Wednesday, 30 January 2008

The Lawrence Inquiry's Missed Opportunities

Ten Years On: The Missed Opportunity of the Lawrence Inquiry

Over a decade ago, I recall having a conversation about the benefit of public inquiries with Phil Scraton, the author of Hillsborough: The Truth and now Professor of Criminology at Queen's University Belfast. He said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that the problem with demanding an independent public inquiry is that the government might actually agree. Ministers can then set an inquiry's remit in a way that avoids the most controversial issues and then spend the next decade pointing out the generosity of its offer, as though this has a greater significance than the decisions that an inquiry might eventually reach. Public inquiries are therefore, at best, brief windows of opportunity to push for change before the issue under investigation slips from the public consciousness.

So it has proved with the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, whose first public hearings began ten years ago this March. Although a particularly controversial issue was left outside of its remit, the Inquiry Panel nevertheless highlighted "one area of complaint which was universal" - the issue of stop and search by the police. The Inquiry Report said (section 45.8), "nobody in the minority ethnic communities believes that the complex arguments which are sometimes used to explain the figures as to stop and search are valid... the perception and experience of the minority communities that discrimination is a major element in the stop and search problem is correct."

In the 'window of opportunity' after the publication in 1999 of the Inquiry Report, the government's decision to accept all the Inquiry's guidance, including Recommendation 61's call for recording of all "stops" and "stops and searches" made under any legislation (not just the Police and Criminal Evidence Act) including so called "voluntary" stops, therefore broke new ground.

Amidst otherwise tame recommendations, the idea of forcing police officers to justify their reasons for stopping and searching black people was as important as the removal of the ability to make stops without reasonable suspicion, the hated 'sus' laws that had provided the trigger for the Brixton, Toxteth and St Pauls' uprisings in 1980 and 1981. But windows of opportunities close and the frenzied atmosphere of the Lawrence Inquiry, much of which I attended as an activist for Newham Monitoring Project, dissipated as the focus shifted from the police onto local government.

Then came the 'war on terror'. Section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000 gave the police the power to stop and search someone whom is reasonably suspected to be a terrorist, whilst section 44 allowed stop and search for articles that could be used in terrorism, with no reasonable suspicion required, in a defined area. Although the whole of London is an authorised area all the time, with ministers renewing the power every 28 days, neither of these most commonly used powers has made the slightest difference in tackling terrorism and no stops have resulted in a conviction for terrorist offences. But section 44 has been used to target Muslim communities, to expel an troublesome pensioner from a Labour Party conference and, in 2005, to hold a Scot for four hours for walking on a cycle path.

Now the government plans to take the final steps to unravel the progress made by the Lawrence Inquiry. Today's Prime Minister's Questions involved a tussle between Brown and Cameron over ending the recording of stop and search and, worse still, leaping back to before the 1981 Scarman Inquiry by reintroducing a variant of 'sus'. It seems that a government-commissioned report - written by a police officer, of course - will next week suggest handing police the power to search people without giving a reason. In response, Cameron has called for an end of the Lawrence Inquiry's recommendation to record stops and said that black and Asian communities "have to accept more stop and search... [as] necessary to combat the growth of violent crime in those communities." He also suggests the time has come to stop complaining - that there has been a "big change in policing since the 1980s" that means the police "understand concerns about racism, concerns about targeting particular groups".

Which rather begs the question, why do government figures still show that black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, while Asians are almost twice as likely? And does anyone have any greater belief than they did back on 1998 about the validity of the 'complex arguments' that will be used to explain the figures?

Clearly, the time has come to keep complaining - and to accept that the Lawrence Inquiry basically failed. For a period, it pushed the institution of the police into suppressing its primarily stereotypical view of black communities. But that period is now over and, whilst policing in Britain certainly is different than it was in the 1980s, new powers make it easier to slip back into ingrained habits - habits whose impact will be felt mainly by Muslims, young black men and working class communities.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Maccy D Grade

Maccy D Grade: McDonald’s launches its own A level

Last year McDonalds in the UK launched a campaign against the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary of a "McJob" as "an unstimulating low-paid job with few prospects". It claimed this was insulting and out of date and went as far as launching an online petition.

