is when we articulate it to people who do not share our class-based analysis. Again, for the sake of clarity, I am in no way suggesting that we should debate with fascists such as the BNP and the EDL, only our proud tradition of ‘no platform’ and mobilization on the streets is an adequate response to fascism. I am instead referring to people who are by no means knuckle-dragging racists but may have picked up a few of the widespread misconceptions about Muslims. In my opinion, it is incumbent upon all of us to get ourselves informed and challenge specific myths about Muslims.

One often-repeated lie is that Muslims don’t condemn terrorism. Personally, I don’t think that Muslims should have to condemn terrorism, just as I, as someone of Irish Catholic heritage don’t need to apologise for the bomb attacks carried out by the IRA. But leaving that aside, the reality is that the British Muslim community does condemn terrorism. Just two years ago, over 12 thousand Muslims gathered in London to reassert that terrorism has no basis in Islam. The conference declared “Islam has nothing to do with any act of terrorism. We reject every act of extremism and terrorism unconditionally.” It’s pretty difficult to get more unequivocal than that.

Another line is that mosques shouldn’t be allowed to be built here because so the argument goes, ‘you couldn’t build a church in a Muslim country’. Again, this is entirely untrue; there are Christian churches in majority Muslim countries like Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Qatar and Kuwait.

Furthermore, we often hear that halal slaughter is barbaric and must be banned. But listen to what Dr Harold Hillman founder member of Amnesty International and former reader in Physiology at the University of Surrey, has had to say:

‘There is plenty of evidence, direct and indirect, that an electrically stunned animal suffers more pain than a ritually slaughtered one. “Shechita” and “dhabihah” may be “centuries-old religious practices”, but it does not necessarily follow that we should oppose their use today without first thoroughly reviewing the evidence’. 

Above all, let’s resist the appalling generalizations made about Muslim people. The Muslim community in Britain is, shock horror, made up of complex individuals. I’ve met individuals who wear the hijab and listen to Linkin Park, individuals who are the only person in the office who’ll wish you a happy Xmas, individuals who’ll share their food with you on an overnight bus to London, individuals who pray five times a day and also subscribe to Grazia magazine.

What needs to be recognized is that the real impediment to integration is not Muslim self-segregation but the ever-increasing hostility towards Muslims in British society. It would be an absolute tragedy if well-meaning socialists who are secularists and atheists either failed to challenge, or worse, even joined in with the shameful chorus of anti-Muslim bigotry.

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Why we need a Red Labour alternative

829709500_85c84686c6_bA couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece for this blog entitled ‘Sleepwalking in the Labour Party’: about the failure of the left in the party to get ourselves organised in the context of the long hegemony of the right in the party and in the face of a Blairite retrenchment in “One Nation Labour”. The article was meant as a provocation – to ask individual party members:

“If you’re not in the party to cause trouble, considering its trajectory for the last 15 years, what are you in it for?”

The reaction was interesting. The vast majority of comments were supportive. That was the easy bit. We can hardly fail to agree on what is wrong. However, a few people asked the more pertinent questions, which were “How?”, “What now?” and “What can I do?” That article didn’t seek to answer those questions, or map out a plan of action. I want to start the task of doing that now.

Firstly, although the article was an appeal to individual responsibility for the situation we’re in, the answers can only ever be collective. Like anything else in the Labour movement, it has to be rooted in collective experience and collective solutions. I believe that some of the answers lie exactly in some of those problems we’ve experienced both as a party and a left in the party. Specifically: education; democracy and organisation. The first one is the lack of education in the party. When I say education, I don’t mean in a formal sense, but informally, through discussion in party meetings. This has all but gone – and it is a massive vacuum. Secondly, the Blairite “revolution” in the party had at its heart the closing down of democracy in the party. Blair and his friends needed this to secure their “New Labour” project. This is a clear block on any movement which seeks to change the party. Thirdly – while the right wing of the party, and the Progress wing specifically, have been extremely well organised, not surprisingly, considering the financial resources at their disposal courtesy of Lord Sainsbury, the left in the party have been fragmented, disorganised and ineffective at getting their message across and winning positions in the party.

