Saturday, 30 April 2016

Antisemitism, Islamophobia and criticism of Israel

“Something, some psychological vitamin, is lacking in modern civilisation, and as a result we are all more or less subject to this lunacy of believing that whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil.” - George Orwell, “Antisemitism in Britain”, 1945 

I am very glad that Jeremy Corbyn has set up an independent inquiry led by Shami Chakrabarti into antisemitism in the Labour Party. The inquiry will also look into other forms of racism in the party. The vice chair will be the director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, Professor David Feldman.

What has been missing from much of the debate around these issues over the last few days is context.

Some knowledge of history is needed. Antisemitism has blighted the lives - and often cost the lives - of Jews over the centuries and in many different places since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. The last century saw the greatest horror of all when 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. 

In 1948 the State of Israel was created. Much of its population has felt under a more or less constant existential threat ever since.

It is understandable that a keen awareness of the very real dangers of antisemitism is rooted deep in the psyche of many Jews. 

Context also requires looking at the problem of Islamophobia in the UK. Some people bridle at such a link being made. However, these issues have become so inextricably linked, world-wide, since the founding of Israel and since 9/11, that anyone who is determined to tackle antisemitism in the UK must necessarily also address Islamophobia. 

Islamophobia is a huge problem in Britain today. A visible manifestation is how over recent years there have been quite a number of vile headlines about Muslims, which would not have been published about any other group in the UK (except for the most discriminated against group of all, Gypsies and Travellers). 

Baroness Warsi, then a Tory Cabinet minister, said in 2011 that prejudice against Muslims had "passed the dinner-table test" and become socially acceptable in the UK.

Context also requires a discussion about Israel. People must be allowed to criticise the actions of Israel in the same way that they can criticise the actions of any other country. Many people have very fierce criticisms to make of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians since 1948 and to date. Many were shocked by the Israeli action against Gaza in 2014, which they viewed as grossly disproportionate.

There are some people who see all Jews as responsible for the actions of Israel. That is antisemitic and to be condemned.

However, there are some other people who seek to prevent legitimate criticism of Israeli actions by labelling any such criticism as antisemitic. That is wrong and must be resisted. It is an unjustifiable curb on free speech. 

And context also requires an understanding of the political forces at work in Britain. Not everyone attacking Corbyn’s Labour Party over antisemitism is doing so primarily because they care about antisemitism. Some are using the issue quite cynically, for their own political advantage. David Cameron is one of these people.

In 2014, a Tory MP, Aidan Burley, purchased a Nazi SS uniform to be worn at a stag do in France. Burley was present when the party toasted the Third Reich and cheered ‘Hitler’ and ‘Himmler’. Cameron described Burley’s behaviour as “offensive and foolish” and refused pressure to strip him of the Tory whip.

Furthermore, Cameron and other prominent Tories have disgracefully fanned the flames of Islamophobia by their persistent efforts to smear Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate for mayor of London. 

Meanwhile, Corbyn’s enemies on the right of the Labour Party will use any means they can to damage him. They are driven more by hatred for Corbyn than hatred of antisemitism.

As for Ken Livingstone, I await the verdict of the Chakrabarti review. In the meanwhile, I hope Corbyn will borrow a famous line from Clement Attlee and tell him - “a period of silence on your part would be welcome.”

This is what I have been tweeting as @TomLondon6

Antisemitism is vile and must not be tolerated.

Islamophobia is vile and must not be tolerated.

Criticism of Israel is legitimate.

Finally, Naz Shah, the Labour MP who precipitated recent events, was elected to represent Bradford West in 2015. The synagogue in Bradford West has now released a press statement.

“On a personal level we would like to say that Naz Shah MP has been to a number of events at Bradford Synagogue both before and after her election as MP. She has expressed her full support for the Jewish community.

We are, of course, saddened to hear of the comments Naz Shah made before she became an MP, but also welcome her heartfelt apology.”

We can all learn from the Bradford Synagogue.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The BBC should not refer to an anonymous government source to make serious allegations

On the eve of the historic two day strike this week by junior doctors, the BBC reported that a “government source” had said that the real aim of the junior doctors was to bring down the government. Unsurprisingly, the doctors’ leaders angrily rejected this very damaging allegation.