Now, with support from Prime Minister Gordon Brown, it has become one of the companies approved by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to provide accreditation of its in-house qualifications.

Welcome to the McDonalds A-level in burger bar management.

Brown has described it as “a tough course” and said that “once you've got that qualification you can go anywhere." Anywhere where there is a McDonalds, presumably, for as Sally Hunt of the University and College Union sensibly points out, “we would have concerns about qualifications that are very narrow and specific to one organisation, like McDonalds”. So how many universities – or employers- will be clamouring to accept people with McQualifications?

On the face of it, this looks like a further attempt by McDonalds to improve appalling image as an employer. But the enthusiasm of the government for the plan should be of little surprise. Private sponsors have already been given enormous influence over children’s education for a relatively small commitment through the government’s Academies, which have become it’s panacea for the secondary education sector. Labour has thus been able to transfer an average of £35m of publicly owned resources for each Academy into the hands of private companies – more than £14bn. Providing multinationals like McDonalds with the opportunity to run their own courses is just the latest step in its neo-liberal agenda.

There is plenty of evidence that children are increasingly becoming target groups for aggressive forms of marketing practices and for commercial pressure with a view to stimulate and increase their consumption. Imagine what more that can be done when companies run the schools and design the qualifications themselves.

So what’s next? GSCEs in Playstation Skills?

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Red Ken: More Like Blair Than He's Care To Admit

As Ken Livingstone is discovering, once people start talking about a scandal, they can talk of little else.

First there was the Evening Standard allegations of a link between Lee Jasper and corruption. Then came the bizarre 'discovery' by the Sunday Times of an alleged "secret Marxist cell" in City Hall and now Lee Jasper's deputy Rosemary Emodi has been forced to resign for lying about taking a free luxury holiday in Nigeria. Livingstone has accused the press and a Channel 4 Dispatches programme made by the New Stateman's Martin Bright of conducting a politically motivated 'hatchet job' intended to influence the forthcoming Mayoral elections. And on the face of it, the individual allegations of scandal seem fairly flimsy.

The Dispatches programme was undoubtedly appalling journalism, which is to be expected from someone like Martin Bright, who memorably claimed in the Observer back in 2001 that "rioters armed with samurai swords" would be attending the May Day demonstration. But let's look at the evidence. I have already written in December 2007 about the attacks on Jasper over allegations that he inappropriately influenced over £2.5 million of London Development Agency funds. The latest claim comes from former GLA advisor Atma Singh, who parted company with the Livingstone inner-circle on acrimonious terms. He alleges that GLA funds were used to smear Trevor Phillips, then head of the Commission for Racial Equality, to try and stop him from becoming the chair for the new Commission for Equalities and Human Rights. Singh alleges that consultant Anne Kane was paid to write a "devastating critique" that eventually appeared on... Blink, the 1990 Trust's (ha hum) 'widely read' website.

Now there is an obvious reason why this allegation is tenuous at best. It's the fact that there have long been genuine policy differences between the Mayor and Trevor Phillips, who used his position as head of the CRE to claim that "multiculturalism is not working" and that Britain was "sleepwalking" into segregation". Livingstone was not alone in warning that Phillips was playing a dangerous game with the comments he was making and seldom has there been a prominent head of a government quango more deserving of fierce criticism - hell, I would have written the report for free. But no-one is suggesting that the GLA intended to ferret around in Phillips' private life, so how can legitimate political debate be described as a smear?

Meanwhile, he 'revelation' that there are a number of members of 'Socialist Action' working for Livingstone has to rank as the worst kept secret on the British Left. However, the very lack of 'socialist activity' by this tiny Trot group in any sphere other than blind devotion to the Mayor hardly constitutes a 'cell', any more than the discovery of a number of Tories working for the Sunday Times would. These 'Marxists' have, after all, been the organisers of Livingstone's cosy relationship with business and the police.

