One Law for Some – The Ex-Muslim, the Student Union and the Ban that Wasn’t A Ban

Changing your appearance, for example, growing a beard, can be a sign of radicalisation

Changing your appearance, for example, growing a beard, can be a sign of radicalisation

In a move presumably inspired by too many stoned late-night sessions reading Derrida, Warwick University Student Union last week banned ex-Muslim and prominent anti-religion activist Maryam Namazie from speaking on campus on the basis that she qualifies as a “hate preacher” with a record of “insulting other faiths” before being later forced to backtrack.

The National Secular Society branded the initial decision “absurd and sinister,” decrying the ban as “capitulation to an Islamist agenda.” What they failed to mention is that since the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 was passed earlier this year, universities have a duty to tackle “all forms of extremism” under the so called-Prevent agenda – something the NSS have strongly supported.  The language used by the Warwick Student Union consciously draws on the terminology and requirements of Prevent in its rationale for banning Namazie.

That the Namazie  ban was ever even conceivable highlights the central problems at the heart of the Government’s decision to move from combatting violent radicalism to taking on forms of speech and action that remain within the law but cross a poorly-defined boundary into “extremism” that, in the language of Prevent “go against fundamental British values.”

The first of those problems is that the definition of “extremism” by its very nature is not and cannot be fixed. The term “extremism” is necessarily a relative one. The extreme can only exist in relation to the “moderate” and so it is impossible to create a test that ensures a consistent application of this, either in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion. Thus, something may be deemed “extreme” simply because there is a body of opinion that it is so. Who holds that opinion and what they deem ‘extreme” is impossible to police, particularly given that the touchtone is “British Values” a term that is so vague and contradictory that people have already been referred under prevent for, among other things, using the term “l’ecoterrorisme” in French class and attending a Boycott Divestment and Sanctions demonstration. In fact, children as young as two have been referred.

The second of those problems is that the highly complex jurisprudential and political science questions being posed by Prevent’s attempt to create legal sanction for actions and words that are not illegal are not being decided by High Court Judges. They are being decided by Student Unions, by teachers, by low-ranking civil servants in town halls across the UK. Such people are simply not qualified to decide what does or does not qualify as “extremism” and so will almost always err on the side of caution, reporting first and asking questions later. Given the lack of understanding and of oversight, there is also a risk that the Prevent regime could be used to pursue personal vendettas or as a vehicle for prejudices otherwise deemed unacceptable in a civilised society.

The third, and greatest, problem is that Prevent is a gigantic euphemism. It hasn’t been put in place to tackle extremism in Irish communities in Ulster, it isn’t there to take on homophobic prejudice in Catholic schools, it has not been created to tackle the rogue general who threatened to mutiny if Jeremy Corbyn was elected. Prevent was designed to tackle what the government sees (according to the comprehensively debunked “conveyor belt theory”) as the root cause of violent extremism in Muslim communities. But it isn’t actually possible to say this, in guidance or in statute. The Race Relations Act, The Human Rights Act and the quirky, out-dated principle of equality before the law ensure that no specific ethnic or religious group can be named at the target of legislation. The result, as Ms Namazie has discovered, is that all that is needed for one to be silenced as an extremist is to be named as such.

Except, of course, that isn’t the end of the story. After playing the martyr to the media, Namazie has whipped up enough support for her right to free speech that the university has backtracked. The post signalling their u-turn is instructive. In an angry and admonishing tone, it declares that “speaker invitations that may involve such issues are routinely considered by the SU President who will also take advice from senior SU staff. This did not happen on this occasion.” Somebody, one presumes, will be sent to bed without their dinner.

Now it is impossible to know, on the basis of a few news reports and statements how the decision was reached, but the phrase “routinely considered” should be of interest to spin-watchers. It implies that there is a process without actually saying as much, giving the CU president and their “senior staff” a way to climb down and save face after the media backlash despite what was, presumably, a democtratic decision by the organisation they represent.