The BBC should never have broadcast it, when citing an anonymous source. If David Cameron or Jeremy Hunt or anybody else within the government wanted to make the allegation, they should have been required to do so on the record. 

By reporting in the way it did, the BBC let the government have the advantage of getting the allegation aired - and some mud is always likely to stick - while at the same time not needing to provide any evidence to support it and furthermore being able to deny that they were ever behind the allegation at all, should that turn out to be necessary. Put bluntly, the BBC allowed itself to be used by the government.

Anonymous sources can be crucial to the very finest journalism, where the information obtained is important and the person giving it to a journalist would be in some danger if it were known they were doing so. The danger may take a number of forms including losing their job or going to prison. The Watergate journalists, famously, had Deep Throat as an anonymous source. Anonymity is designed to protect the source.

What possible justification can there be for a government to hide behind anonymity?

The answer, as so often, is that this is just the way things are done in the UK. We have the ‘lobby system”, we have a system of nods and winks, which the priesthood - the politico-media elite - understand but the rest of us, mere voters, do not. 

This tradition is antidemocratic and should go. Tom Paine, the great 18th century revolutionary against despotism and for democracy once said: - “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” 

It would be a small but important advance for our democracy, if the government stopped giving anonymous briefings. 

The BBC should certainly stop reporting them. It must fiercely protect its independence. It must be independent of government and also be seen to be independent of government. This applies at all times but not least around politically charged event like the doctors’ strike.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

If you really want to get the Tories out, don't undermine Jeremy Corbyn

I support Jeremy Corbyn. I am not “hard left”.

Previously, I supported Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband. I was undecided as to whether to support Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham for the Labour leadership, until they both shocked me by abstaining on the Welfare Bill. My shock was partly because the contents of the bill were deeply objectionable and partly because I thought that the tactic of sticking-close-to-the-Tories, which lay behind the decision to abstain, was a recipe for electoral disaster.

So, I voted for Corbyn. I saw a man guided by decent political principles, who does not need to consult a focus group before giving his opinion. Given the fact that since then every powerful interest group in the country has tried to crush him, I think he has done well.

I am not hard left but I am “hard anti-Tory”. I was brought up to believe that those (like me) who are lucky enough to be doing well enough, should help those who are less fortunate. My mother told me as a child that the Tories would always put the interests of the rich above the interests of the rest of the country and that it was immoral to vote for them.

I do not think Corbyn is perfect. Nor did I think Blair was (although I was carried away like many in 1997), nor Brown, nor Miliband. However, politics in England and Wales usually requires a binary choice. Are we to have a Tory government or not? Like Blair, Brown and Miliband before him, Corbyn represents the best chance that the country has of getting rid of the Tories at the next General Election. There is no remotely likely scenario under which an alternative Labour leader could replace Corbyn and have a better chance to beat the Tories.

My hard anti-Tory attitude makes me deeply frustrated at the constant public undermining of Corbyn - often in the Tory press - by some Blairite MPs and others. This current Tory government is the most destructive and most right-wing of my lifetime; they are the clear beneficiaries of this behaviour. 

I use the word “Blairites”, adopting the shorthand used by the press. Actually, not so long ago, some of those now called Blairites were known as “Brownites”. For many years the Blairites and Brownites fiercely denounced each other in vicious  anonymous briefings to their respective contacts in the media. Now, they have discovered that the differences that once seemed of such importance, turn out to be not really so significant after all.

Despite the sound and fury of the Blairite assault on Corbyn, there is far more in terms of policy which unites Blairites with Corbyn than divides them from him. Some Blairites understand this very well. Charlie Falconer, Lucy Powell, Gloria De Piero, for example, are all serving effectively in prominent roles under Corbyn, fighting the Tories. 

Corbyn’s policies are not “extreme left” as described by the Tories and the media. They are essentially Miliband’s policies plus no Trident plus the courage of ones convictions. There are clearly significant differences over Trident and there were over Syria but the overwhelming majority of the parliamentary party are comfortable with Corbyn’s domestic agenda on the economy, on welfare, on tax, on schools, on health and so on. In policy terms, the Labour Party may be more united now than the Tory Party.