But before we get carried away with the idea that this is a witch hunt against the Left because of mad rants from the likes of Nick Cohen, or even start to reluctantly defend Socialist Action as Dave Osler has done, let's get one thing straight. These people don't deserve our sympathy, for they have done plenty of witch hunting themselves. They used the financial muscle of the Mayor's office to ensure, in an unholy alliance with the Socialist Workers Party, that at the European Social Forum in 2004 only those loyal to their own groups and to Ken Livingstone were heard. They have banned critics from City Hall, brought their allies (like Atma Singh) into key posts and occupied very well-paid jobs whilst doing so. And that is why there is at least one statement of truth in the claims Singh made to Dispatches - that the clique around Livingstone "are driven by a desire to maintain as much political power as possible, through control of London’s finances, control over the staff who run London and the removal of opposition.”

All of which reminds me of another populist leader, one able to ignore the elected assembly supposed to hold him to account, who was ferociously loyal to the close circle of friends and allies around him and who believed that he, and he alone, understood the way to govern. Does that sound like anyone familiar? I appreciate that it's hard to imagine Lee Jasper as London's Peter Mandelson, but it's far easier to recognise the arrogance of unrestrained power.

I can't say I'm surprised that the Mayor thinks he can brazen his way out of the bad publicity he faces by claiming his advisers have been cleared by internal inquiries - after all, it worked more often than not for Blair. Nor am I surprised that Rosemary Emodi lied about her trip to Nigeria - were it not for the unfortunate timing of the other scandals, she probably would have got away with it.

But I am surprised that otherwise sensible people have such difficulties recognising this. Worse still, I'm amazed they are now articulating the very-same Blairite line so often criticised by the Left, that 'you may not like what we are doing, but at least we are not the Tories.'

Seumas Milne in the Guardian has, for example, written that "a defeat for Livingstone would not just be a blow to the broadly defined left, working-class Londoners, women, ethnic minorities and greens. It would represent a wider defeat for progressive politics, in Britain and beyond." This is just nonsense. Livingstone does indeed have a number of progressive policies, but his politics and the manner in which they are conducted is an anathema to the kind of new, progressive, bottom-up and fundamentally democratic agenda that the Left should be embracing.

Ken or Boris? I've argued before that a vote for Livingstone is impossible for those who care about the way the Mayor has responded to the state execution of Jean Charles de Menezes. And anyway, I don't think its as simple as a choice between the 'least worst'.

Instead, I think it's time that so many on the Left stopped pinning all their hopes on the belief that individual leaders, the outcome of occasional elections and the decisions of small, unelected elites are the most important drivers of real political change.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Filipino Prisoners Dance to "Thriller"

Filipino Prisoners Dance to "Thriller" - and a Response

The Independent today reports on YouTube's most-watched video: the perfectly choreographed version of Michael Jackson's Thriller performed by Filipino prisoners at Cebu Detention and Rehabilitation Centre.

The video has been around for a while - it was posted by Bryron Garcia, who introduced dancing to the prison in 2006. The Indie's piece makes Garcia sound like a man simply trying to rehabilitate the prisoners, but a video response on YouTube tells a different story. See both the original video and the response below.



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.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Re-inventing Charlie Wilson's War

I recently saw "Charlie Wilson's War", the new film starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, which tells the story of a genial, hard-drinking Texas Congressman who, with the help of a maverick CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), almost single-handedly created the CIA's covert war against the Russians in Afghanistan.

Prompted by right-wing socialite Joanne Herring (Roberts), Wilson visits Pakistan's military dictator General Zia and its refugee camps filled with desperate Afghans who have escaped the brutality of the Soviet army. He then turns his considerable charm and influence in Congress (as a member of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee) to funnel millions of dollars to supply themujaheddin with the weapons to shoot down Russian helicopters and planes.

