If a report in the New Statesman (newly redesigned and, like the Indy, subscription firewall free) is correct, then Lord Nazir Ahmed may shortly be re-styling himself not Britian’s first Muslim, Labour, Peer but as Britain’s first Muslim, Crossbench, Peer, assuming he doesn’t just cross the floor the whole way.
Labour’s most prominent Muslim peer, Lord Nazir Ahmed of Rotherham, urged support for the Conservative Party during the last general election. The claim comes from Labour MP for Dewsbury, Shahid Malik, who has provided evidence to the Labour Party that Ahmed campained for his opponent, Sayeeda Warsi in 2005. Warsi is now the vice-chairman of the Conservative Party and a rising star of Cameron’s new look A-list of black, Asian and women candidates.
Sadly, for those of us living and working in urban areas with a large ethnic minority population, the report looks all too plausible, based on experiences of recent local elections.
If the report is correct, and Shahid Malik will find himself out on a limb if it isn’t, then this will be the first real national exposure of an issue that some local parties have been aware of for quite sometime, a developing strand of communalist politics emerging in, and being exploited by, mainstream parties.
Thus far, the growth of identity politics in Britain has, for the most party, been viewed through the lens of openly communalist fringe parties like the BNP and Respect. What has drawn much less attention has been the extent to which identity politics has been coming into play within the mainstream party structures at a local level, particularly (and sadly) in relation to Muslim communities.
To experience difficulties arising out of nakedly communal interests is nothing new to the Labour Party. As the party that has traditionally been closest to many ethnic minority communities and, more often than not, their greatest political friend, we have rather more experience of the issues that can arise than most. For the most part this has been a fruitful and productive relationship that has enriched both party and community alike, but it would be a lie to suggest that this is a relationship that has not been without its difficulties – Off the top of my head, I can think of several wards where memberships have had to closed, for a time, and then carefully reviewed, after allegations that a communalist-inspired takeover has been engineered or is in progress have come to light (although, naturally, you will be getting no names from me).
Some, outside the party, might look on this as being Labour’s dirty little secret, yet such a view misses an essential point. For a long period, Labour’s close relationship with urban minority communities served as a bulwark against the emergence of flagrant communalist politics at local level. It was our problem, yet it was one that we were careful to manage out. We understood, and still understand, both that communal politics is deeply divisive and has a corrosive effect on local communities and that, at a local level, it is animated not by a desire to serve the local community but by personal ambition. Those opportunists who attempted to take the communalist road to local power were invariably interested only in the own personal ambitions and their own personal status and authority within their own community. While we could not prevent the occasional outbreak of communalism, we could ensure that it was pushed to the fringes and confined, as much as possible, to fringe parties and the occasional independent candidate.
Communalist successes were, for a long time, rare and usually short-lived. The most successful local non-white communalist venture was the now defunct People’s Justice Party, which began life as Justice for Kashmir, and at its peak held at best a two or three seats in wards in East Birmingham, having been bolstered in effort by opportunistic support from the local Lib Dems (on disbanding the party in 2006, both its sitting councillors joined the Lib Dems).
The PJP could, perhaps, be considered the harbingers of what was to follow. Many, if not most of its members were, at one time members of the Labour Party, who then broke with the party for entirely communalist reasons, blaming the Labour government for failing to deal ‘adequately’ (meaning take their side) with ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan over the future of Kashmir.
However it was the Iraq war that, not unsurprisingly, opened up the main rift between Labour and its one-time Muslim supporters, opening up not only the crack through which Respect were able to creep through into the mainstream, but also emboldening both the Tories and Lib Dems into thinking that they could play the communal game to their own advantage by taking on candidates whose appeal would be solely to the communal vote; most all of whom were disaffected ex-Labour members, many of whom complained that the party would not give them ‘their chance’ to stand as candidates for election.