Despite this, some Blairites are constantly and publicly plotting to depose Corbyn. Imagine if, somehow, they managed to depose him. What then? The new leader would be elected by the same electorate who overwhelmingly voted for Corbyn only six months ago. Actually, the membership since Corbyn’s election is now far larger and, according to polls, even more pro-Corbyn that it was in September 2015. 

Some Blairites say that the MPs would make sure next time that Corbyn or an ally would be kept off the ballot paper to deny the membership the chance to vote for them. This is a highly dangerous idea. If MPs were so foolish as to conspire in this way, it would lead to incalculable damage to the party and quite possibly lead it to split.

But, say the Blairites, “Corbyn cannot win”.  They say it as if it is a proposition that cannot be gainsaid like 2 plus 2 equals 4. But the proposition is not self-evident. On the contrary, what is self-evident is the opposite. It is possible for Corbyn to win. 

Corbyn has a mountain to climb but that would have been the case for any leader who took over in 2010. Not least due to the electoral disaster that Labour suffered in Scotland (even his most implacable critics cannot blame him for that).

Corbyn faces an almost uniformly hostile media. It is not only the Tory press that refuse him a fair hearing but also left-leaning publications like the Guardian and the New Statesman. Meanwhile BBC flagship programmes like Today afford him “balance’ in the same way they afford it to UKIP, making it clear that his views are not mainstream - and therefore, to be treated with caution.

Historically, it may have been impossible to win an election in a democracy with such a hostile press. Hopefully, with the advent of new media, the power of the press-barons and the broadcast editors is weakening so that this small group can no longer define which policies are acceptable and who is electable. That would be a great leap forward for democracy.

Finally, Corbyn has one advantage that Cooper or Burnham would not have had. Hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic new members. I have met some of them. Not a swivel-eyed Trot amongst them. Just decent people who care about social justice and want to get involved in our democracy. It is sad how the Tories, the media and some Blairites often seem to hold these people in contempt. 

If you want to get rid of the Tories, support Corbyn or - at least - don’t undermine him.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

The very rich and their taxes - systemic corruption impoverishing the UK

When the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, the airwaves were full of indignant MPs and their defenders explaining that charging the taxpayer to clean out a moat or build a duck-house was perfectly legal, and therefore, there was not really a problem. Here we go again, but this time the the British people have been ripped off on a scale billions - yes, billions - of times bigger.

On the all-important legality point, this is what Barack Obama said about the Panama Papers this week. “This is important stuff…A lot of it is legal, but that’s exactly the problem. …”  

Obama is right. The fact that there are laws in place which allow the very rich and only the very rich to cheat on their taxes is exactly the problem. What has been going on should be called “systemic corruption”.

This systemic corruption is hidden in plain sight. Everyone in the Westminster Village, all the politicians, advisers, journalists and the rest know very well how it works. Very rich people pay money and in return they get the tax loopholes they want.  

Of course, it is done with a degree of sophistication but that is essentially what happens. Journalists like Richard Brooks and Aditya Chakrabortty explain in some detail how it is done in practice.

No one really knows how much money the British  people have been legally cheated out of by the late father of David Cameron and others legal tax-cheats. But it is clear that the sum involved is huge. In his careful data-filled book, Capital in the Twenty First Century, Thomas Piketty says that on a global scale the amount of financial assets hidden in tax havens is probably 10% of the value of total global GDP and could be as high as 30%.

The group set up in 2010 with the purpose of getting very rich corporations and individuals to pay their proper tax, UKUncut, was so-named on the basis that if this were to happen, the Deficit could be paid off and there would be no excuse for the cuts that have blighted so many lives in the UK in the last 6 years. 

UKUncut based this claim on publicly available data and academic research and they may well have been right. The expenses scandal was small change. This systemic corruption has impoverished us all and, as always, the poor and vulnerable have been hit hardest. No wonder there is such anger.

And still, such is the culture of entitlement in our so-called elite, they just don’t get it. Or at least, not yet.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Just because it is legal does not make it OK. It is still cheating.

Some people are defending the actions, revealed in the Panama Papers, of David Cameron’s father and other very wealthy people, on the grounds that they are apparently legal.

Some of the people doing so happen to be employed by billionaire press-barons whose own tax affairs may resemble those revealed in the Panama Papers. I am reminded of the comment of Upton Sinclair - “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Just because something is legal does not make it OK. The Holocaust was legal. So was slavery. And apartheid. 