Although the film is based on a true story, writer Aaron Sorkin (of "The West Wing") has made Charlie Wilson's escapades into an often very funny script, with Hoffman brilliant as always, but one that is fundamentally right-wing and that for me left a really bad taste in the mouth. The film depicts the end of the Cold War under Reagan as a period of nostalgic certainty, when America knew who its enemies were and how they could be defeated, when 'fighting communism' mattered far more than the consequences of US foreign policy. Making Wilson a good-time, lovable character glosses over his active support for the brutal Somoza government in Nicaragua and subsequent support for CIA covert efforts to undermine the Sandinistas. The film, whilst rightly highlighting the atrocities of the Soviet occupation army (mirrored twenty years later by the US in Iraq - the inevitable fate it seems of all occupiers), appears to positively relish the idea of 'killing Russians', even thought the majority were miserable teenage conscripts. Sorkin also adopts the historically inaccurate view that the war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the rise of nationalism and of political liberalisation under glasnost, coupled with the crippling economic cost of the arms race, were significantly more important factors.

And not until the end, in almost an oblique afterthought, does the film acknowledge the impact of placing a billion dollars worth of arms in the hands of the mujaheddin. Even on this point, the film seems confused - the immediate result wasn't the Taliban, but five years of civil war, during which the main ally of the US in the 2001 invasion, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, destroyed much of the city of Kabul.

The commentator Toby Young, whom I have long thought of as fundamentally clueless, has written that "one of the main reasons we (speak for yourself Toby) can now look back on the Cold War era as the Good Old Days is because the West came out on top. Waging a covert military operation - and winning it - seems infinitely preferable to waging an actual war and losing it." Infinitely preferable perhaps to someone with no apparent moral compass.

In a less confused time in the US, a liberal writer like Sorkin would have potrayed Charlie Wilson as a right-wing arms financier and potential war criminal. Instead we get warm-hearted Tom Hanks playing 'Good Time Charlie", a basically honest party animal that we are supposed to sympathise with.

So here's a prediction - in 2019, expect a Hollywood film about the exploits of a confused but fundamentally noble George W Bush.

Perhaps Tom Hanks will be free for that film too.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Forget 2007 - a bad year for film fans

Back in 2003, I took up the challenge of seeing one film every week and posting a review online. Since then, I've stopped seeing a trip to the cinema as a special event, something to planned in advance, and have seen a load of films that I might otherwise have missed.

But in 2007, I only went to the flicks 19 times. For some people, that might seem like a lot, but the previous year I saw 38 films, and 42 in 2005 and 60 in 2004. Partly this was because of circumstances, mainly the aftermath of Gilly's passing and a higher than usual number of foreign trips, but mainly because 2007 was such a dire year for film goers. A really bad year. I struggled to find films I wanted to hand over good money for, and still ended up seeing a couple of real duds.

In keeping with previous years, I've rated the films I've seen. If you want to see the ratings for 2004 to 2006 and the reviews from 2003, visit

5 stars: Unmissable!
4 stars: Definitely worth seeing
3 stars: Decent film
2 stars: Disappointing
1 star: Pants
No stars: Why was this released?

In date order - five star films highlighted in bold

Apocalypto (***)
Blood Diamond (***)
The Last King of Scotland (****)
Hot Fuzz (****)
The Illusionist (****)
Iraq in Pieces (***)
300 (*)
Sunshine (***)
The Lives of Others (*****)
Zodiac (***)
Spiderman 3 (*)
The Simpsons Movie (**)
The Bourne Ultimatum (****)
Hallam Foe (***)
The Brave One (***)
The Kingdom (***)
Eastern Promises (****)
Lions for Lambs (***)
Once (***)

Bollyline: Cricket, racism and hypocrisy

So the Indian cricket team’s decided to suspend their current tour of Australia, because of a three-match ban imposed on spin bowler Harbhajan Singh (left) for alleged racist abuse. But is India the victim of a "blatantly false" judgment and an "unfair slur" as it claims?

