Thursday, 28 April 2016

Labour and NUS must take tough stance against anti-Semitism: my Catholic Universe column

This column was published on 28 April 2016 but written on 25 April 2016. The Naz Shah anti-Semitism allegations broke in the intervening period.

I would venture that I am on fairly safe ground when I write that most of us are exceptionally grateful for and very proud of our National Health Service. A great many of those reading this newspaper today will see its founder, Aneurin Bevan, as a visionary, one of Britain’s greatest men, who delivered to us the institution we are perhaps most passionate about.

Bevan was indeed a great, great man. He was also, to my mind at least, deeply flawed. Bevan was a politician of division, perhaps why he hasn’t been given the plaudits in death that others who are arguably less important to the history of our nation have.

You cannot see Bevan’s divisive politics anywhere clearer than in his speech at the Bellevue Hotel on 3 July 1948 where he announced of the Tory Party ‘So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.’ I deeply believe that Bevan on that day was extremely wrong.

The first time I had anything to do with the formal body that is the modern Conservative Party was when I was first elected to my local council in 2011. Up until that point I had my own grandad’s oft quoted comment in my mind that the ‘only good Tory is a dead one’. I quickly found out that he was wrong to.

I discovered almost immediately that I liked some of my opponents who to be fair held views not too far away from my own very much, others were  to be very blunt revolting. I realised that the Conservatives are indeed a very broad church in terms of views and personalities.

The same goes for any political party or formal political grouping. There is absolutely no way that in any political meeting, let alone a whole party, that you will hear consensus on any topic you care to mention.

Some political activists are passionate about education and have radical ideas, others the environment, others still foreign affairs. It’s vital that members of political parties coalesce around a broad agenda that they can all agree on in order to gain power and hopefully change the things that they are passionate about.

For some, and there is a blurred line here, their passions may not be about doing something positive but being against something else. There are many on the left who would vehemently agree with Bevan or my grandad, there are those who are against fracking whilst others are against organised religion.

The list of reasons people become politically active is probably almost as long as the list of those that are politically active in the first place.

Historically parties have been relatively good at balancing up the whole gamut of interests in order to put forward a unifying agenda, those that don’t tend to suffer splits and acrimony which very rarely turn out particularly well: look no further than the Labour Party in the 1980’s.

The problem is, as I wrote last week, that politics around the world is getting increasingly extreme and it’s making cohesion much more difficult to maintain.

Right now there is a perfect example of this playing out on the left of politics in Britain and that is the increasing, for want of a better word, acceptance of anti-Semitism.

Last week the National Union of Students elected Malia Bouattia as their first black Muslim woman to serve as president of the organisation. The difficulty for Ms Bouttia is that a great many of her own members feel that her politics are highly inappropriate to hold for anyone leading their organisation.

It is reported that Ms Bouattia authored a blog whilst a student at the University of Birmingham claiming that university to be ‘something of a Zionist outpost’, she went on ‘it also has the largest Jewish Society in the country, whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists.’ Ms Bouattia went on, it is claimed, whilst serving on the NUS’ executive to block a motion condemning militant group ISIS on the basis of ‘islamophobia’ - though she has since rejected this claim, saying it was the wording of the original motion she contested, rather than the principles behind it.

Whether her comments were anti-Semitic or not is ultimately down how they are perceived and one would imagine her opponents are particularly aggrieved so much so that a number of students unions around the country are now considering disaffiliating from the NUS.

The difficulty is that such comments are in no way unusual in today’s left wing politics.

In recent weeks newspapers have been populated, usually somewhere on their inner pages, with incidents reporting anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

Alex Chalmers, Co-chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club, resigned after claiming that members had ‘some kind of problem with Jews’.

Gerry Downing, in the views of many a ‘9/11 sympathiser’ and a political activist who had been expelled from the party but subsequently readmitted (before being expelled once more after the Prime Minister had raised the issue in the Commons) made a somewhat rambling appearance on the BBC’s Daily Politics show during which he tried to defend his views on ‘the Jewish question’ repeatedly making anti-Zionist comments which there would be no ambiguity over their meaning if he had switched just one word.

Elsewhere Luton Labour Councillor Aysegul Gurbuz was suspended from the party after newspapers reported tweets she had written prior to her election that ‘Ed Miliband is Jewish. He will never become prime minister of Britain.’, ‘LOOOOL IRAN ARE GOING TO HAVE THEIR OWN NUCLEAR WEAPON AND ARE GOING TO WIPE ISRAEL OFF THE MAP #TEAMAHMADINEJAD’ and perhaps most chillingly ‘Adolf Hitler = greatest man in history’.

The real problem is that every political movement has people with distinctly unsavoury views, and there is a catalogue of similar incidents which I could have mentioned, it is how they are dealt with that really matters.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday Michael Foster, a major Jewish donor to Labour wrote that ‘at its top levels, appears by its inaction to tolerate anti-Semitic speech and behaviour.’

Elsewhere ex director of BBC television Danny Cohen somewhat more directly claimed that ‘Jews voting Corbyn’ was ‘like Muslims voting Trump’.

Whilst there are those in the Labour Party, not least moderate internal pressure group Progress, rightly calling on the leadership to take action against anti-Semitism there is a much wider problem. Tolerance for all faiths.

During the Labour leadership campaign last summer I interviewed Andy Burnham who at that time was favourite to take the top job. Mr Burnham was fulsome in his praise of faith schools particularly as you might expect Catholic schools. The mainstream Labour Party has always believed in the good that faith schools can do, that they are indeed a fundamental part of our education system.

Last week I wrote an article for another publication which provoked something of a response from political activists on the left, or arguably the new mainstream, of the Labour Party. I was struck when one commenter started writing quite openly that from his humanist viewpoint faith schools should be banned.

Now I shall be quite honest there has always been those inside Labour who have held such views. I have heard the argument many times before questioning ‘why should taxes pay for indoctrination?’ and I’ve always put up a robust defence.

My question though has to be that in these strange new times when to a significant number of activists faith is a dirty word how long will it be before religion becomes the target of the far left?  

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