The initial ban may have been serious or it may have been playfully absurdist in its appropriation of the language and logic of Prevent, but the fact that it could be overturned after media pressure raises serious questions about the Prevent programme quite apart from its inherently contradictory nature as a programme that undermines the British values of freedom of thought and expression in order to preserve them. It means that those with the greatest access to opinion-formers have the ability to marshall Prevent’s not inconsiderable powers in a way that others do not. It means that in practice, only those forms of hate speech that go against public prejudices will be censured, while those that chime with the public mood will be allowed to stand. It means that the day-to-day application of Prevent doesn’t even conform to the programme’s own convoluted logic.

In short, Prevent is a terrible idea from conception to execution. Given that it does, exist, it needs to be applied equally across all forms of extremism, including those espoused by avowed secularists. One would think that Namazie, who represents an organisation called One Law For All, might understand this concept . If this is not done, it is hard to see how a policy that combines vague terminology with unaccountable power and apparent double standards will prevent anything other than allowing a generation of British Muslims to feel that the are allowed to take full part in the intellectual and civic life of their country.

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Resurrecting the politics of conscience 

Utopia: still awaiting planning permission

Utopia: still awaiting planning permission

As the most political Labour conference in 20 years begins, it is time for all good liberals to come to the aid of the party

You used to know which side of the divide you were on. You were prepared to make sacrifices to help those less well off than you. You knew that social justice was worth fighting for and that fairness was possible. You had a conscience and you did you best to abide by it. You probably thought things could only get better in 1997 and agreed with Nick in 2010.

But at the same time you grew up with scare stories of the Winter of Discontent. You knew that the unions, while necessary and important in principle could be thuggish and authoritarian in practice, putting their own interests above those of the nation. You never bought the line that austerity was the way to recovery, but at the same time, something made you instinctively wary of huge debt and the left’s tendency to pretend that global finance could just be ignored.

Maybe you’re a doctor who’s watching the NHS be privatised before your eyes at the same time as you’re accused of being selfish and lazy; maybe you’re a teacher or civil servant who knows that you’ll never own the home that will allow you to put down roots; you could even be working at a bank, a hedge fund or an accountancy firm, watching absurd amounts of money fly back and forth to no discernable purpose. But what you certainly aren’t is a Marxist, you aren’t interested in which wave of feminism someone claims to represent and you find the left’s obsession with ideological purity a big turn off. In fact, you aren’t ideological at all, you just know decency and fairness when you see it and you haven’t seen it in a long, long time.

Well, now is your moment. Jeremy Corbyn comes to the leadership of the Labour party at a time when the orthodoxies that have informed politics for thirty years are disintegrating (or rather it is becoming clear that they disintegrated circa 2008 and that the cracks can no longer be papered over).

Our economy, though growing, remains reliant on crumbs from the table of international finance and is regularly in the top five in the world for income and wealth inequality.

Inequality: What do numbers mean anyway?

Inequality: What do numbers mean anyway?

The rise of Scottish nationalism demonstrates that the UK’s established parties are struggling to convince a substantial portion of those who live on these islands that “Britain” is a concept they can take part in.  And the cynical manipulation of English nationalism to secure a Tory victory at the last election seems to indicate that at least at CCHQ, this is not seen as a problem but a welcome chance to have greater control, even if it is over a smaller polity.

Abroad, the refugee crisis has shown that no country can inoculate itself against the human consequences of globalisation and the events in Syria and Iraq that precipitated it demonstrate quite how limited our ability to influence events overseas has become.

In this maelstrom, it appears that an entire generation of political practitioners and theorists are out of their depth. The left never recovered from the fall of the Soviet Union and the right has yet to explain why a quarter century of having things their own way have failed to produce utopia and instead given us the biggest recession in history and what increasingly appears to be a state of perpetual war.