Well let’s get one thing from the start. Those who have tried to claim that calling Australia’s only black player Andrew Symonds a "monkey" might be some kind of cultural misunderstanding, because Hindu mythology venerates the monkey god Hanuman and therefore calling Symonds a monkey cannot be considered a racist term, are liars and apologists for racism, whether Harbhajan Singh ever uttered the insult or not. The ‘monkey’ chants that that Symonds endured from sections of the crowd when he toured India in October 2007 were clearly not meant as a compliment on his god-like qualities either.

The claim that the Australians misheard a less explosive insult in Hindi or Punjabi (and there must be doubts they are expert in either language) and that match referee Mike Proctor therefore unfairly treated Singh without sufficient evidence is at least more credible. But the point is that the second Test was a bad-tempered affair with insults flying back and forth, and what is perhaps more surprising is the level of sympathy that the Indian team has received from some in Australia. Commentators have accusing the Australian team of creating a poisonous atmosphere of abuse, with the Sydney Morning Herald accusing captain Ricky Ponting of damaging the reputation of the country and of presiding “over a performance that dragged the game into the pits. He turned a group of professional cricketers into a pack of wild dogs.”

On the face of it, it seems hypocritical that the very national side that has elevated the ‘art’ of sledging – abusing the opposition to bring about what former captain Steve Waugh called “mental disintegration” – should protest when its dubious tactics are turned against it. Clearly when trading insults is tolerated, it will inevitably escalate until the abuse becomes racially motivated. And it’s not as though Australia has a blameless record when it comes to racism – witness the guilty-verdict against batsman Darren Lehmann for racially abusing Sri Lankan players outside their dressing room in 2003, which led to a ban from 5 one-day internationals.

But that doesn’t mean that black cricketers, whether international players or in a local team, shouldn’t demand that racism is never tolerated. It may be true that Australian sledging created the conditions for abuse that could easily cross into racist taunting, but that is an argument for cleaning up the game, not for ignoring Andrew Symonds because of the macho culture he plays within. Cricket’s apparent acceptance of sledging at an international level trickles down to every level of the sport, increases the chances that it will be emulated at a national and local level, that any black player will face racial abuse and that nothing will be done. Attempts to tackle racism head-on in other sports has started with a clamp down on the general acceptance of abusive behaviour and the International Cricket Council needs to start following the same path.

What can be seen as an over-reaction by India to the charges against Harbhajan Singh, which have been presented as an insult against the entire nation, are a result of the rancour and ill-will that the tour has generated and perhaps in part because of a sense of grievance about a number of poor umpiring decisions against it. India feels like the victim. But it would nevertheless have been better for the world’s most powerful cricketing nation to have maintained its insistence on a fair process whilst vigorously condemning racism and calling for tougher action against sledging. If nothing else, the ‘Bollyline’ row has forced the international cricketing authorities to start addressing racism rather than pretending incidents like those involving Darren Lehmann, or South Africa’s Herschelle Gibbs racially abusing Pakistan fans a year ago, are isolated cases.

But will the ICC act? Claims by its President Ray Mali that it has defused the row by removing umpire Steve Bucknor, whose decisions were criticised in the second Test, suggest that it has little interest in looking for anything but short-term solutions.

Monday, 7 January 2008

The pursuit of happiness

I know there are plenty of my friends who think that at times, I can be a grumpy sod. Reaching a state of happiness is, after all, one we all aspire to. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ was defined as an inalienable right within the US Declaration of Independence and, when we wish each other a ‘happy New Year’, we really mean it, not least because it is something we hope to attain ourselves. But without wishing to reaffirm the prejudices that some may have about my occasional glumness, I think the idea of trying to be happy all the time is a bad one. Let me try and explain why.

To begin with, sadness is essential to life. It reminds us that we don’t live in a perfect world and motivates us to change, to try and improve ourselves and our surroundings. It acts as the essential trigger for seeking more happiness, because one mood can only exist because of the other. If we were happy all the time, it would be like a continuous drug rush – we’d never get anything done. So why is it, then, that a sad person is perceived as weak and lacking ability?