This is not the sum of everything that is wrong in the party – far from it, unfortunately – but those three areas (education, democracy and organising) might come together in a project that attempts to grab some power back for members. A few of us on the left of the party, involved in the Red Labour Facebook group, have been talking about this for some time. That involvement has led us to the question: should there be a Red Labour in the real world? It isn’t (and never has been) a case of trying to replace anything else on the left of the party, but to gather forces and organise them with an explicit focus on the Labour Party – to give a coherence and confidence to attempts to present an alternative to “New Labour lite”. At present, there are other positive things going on in the party – the Defend the Link campaign, the Labour Assembly Against Austerity, Unite’s engagement in party selections, the continuing efforts of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy to name a few, which will hopefully slot together with Red Labour in a virtuous cycle as opposed to the vicious cycle we’ve been trapped in for the past decade or more.

The Red Labour Facebook page began its life just over two years ago, in June 2011. In a couple of years of existence, it has grown to become the largest Facebook group on the left of the Labour Party. At the time of writing, the Red Labour page is ‘liked’ by (as in followed by) 4,693 people. Compared to other broadly Labour-left orientated groups, it is now the largest by quite some distance:

  • Red Labour 4,693 likes
  • Fabian Society 3,147 likes
  • Compass 1,648 members
  • Labour Left 1,225 likes
  • Left Futures 1,180 likes
  • LRC 667 likes
  • CLPD 198 likes

Granted, we’ve still got some way to go before hitting the Labour Party’s 147,675 likes, but we’ve gained nearly 2,000 followers in the last 2-3 months, so who knows what’s possible? What is significant too, is the amount of ‘buzz’ that there is around Red Labour. At the time of writing, 14,389 people were “talking” about Red Labour on Facebook (i.e. interacting in some way with the group). This compares to the 6,124 talking about the Labour Party on Facebook.

Red Labour creates online discussion about Labour movement politics. We have aimed to do so in lively and at times controversial ways. It has proved an enormously successful formula over the last two years. In the last six months, particularly, it’s been apparent that we are sitting on a phenomenon. We now regularly get 100 likes and 200 shares of our statuses, some reaching over 100,000 people on Facebook. A recent post quoting Keir Hardie on the arrival of the royal baby in 1894 reached 181,568 people and attracted 14,970 likes, comments or shares. Our interaction with those people who have liked the page grows on a daily basis.

About six months ago, in this context, we started assessing the impact of the page politically. We looked at the state of the Labour left and felt that it should be making the sort of progress that we were online. While all the time bearing in mind the difference between social media political activity and that in the movement itself, we nevertheless started to wonder about the huge void that there was for socialist education, discussion and debate in the party and how Red Labour might be able to plug that gap and help build the left in the party more practically. Over the last few months have been developing this idea while steadily building its facebook (and now twitter) presence. It seems to us that there is a desperate need for a project that takes the Red Labour approach to Labour members and supporters in different parts of the country, offering an alternative not only to austerity, but one that boldly and confidently challenges the narrowing of the political agenda in the Labour Party – offering radical alternatives and allowing members to develop and voice those alternatives in independent “Red Labour” fora. This would not be about building a membership organisation, it would be about creating forums for socialist alternatives in the party and organising the Labour left specifically.

Red Labour is a project in the making. It is not the finished article and will require building over months and years. Although it is a long term project, with education at its heart, there is now an urgency caused by the ‘One Nation Labour’s backsliding towards Blairism. The last six months have seen a clear change in the leadership under Ed Miliband as the 2015 election comes into view – and it is bad, rather than good news for the left as New Labour retrenchment gathers pace. What has also been noticeable, however, is the beginnings of a resistance in the party. We should all be wary of overplaying this, but it seems there is the start of a groundswell of anti-austerity sentiment amongst sections of the party – and not just amongst its union affiliates. This has been fuelled in particular by the abstention on workfare sanctions, the fudging of the opposition to the Bedroom Tax and most recently, the seven day ‘Wonga’ extension for benefits claimants.