Jeremy Corbyn does not have the answers to these questions. But he is at least attempting to grapple with them and that is what really sets him apart from both New Labour and the Tories. As a leader, he is neither the stern aristocratic patriarch that Cameron projects, nor does he possess the charismatic messianism of Blair, instead he belongs to a different tradition, a consensual tradition, that is increasingly relevant in the social media age where people are able to organise laterally as well as hierarchically and where a multiplicity of voices mean that nobody has a monopoly on the means by which our reality is constructed. .

But that style of leadership only works if there is engagement. And that’s why it is time for all good liberals to come to the aid of the party. If you’re not a party member, join. If you are a party member, go to your next CLP meeting. If you happen to be lucky enough to live in the constituency of one of the Labour MPs who has refused to serve under Corbyn, write to them and ask them why they were happy to use the cash given to them by ordinary members to get elected but refuse to respect the mandate those same members have given to Corbyn and his team.

You may find Jezza absurd, you may think his policies throwbacks to another era, but you have the chance to affect those policies yourself in a way that you never would with Cameron or Osborne, Kendall or Cooper. Corbyn’s election is a historic opportunity to build an anti-austerity alliance that takes in those from across the political spectrum who would rather that this nation was governed in the interests of all its inhabitants rather than by and for a tiny elite.

His many opponents in the media and political classes will continue to try and make it about the man. But the real reason the attacks on him are so vitriolic is because they are terrified that people might realise that individual politicians, entire political movements and decades old orthodoxies are all dispensable.

Would you buy a used country form this man?

Would you buy a used country form this man?

After all, if a man that looks and sounds like a geography teacher on the verge of retirement can become the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition, then surely anyone can be an MP. And if anyone can be an MP, then anyone can be PM, rendering an entire political class – from those groomed for power on the PPE-SpAd-PPS conveyor belt to the media moguls that boast of changing the fate of nations one headline at a time – obsolete.

Reflections on the Election of Jeremy Corbyn

Politicians: Just in it for themselves

Politicians: Just in it for themselves

Pale and male but far from stale

Against all odds, expectations and orthodoxy, the Labour Party yesterday elected Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran left-winger who has never held a senior position in the party, let alone in government, as its leader.

The election of an elderly white man with a beard, an allotment and questionable dress sense is both a political earthquake in itself and a shot across the bows of the Lynton Crosbys of this world – spin merchants and segmentation strategists who believe that politics should consist of saying as little as possible, pitting social groups against each other and buying off particular constituencies rather than putting forward a vision for the nation as a whole.

Corbyn has been painted in the right wing press as something between Trotsky, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Citizen Smith. He’s hard left but soft touch, an impractical idealist who will never get elected but still represents a threat to national security; an anti-semite who has somehow still managed to get elected eight times in a constituency of north London geeks.

During the campaign it was said his rise was facilitated by hard left or Tory infiltrators using the party’s new affiliate member scheme; with some even going so far as to say that the ballot should be invalidated.

In the event, his victory was a landslide, both among existing members and the new affiliates. With 59.5 per cent of the vote, he has done better than Tony Blair did in 1994. An achievement that is all the more noteworthy given that Blair was the anointed heir with no serious contender running against him while Corbyn was a rank outsider with next to no support in the Parliamentary Labour Party and near universal hostility from the media.

Labouring under a delusion

Everything you need to know about why Corbyn won can be understood from the response of the Parliamentary Labour Party to his election. Half the shadow cabinet has resigned and I’m sure Team Jeremy is reeling from the loss of such nationally renowned political heavyweights as Jamie Reed and Emma Reynolds.

Those resignations are based on the assessment that Corbynmania is a flash in the pan and that in a couple of years’ time, when the absurd pipedream of a democratic and representative Labour Party has given way to the cold realities of electoral politics, they will be “clean” in the eyes of press and public and able to take back their rightful place and lead Labour to victory through an electoral strategy that, as the Daily Mash memorably put it, consists of being “microscopically less awful than the Tories.”

And therein lies the problem. Their calculation is a political one with a small p, a careerist one that puts their personal interests above those of the party that they seem to stand by only when it is working for them. Their strategy allows them to maintain the appearance of loyalty to their party while at the same time doing everything they can to bring down its democratically elected leader, calling on Corbyn to “reach out,” rejecting his overtures and then claiming he is clannish and divisive.