Moreover just as there are many reasons why we feel sadness, from disadvantage and loss to the imperfections in ourselves or the world we live in, so there are many interpretations of what ‘happiness’ actually is. America’s ‘pursuit of happiness’ as defined by Thomas Jefferson at least implies something more than material possessions and the earlier equation of happiness with property, including freedoms of speech and assembly. However, the psychologist Oliver James argues that the stimulation of artificially ‘perceived wants’ over ‘real needs’ within modern English-speaking countries has led to the placing of a higher value on money, possessions, physical and social appearances and fame, a condition he describes as ‘affluenza’. Failing to achieve within the narrow confines what we think we should want, what society tells us we should want, becomes an insanely unrealistic measure of our happiness. Which, I have to tell you, makes me quite sad really.

I think I’ll accept that sometimes I’ll be a bit down and sometimes upbeat, that this is inevitable and therefore aim for something else. There isn’t really a word for it in English but in German, it’s gemütlichkeit. Literally it means ‘cosiness’ but it’s the abstract notion of belonging, social acceptance, cheerfulness, the absence of anything hectic and the opportunity to spend time with loved ones or in performing favourite activities.

Seeking gemütlichkeit means slowing down, spending more time with my friends, not trying to undertake so many things that they becoming exhausting, standing with others to make the world a better place, accepting that I’m never going to look like Brad Pitt or have quite enough money not to worry about it. It means writing my novel because I want to see how it ends, rather than to become famous, and learning to play the guitar for the sense of achievement, not to impress other people.

Whether grumpy or euphoric, morose or gleeful, the relentless pursuit of something as fleeting as happiness seems more onerous than trying to find a little cosy contentment. I’ll settle for that.

In fact, thinking about it has cheered me up no end…

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Self-appointed 'community leaders' back Livingstone

The Guardian reports today that 63 Muslim 'community leaders' have signed a statement calling for a third term for Ken Livingstone. The statement says that Livingstone "has supported the Muslim communities of the city against racism and Islamophobia as well as all other minorities against all types of prejudice" and that it is in "the best interest of the Muslim communities of London, and indeed all Londoners, to back Mr Livingstone in this year's mayoral elections."

Let's leave aside the reality that 'community leaders' are almost always self-appointed, represent no-one but themselves and are wonderfully vainglorious in believing that London's diverse Muslim communities will vote for a one candidate or another because they are told to. Let's also leave aside the deeply reactionary idea that Londoners who identify themselves as Muslim will vote primarily on religious grounds, herd-like, rather than because of class interests, issues such as transport or housing or on whatever else voters consider to be their 'best interests'.

Let's focus instead on the claim that Livingstone has supported Muslim communities against racism and Islamophobia. This is the same Ken Livingstone who has given unconditional support to the police in the aftermath of the Forest Gate raids, has been Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair's most vigorous defender in support of the Met's disastrous shoot-to-kill policy that gunned down Jean Charles de Menezes, and has endorsed the increase stop and search by the police.

The so-called 'war on terror' in London is not a academic debate, it has a real impact on the ground for Muslims in London's black communities. But Livingstone's track record amounts to organising a few (often controversial) conferences and to ally himself not with liberal or progressive Muslims but theologians like the Muslim Brotherhood's Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi - a moderate to some (one certainly criticised by hardened Salafists), but hardly a progressive voice within the diverse spectrum of Muslim political and religious activity. And the worst thing is that Livingstione has repeatedly conflated criticisms of Qaradawi for his ambiguity over issues like domestic violence, homophobia and female genital mutilation with Islamophobic criticism of Muslims and Islam.

So will the statement in today's Guardian make any difference? It's unlikely, unless the signatories intend to take the next logical step and set up 'Muslims for Livingstone' - and have the debate with his critics about the Mayor's support for repressive anti-terrorism policing. But the statement isn't about generating debate - it's about identifying with the man perceived to be the front-runner for the Mayoral electoral race.

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