Thursday 17 January 2008

If Jean had been Muslim...

What if Jean Charles de Menezes HAD been a British Muslim?

It means little to most people in this country, but mention Tammany Hall to an New Yorker and they’re likely to mention the fearsome and infamously corrupt political machine that kept the Democratic Party in power in the city until the mid 1930s. Tammany Hall’s electoral base lay predominantly with New York’s burgeoning immigrant constituency, with political support exchanged for Tammany Hall’s power to deliver patronage, government contracts and jobs. Its leaders’ ability to swing the popular vote kept it in control of city government for 80 years.

The argument for accusing Mayor Ken Livingstone of running a version of Tammany Hall politics in London goes something like this. Voter turnout in the London Mayoral elections is low, just 36% in 2004 and only 35% in 2000, when Livingstone’s decision to stand as an independent was expected to galvanise voters. Low turnout encourages politicians to try and mobilise voter blocs that can have a disproportionate impact on results, as George Galloway found in Bethnal Green & Bow when he won with 18.4 per cent of the potential voters in the constituency by working almost exclusively to turn out the Bangladeshi community.

And whilst the post of London Mayor may be weak compared to other world cities, the stakes are still high - relatively unconstrained by a toothless London Assembly, Livingstone controls a budget of £10.6 billion, powers over transport, policing, economic development and since 2006, more clout over housing, planning, the environment, and learning and skills. To hang onto this power, Livingstone has therefore been accused of actively courted minority voter blocs and much like Tammany Hall has focused on immigrant constituencies, particularly Muslims and the Caribbean community. The crumbs on offer may not amount to significant change in the economic power of these communities, indeed are little more than cultural (chiefly a few conferences and support for the Notting Hill Carnival), but in the absence of a progressive alternative candidate, it has led some self-selecting ‘community leaders’ to urge ‘their’ communities to re-elect Livingstone for a third term.

The flip-side of the accusations against Livingstone do seem to ring true in one respect – if there really is a calculated hierarchy of whose vote is valuable and whose is not, those who cannot deliver for the Mayor do seem to be effectively ignored. Livingstone has been accused of antagonising the Jewish community with comments such as the attack on Jewish businessmen David and Simon Reuben, whom he said should “go back (to their own country) and see if they can do better”, that would never be directed towards black people. His credentials on gay rights may be damaged by the association with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s condemnation of homosexuality, but then there is no ‘gay vote’ that influence the outcome of elections – and who else is there to vote for? Boris Johnstone?

Which brings us, finally, to Jean Charles de Menezes, the young Brazilian gunned down by anti-terrorist police in July 2005, and two questions that are worth asking. Would the Mayor and his advisors have been so uncritical of the Metropolitan Police and its Commissioner Sir Ian Blair if Brazilians in London represented a powerful voting bloc? Or if the police had shot and killed an innocent British Muslim or a young African-Caribbean, a member of a community that might mobilise in anger and make demands upon the Mayor? From my own experience with the Justice 4 Jean campaign, I’ve seen how the horror that most Londoners felt about the manner of Menezes’ death has been successfully soaked up and ignored by Mayor’s office, with those I remember well from the anti-racist movement like Lee Jasper heaping praise on the promotion of Cressida Dick, the senior officer in charge of the botched operation at Stockwell tube station. How things have changed for former radicals.

The justifications and excuses by the police and its allies in City Hall for the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, like the indifference towards the appalling treatment of asylum seekers in Home Office detention centres, is only possible when victims of the state have no power, no influence and ultimately, no votes.

The media circus around the alleged patronage and corruption involving mayoral advisor Lee Jasper pales compared to the far better reason for refusing to vote for Livingstone in this year’s elections – that the Mayor, and those around him, no longer care about those whom progressive politicians need to care about the most.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.