What the local Tories and Lib Dems did not realise (and perhaps didn’t care about either) was that many of those that they were now happily adopting as candidates had seen their efforts to secure a Labour nomination blocked for good reason. One candidate who stood for the Tories in a local ward was, I know, refused a place on Labour’s panel of candidates because it was found that the individual’s wife had three entries on the register of electors, at three different addresses. Others were well known only to be in it for themselves. None of this seemed to matter to the other parties, such that there was a sudden rash of politically itinerant ex-Labour members cropping up on the lists of both opposition parties anywhere and everywhere that it was felt that there might a communalist vote or two to be had in one ward locally, there was what amounted two a completely communalist election; Sikh vs Muslim, and all conducted under the guise of it being Labour vs Conservative.
Much has been nade, in recent times, of the various allegations and even proven cases of ballot-rigging, whether it be the Lib Dems successful election petition in Birmingham or the recent case in which two Lib Dem councillors in Burnley were jailed for electoral fraud. During the Birmingham case, the local Lib Dems made great play of attempting to label the entire Labour Party as being corrupt – although one now finds the ‘feerless’ leader of the Lib Dems campaign against electoral fraud, John Hemming, to be rather more reticent of the subject. On the matter of the Lib Dem councillors in Burnley he appears to have nothing to say, much as the same cat (white, Persian) got his tongue when the Lib Dems, themselves, found it necessary to suspend one of their own Birmingham constituency parties, amid claims of infiltration by militant ‘Asians’.
What goes around, comes around, eh, John?
The common factor is many of these incidents is that they are predicated on opportunism and the deliberate use of identity political and communal appeal as a vehicle for individuals to pursue their own personal ambitions and, as importantly, bolster their position and status with their own community. In Birmingham, in particular, the Lib Dems have gone out of their way in recent years to opportunistically court the communal vote for their own benefit, without ever understanding properly the dangers and pitfalls of such a tactic, only then to learn, the hard way, that Texans mean when they say of politics that ‘you’ve gotta dance with them that brung ya’.
Few things, at local level, are quite so corrosive as communalist politics. It is no great surprise to find that the growth of communalism in ethnic minorioty communities, whether openly – as in the case of the PJP and Respect – or covertly by way of mainsteam parties opportunsitically courting and buying into communal interests, has coincided with a revival in the electoral fortunes of the far-right and, especially the BNP. The forces being dabbled with and released here are but two sides of the same divisive coin.
THe charge that a candidate (or councillor) from a minority community is only in it for their ‘own people’ is one that has been a standard tactic of the far-right for as long as I can remember. The BNP have long relied on the deliberate fostering of division and false envy to bolster their own support and often the toughest doorstep ‘battles’ when canvassing areas where the BNP are standing is simply that of getting local people to see the truth; that what refugees and asylum seekers get from the state is but the bare minimum, and many would say less than the bare minimum, the need to live, and not a fully-furnished mansion, a Lexus and Rolex watch, as the BNP so often like to claim, or that the reason that the area down the road, the one inhabited by the local Bangladeshi community, is getting the windows ‘done’ (i.e. double glazed) while their part of the estate is still waiting is because it genuinely is the turn of those down the road to have this work done and not because ‘their councillor’ has put in a word for them or because the council is prostrating itself to some absurd notion of ‘political correctness’.
Challenging such views is difficult enough at the nest of time. it can be nigh on impossible when a local minority community is also campaigning on an openly communalist platform.
One of the main reasons I am opposed to communalism, in all its forms, is that by its very nature it tends to define everying it touches by reference to race, religion or whatever other basis isat work in defining a communal identity, irrespective of whether it is relevant to a particular issue or not.
This is something that many self-styled community leaders seem either to forget or be entirely unconcerned with, even though most of the issues they deal with, particularly at local level, are issues that affect all communities equally. In an area where the housing stock is of poor quality, everyone in that community is affected equally, no matter their ethnic, cultural or religious background, and in such cases there is, believe, a duty incumbent on anyone who professes to be a ‘community leader’ to recognise that ‘their community’ in such matters is everyone and not just those who share in their community identity. Too often that is where community leaders and communal politics fails, creatimg division and disaffection, the natural home and breeding ground of extremism.
If the allegations made in the New Statesman are shown to be true, then the position of Lord Nazir Ahmed will be clearly untenable and he should resign, or have the whip withdrawn immediately, not because he has been shown to be disloyal to the party but because he been caught playing the communalist game, and that is something that as a party we cannot and should not tolerate from any member, be they a Peer of the Realm or one of the rank and file.