Thursday, September 22, 2005

Labour and Muslims

The Labour party conference is approaching and it is as good a time as any for Labour to assess its relationship with the Muslim community. The Labour party was the natural political home for the Muslim community for most of the last three decades and for good reasons. The Muslim community was generally in agreement with Labour on social justice and the anti-racism agenda. But this relationship is now unravelling, and though the Iraq war was a major historical turning point, there are much deeper reasons for this development.

Historically, it was Labour that pioneered the incorporation of ethnic minorities into the political process. The other parties followed suit but their rate of incorporation was and remains slower. However, there was a slant to this incorporation and this involved the securing of the ‘Muslim vote’ through biraderi (kinship) networks. This has been examined by Muslim journalists such as Faisal Bodi and Navid Akhtar but the relationship remains as strong as ever. This manner of involvement with the Muslim community meant that the party took on candidates and a process that required it to turn a blind eye to the quality of the candidates and the consequences on the community itself. Ann Cryer’s regular outbursts are perhaps an example of one such MP attempting to deal with the hypocrisy of the process through which she herself is elected. But others are less vocal, though no less problematic. Marsha Singh MP, our local MP, sat on the Home Affairs Committee during the last parliament. One of the subjects under study was ‘Terrorism and Community Relations’ (ref. Home Affairs Select Committee Report on Terrorism and Community Relations). He attended three out of seven hearings of oral evidence. He asked no questions. Other problems with this manner of involvement have included the language that is employed by the councillors that are elected. At public events which I have attended, councillors have approached me while speaking in Punjabi, while they remain part of a party whose ex-Home Secretary called for the speaking of English at home. Or examine the Daily Jang on any day and see how councillors and MP court the community through a culturally-other paradigm. It is a shame that the Tories and the Liberals have followed a similar kind of strategy. There is much focus on religious institutions and their relation to English language engagement, perhaps it is also time to examine local political institutions and their relation to English language engagement especially if their reach can at times match the power of religious institutions.

This kind of engagement/management/containment had serious consequences for the younger generation. Political activity became a part of public life for the second generation as they reached maturity (for various well-documented reasons), however, their examination of the then political set-up encouraged them to find manners of political expression outside of the already existing structures. Many of the youth organisations became prominent during this period. So, in every city, there were two areas of political activity – one within the local and national system (the councillors, the gatekeepers, the bureaucrats) and one without. Crucially, there was a qualitative (moral and intellectual) difference between the kinds of people in each segment. This important difference was and remains disastrous for the community. This point was brought home to me at a recent event in which there were both groups present. Generally speaking, the Islamic activists, when they were talking to each other, were sharp, articulate and conversing in English. The Labour activists, when they were talking to each other, were speaking in Punjabi. The problem is that the Labour activists were the ones who had access to power, locally and nationally. The interesting development post Iraq is that many of the Islamic activists have entered the political arena – for Respect and the Liberals – but Labour has not been able to capture them. Instead, inside Labour, many of the old-style Labour people are at present trying to regain some ground through government (locally and nationally) but they have little relevance on the terrorism issue – it is precisely their kind of politics that has sent people away from active models of citizenship – that is, Labour Muslims and the party’s patronage of them is a major part of the problem. It is time for the party to re-consider its approach.