A week or so ago, we decided to put that idea to our Facebook followers, hardly expecting the incredible response we got. The question was:

If Red Labour were to move into the real world, to start to organise within the Party and to hold public meetings based around issues that ordinary people faced, would you support it? Like if you would, and also comment if this interests you.”

In under 12 hours, we received 449 ‘likes’ and 115 comments, 90% of which were wholly positive. Here are some of the typical responses

  • “Absolutely. I want my Labour party back out of the clutches of the current lot in charge”
  • “Yes this would bring me back to Labour”
  • “Yes, definitely! Apart from anything I’d feel a lot happier going along to, and speaking up at, meetings of my local party and university Labour Club knowing there was an organised group and others around who have similar views of what politics should be about. Progress desperately need an organised opposition, especially so in universities etc. where the trade union connection isn’t particularly strong”
  • “I was at Tolpuddle last weekend and heard many similar sentiments; we need to rid ourselves of public school career politicians greedy for personal power. We need discussion groups to establish fundamental principles (remember them?) & then, organised, we need to reclaim OUR party. Hell yes I’m in.”

Even taking into account the obvious caveats about online activism, the response shows that there is a clear desire amongst party members (and those who have recently left) for a clear, socialist alternative in the party, popularly expressed and demanding a voice for our members. It ties in with similar sentiments echoed in the affiliated trade unions over recent months.

Practically speaking, what we have talked about is piloting a few Red Labour meetings around the country, with a broad brief to challenge both Progress and Blue Labour – as well as a developing critique Ed’s One Nation re-branding of New Labour. The real development of the project would be in the regional meetings which would come quickly after any launch. Meetings would initially be planned in areas where we feel we have some base. Each series of meetings would have policy, campaigning and organising outcomes. We could theme them for maximum impact nationally – e.g. having meetings on “free schools”, “defending the welfare state” or “tax avoidance” in several locations over a period of two week, with local media coverage – as well as all the usual social media. The emphasis would be on giving Labour Party members a voice again, gradually building confidence that we could effect change in the party.

In some ways the Red Labour name is a direct challenge to the Purple and Blue variants and therefore would have a wide appeal. This defines our approach, in a sense. The Red Labour project is based on a belief that there are thousands of Labour members and supporters out there who believe similar things to us or can be convinced by a strong, bold challenge to New Labour lite. This would not be about bringing together the 57 varieties of the left, however – it would be focused on changing the Labour Party solely. It wouldn’t be set up to compete with any group on the Labour left, but act as an umbrella and work on common campaigns and policy interventions. It would also be about engaging those five million mainly working class voters who have stopped supporting the party since 1997 and those members who have left the party in despair, but are equally despairing of the left outside the party.

It is also about organising the left in the party better – in order to challenge the bureaucratic control of the right. We would hope to attract support from the unions, whilst acknowledging that the success of the Red Labour facebook page has been based on its independent nature – and it will be important to retain this in “the real world”. Most importantly, the point of this would be that it would be grassroots-based. It would not be encumbered by the committee structure, as it would be more of a forum for our socialist views rather than a membership organisation. Red Labour would have supporters, people who engaged and contributed to the project at various levels, rather than members. Undoubtedly, there are other attempts to do similar things – e.g. on a broader scale with Unite or the Labour Assembly Against Austerity – and we see this as a positive not a negative. It shows that people are starting to stand up and are planning some kind of resistance – at last. We’d welcome joint working, while at the same time believing that Red Labour has both a distinctive approach and longevity. There is a massive leap from where we are now to a fully functioning, confident and effective left in the party. Obviously, too, there is a long way to go with the Red Labour project, but if the latter can support the former, it has got to be worth our time and effort. Please support us, help us, but most importantly, join us.

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