Call me old fashioned, but I’m not really interested in being represented by someone that thinks like that. It is true that you can’t stand up for your principles if you’re not in power, but you also can’t stand up for your principles if you don’t have any, if your entire political life consists of putting the ideals you claim to believe in in abeyance in a perpetual bid to achieve and hold on to power.

I watched my party hold its ideals in abeyance over Iraq, austerity, welfare reform and countless other issues that should have been non-negotiable points of principle because of the so-called realities of power. Forgive me if I’m unconvinced that by the end, New Labour had any red lines left.

Andy Burnham: Collegiate

Andy Burnham: Collegiate

Pressing the Press

One of the most notable aspects of Corbyn’s victory is that it happened despite the best efforts of the British press. Of course the hostility of the Telegraph and Sun is to be expected, as is the incoherent hysteria that passes for news on the pages of the Mail, but the Independent and Guardian have been less than full-throated in their support. In fact only a single left-wing commentator – the almost supernaturally prolific chipmunk of socialist journalism Owen Jones – has openly backed Corbyn.

Corbyn’s response to the media has been to resolutely refuse to acknowledge or take part in the politics of fear and smear. His dignity and integrity in the face of these assaults has been – for me and many others who agree with his aspirations but worry that his vision is impracticable – the thing that tipped the balance in his favour.

If the total lack of critical analysis that allowed the “dodgy dossier” to facilitate the greatest foreign policy disaster of our generation did not; if the phone hacking scandal did not; if the re-appointment of Rebekkah Brookes (despite her apparently crippling amnesia) did not, it may be too much to hope that Corbyn’s nuanced argument and simple dignity will bring the feral British media to heel, but merely to attempt this rather than pandering to the clickbait agenda of the mainstream press is an act of courage that gives us the measure of the man.

The Daily Mail: Helpful and constructive

The Daily Mail: Helpful and constructive

Possession of policy with intent to supply

To be fair to our journalistic class, there has been some discussion of Corbyn’s actual policy proposals. This is possible because unlike his fellow leadership contenders, he published several pages of pledges. Where the Burnhams and Coopers of the world may think it is enough to make vague statements using words like “aspiration” and “belief” Corbyn has put down what he believes this country needs in terms of specific proposals for specific problems.

By doing this he will alienate people, but he has also already sparked needed debate on issues that the major parties have been sweeping under the carpet for 15 years.

I must say I’m not convinced by “people’s quantitative easing” but at the same time, I’ve seen the East Coast rail franchise perform much, much better under public ownership that private. While Corbyn may not have all the solutions, it should be clear that the dogmas of the right regarding the performance of publically owned entities were just that – dogmas.

Given the man’s reputation as a consensus builder, his current policy platform should be seen as a negotiating position from which he will climb down and compromise on specific issues. That has to be a better place than his fellow contenders, all of whom had/were compromised long before those negotiations began.

And while I’m sure we can all agree that debt is bad, Britain has had a national debt since the 18th Century yet still managed to control the largest empire the world has ever seen. Still, I’m sure our highly politically and economically literate elites have a good reason for wanting the UK to be in the company of such surplus running nations as Macau, Kuwait and Brunei rather than France, the USA or China.

At the end of the day, we are not comparing loony leftism to a functioning laissez-faire economy. We’re comparing a potentially functional centre-leftism (by the political science measure, rather than the current state of politics, where the “centre” is very much to the right) to a clearly dysfunctional neoliberal capitalism. The arguments being made against Corbyn may have been plausible before the financial crash proved that the neoliberal model was unsustainable or before the massive transfer of wealth from public to private hands in the form of bailouts that allowed those that caused the crash to continue exactly as before, but they are plausible no longer.

Macau: A model for the British economy

Macau: A model for the British economy

Represent!

