Friday 26 November 2010

How Oldham's LibDem candidate attacked Phil Woolas from the right on asylum and human rights

Whatever its legal status - currently held up in the high court - the Labour Party should never have run the campaign in Oldham and Saddleworth which was used to try and re-elect Phil Woolas.

The worst revelation in the court case were the Woolas campaign team's emails in the final desperate weeks before the election.

It was simply wrong to run political literature whose apparent purpose was to exacerbate community tensions in a town which had recently experience race riots. (Though that is not what the issue of whether or not the campaign breached electoral law is about, as John Rentoul has explained).

What I was not aware of was that the LibDem candidate Elwyn Watkins attacked Woolas from the right, in stating he was ready to "rip up" the Geneva Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights to deport failed asylum seekers without regard for civil liberties or human rights.

So kudos to LibDem blogger Andrew Hickey for taking the difficult decision to speak out against his party's candidate's populist and xenophobic remarks about the human rights act and Geneva Convention, to explain why he won't be joining the by-election campaign while remaining a supporter of his party.

It is very unlikely that a by-election in Oldham between the parties will contain a great deal of sweetness and light. But, before that gets underway, I find it encouraging that there have been both Labour and now Liberal Democrat voices who have wanted to make the case for keeping political discourse and campaigning from their own side rooted in the values we are in politics for, even in the most heated of campaigns.

There will always be candidates and parties whose raison d'etre is to stir up community conflict. (Mainstream parties do it too: stirring up white grievances in the South was a central part - Nixon's piano strategy - of how the Republicans won every Presidential election bar one between LBJ's civil rights act and the end of the Cold War).

Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats (nor the Conservatives for that matter) should ever want to find their campaigns falling among them.


For the record, I don't think Woolas' leaflet accurately reflects his approach as immigration minister, which was considerably more nuanced than his leaflets. I would be among those who would have criticisms of the overall New Labour policy strategy. Liberal critics of Woolas who slur him as a "racist" - which he is not - should choose their language more carefully if they want to voice legitimate complaints and challenges to the politics of his campaign.

Labour's immigration problem is a complex one, addressed from various perspectives in a new ippr collection. The party is seen as excessively liberal on immigration by most voters, yet also hard right on immigration by liberals. (Non-white voters are on the whole considerably more supportive of the party, as reflected in the Tories' poor performance with them in the General Election, notably in London).

This may be why Labour seemed to swing from fearing it was seen to have nothing to say about the subject to seeking to prove that isn't true with megaphone soundbites like Gordon Brown's "British jobs for British workers". The argument that it is necessary to talk about immigration and integration, and to address the social pressures which arise from them - yet self-defeating to talk about it like that - gets squeezed out.

The myth that public or political discussion on immigration has been suppressed for decades since Enoch Powell spoke out is demonstrably nonsense, as any account of the post-war politics and legislation on the issue can demonstrate. But it is a myth that has become more potent, rather than less.

A big challenge for liberals is to think seriously about how to secure public consent for, for example, regularisation of long-term irregular migrants, which is an issue which will inevitably return (as a wide coalition from Boris Johnson to the TUC recognise) if we fail to deal with it, but where the experience of the LibDems in the general election campaign is not going to encourage any party to stick its head above the parapet on the issue.


It is going to be impossible to identify any heroes in the Oldham and Saddleworth saga. One point on which I can certainly agree with Phil Woolas is that to describe the Muslim Public Affairs Committee as extremist should certainly defensible, even if it would be contested by the organisation and its supporters.

There is a good case for saying "extremist" should simply be part of political speech. (Guido Fawkes uses it against the extremely moderate Fabians, for example, and others will similarly use it against either Greens or climate deniers, Europhiles and Eurosceptics, the Bob Crow union left and the Lord Young Tory elite, according to taste). Then there are groups like the BNP and Hizb-ut-Tahrir against whom it would be more reasonably applied by most people in democratic politics.

It seems to me entirely legitimate to challenge MPAC as extremist, though Woolas was badly mistaken in both the images, text and tonality he used to do this, which is why he risked appearing to be making a generic point about a community. So whatever the court's decision over the legal issues in the case, I was very surprised that the judges seemed unsure about whether MPAC is fairly categorised as extremist. (I have no information about whether or not their campaigning was welcomed or authorised in any way by his LibDem opponent).

MPAC is not the most extreme of extremist of groups - but we can surely legitimately use the word "extremist" to describe populist politicians like Pim Fortuyn or Geert Wilders, who is much less extreme than Nick Griffin, who is less publicly extreme than somebody who expresses Griffin's real views, and so on.

So MPAC works for gender desegregation in Mosques, and condemns suicide bombing in Britain, while championing suicide bombers in Israel as martyrs. MPAC UK's founder Asghar Bukhari donated to David Irving's legal fund on the grounds of having "a lot of sympathy for anyone who opposed Israel", failing to realise he was an anti-semite holocaust denier. (His explanation - "I may have got it wrong with Irving, but I’m not taking any blame for that, the way I see it is you can’t blame a man for not believing a compulsive liar because one time he was telling the truth ... To this day I believe that any pro-Muslim or pro-Palestinian person charged with anti-Semitism is almost definitely innocent" - raises more questions than it answers).

MPAC certainly regard the most mild Alan Beith as an extremist: they list any MP involved in Labour/LibDem/Conservative Friends of Israel on their Is your MP a Zionist? list (without even checking whether many may support the Labour Friends of Palestine group too). Pickled Politics noted MPAC ranting against the head of the LibDem ethnic minority forum for a wholly unexceptional statement condemning a kidnapping in the Gaza strip.

And MPAC last month stated that it could exclusively reveal that the the Conservative Party is controlled by the English Defence League, in an unlikely alliance with Conservative Friends of Israel, coordinated by party co-chair Baroness Warsi.

I can't see how most people in any of the major political parties could disagree that these pretty characteristically bizarre statements are pretty extreme, and outside the mainstream democratic discourse of pressure group politics from whatever background.

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