My final point (and I promise it is the final one) is about the nature of leadership and representation. Corbyn has repeatedly been described as “not PM material.” And I do think he can never win the “born to rule” argument. David Cameron, Etonian and distant cousin to the Queen, with a hundreds of years of aristocratic breeding behind him will always win that one. But for those of us who would rather be represented that be ruled, he is the only hope of an open, consensus-based politics that is focused on solutions

In the end, I voted for Corbyn somewhat for his policies and somewhat for the personal integrity of the man and the whole approach he represents. Politics need not be a divisive, “us vs them” zero sum game. It should be all of us thrashing out our differences with courage and honesty and working for the betterment of everyone these islands – after all, we’re stuck here, for good or ill, so we might as well make the best of it.

Politics is perhaps 10 per cent pursuing your own agenda and 90 per cent reacting to events. And when those unforeseen events occur, I would rather have the critical decision made by a man who consults widely, thinks deeply and acts in the interest of the nation as a whole rather than by a shiny-faced clones that looks as if they were grown in a vat and speak as if being beamed instructions from a central database.

The question now is whether Corbyn can build the broad-based grassroots movement that is Labour’s only hope of a 2020 election victory. I still don’t know if it’s possible, but I really, really l really want to be part of the attempt. What I do know is that at last I’ll be able to stand on the #labourdoorstep without feeling ashamed or apologetic for my party. For the first time in a long time, I have hope.

Thousands throw themselves back into the sea following Cameron migrant pledge

Following David Cameron’s announcement that Britain would be opening its doors to up to half dozen Syrian refugees over the next five years – but only if they have not already crossed into Europe – thousands of migrants were seen throwing themselves back into the Mediterranean Sea, desperate to return to the war and drought ravaged lands that are now their only route to a cushy life on benefits in Slough.

In scenes reminiscent of 70s nature documentary Jaws played backwards, the huddled masses yearning to be free were seen diving off any available piece of seafront and scrambling desperately to swim back to the shores of Africa and Asia.

Speaking at a hastily convened U-turn at the Aylan Kurdi Centre for Sincere but Stern Compassion (formerly HMP Holloway) Mr Cameron said: “We must not let ourselves be diverted from the very real suffering of those in the camps who have been ignored by the international community until they became a convenient distraction. These are the real victims and failing to act would be like refusing to throw a lifeline to a drowning child.”

“As long as that child is drowning because its a genuine refugee and not just after a widescreen telly and a job at Gregg’s.”

Our correspondent caught up with several of those making the perilous journey on a makeshift raft of driftwood and poster sized pictures of Angela Merkel off the coast of Cyprus. Economic migrant Adab El-Kouri said: “I’ve crossed two deserts and an ocean with nothing but the clothes on my back, driven by fear of murderous warlords and religious zealots and carrying my infant daughter in the only arm I have left. Now I find out that I’ve blown my chance of getting a fat cheque from Her Maj and bumping some hardworking family off the housing queue. Sod that, I’m going back to Aleppo!”

When asked if he had made his perilous journey just to find a better life, El-Kouri, 31,removed a clump of sewage sodden flotsam from his mouth and replied: “No shit.”

In Syria, the Islamic State is reportedly struggling to cope with the influx, with thousands of migrants packed on to trains on the border waiting to be processed. Spokesman Sheikh Viktor Al-Orbani said “These people were safe when they reached Turkey and Greece, they should have stayed there, we have no obligation to take them and they are only here because they are after a British life.”

The Tidemark

The Tidemark

When we were children

We would walk the tidemark

And talk of floating the wide grey water

To the places we had seen in Ladybird books

And in dreams.

 

(All the while shivering; never going deeper than our knees)

 

We would see all the ocean’s monsters in a stranded jellyfish;

The history of tall ships and piracy

In a tangle of fishing nets and floats.

 

And once,

Once we found a strange thing

A mannequin, perhaps, or a toy

A tiny, pathetic bedgraggled mess

That mummy would not let us come near.

 

You whispered “it looks like a little boy.”

But it could not be,

I knew it could not be,

Because who would let that happen to a child?