The pointless and cruel bedroom tax is legal. When Douglas Hogg MP claimed over £2,000 of taxpayers’ money to clean his moat, that was legal. And later making Hogg a life peer was legal too.

Legality is only part of the story. We need a new vocabulary to describe the behaviour of the so-called elite when it comes to tax.

At present, if someone does not pay the tax that they would ordinarily have been expected to pay, they are described as either a tax evader or a tax avoider. Tax evasion is illegal and tax avoidance is legal. The apologists for Cameron’s father say - “he avoided tax, that’s not illegal, end of story.”

But, there are two very different types of tax avoidance. One type is only available to the very rich and the other is available to everyone. An ISA is an example of this second type.

The reason why these loopholes are available to the very rich is not - as is often claimed - because it is beyond the wit of man to close them and therefore they just need to be accepted as a fact of life, like the weather. 

The reason the loopholes exist is that the very rich and politicians are “all in this together” and they make sure that the loopholes are written into the law. It is central to this corrupt behaviour that the loopholes are only available for the use of the very rich. “Ordinary folk” cannot possibly get involved in the expensive goings-on needed to benefit. 

Why, do you suppose, hedge-funds and other very wealthy people donate so generously to the Tories, and New Labour? 

All this is well documented. Everyone in the Westminster bubble knows it. Somehow, they have not considered it important to keep the “ordinary folk” fully informed.

I suggest that for the new vocabulary that is needed, we adopt the harsh language favoured by Cameron and Osborne for those who commit benefit fraud. Those people are labelled cheats.

Instead of calling people tax evaders, let’s call them illegal tax cheats.

Instead of calling the people whose activities are revealed in the Panama Papers tax avoiders, let’s call them legal tax cheats.

For those using ISAs and the like, let’s just call them people using ISAs and the like. The term “tax avoider” has a completely inappropriate connotation.

Cameron’s father was undoubtedly a tax cheat. 

Cameron is refusing to answer some basic questions. He first tried to close down questions by saying it is a private matter. It is not. 

If the right amount of tax has not been paid, that is a public matter. 

If the prime minister has knowingly benefitted from the activities of a tax cheat that is a very serious matter indeed.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The EU-Turkey deal on refugees is shameful

In the years after 1945, following two world wars and the Holocaust, the world community agreed on a new framework of rules and institutions to try and prevent such events in the future - “Never Again”. 

The United Nations was set up. There was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And, there was the Magna Carta of modern law on refugees - the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

The Convention set down the fundamental definition of a refugee as someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted….is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” It prescribed that refugees were not to be sent back to countries where they face death or persecution.

In the years since 1951, the essential principles of the Convention have been generally accepted in Western countries. Until the current refugee crisis.

Now the provisions of the Convention which had been intended to be absolute are treated as if they are relative. In 1951, the world decided that those fleeing for their lives would be granted asylum. In 2016, we hear - “We can’t, because….” “We would, but…”

Tomorrow, Monday 4 April 2016, under an agreement made between the EU and Turkey, some men, women and children - many who fled the hell created in Syria by Assad and IS - will be deported, by force if necessary, from Greece to Turkey. 

It is highly doubtful that the case of each person seeking asylum has been considered individually as required by law.

Fundamental to the deal is that the EU is designating Turkey as a “safe third country”. The EU leaders must, surely, know that this is not true. They are being wilfully blind. 

According to Amnesty International, large groups of Syrians have recently been deported from Turkey back to Syria. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that sixteen refugees including three children have been shot dead by Turkish border guards as they fled for their lives from Syria.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director  for Europe and Central Asia has said - “Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day.”

Meanwhile, lawyers and journalists in Turkey, who speak up on human rights issues are facing arrest.

Although there are some provisions - at some point - for a limited number of refugees, currently in refugee camps in Turkey to come to the EU, the essential deal that has been struck is that, in exchange for billions of Euros, Turkey takes refugees from Greece. European politicians want to wash their hands of the problem. They want the refugees out of sight, so they can then be out of mind.

There is little thought for the desperate, wretched individuals involved, who have sought asylum, safety in Europe.

Tomorrow is a dark day for Europe. The EU has struck a shameful deal with Turkey.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Public opinion on the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees

Angela Merkel’s stance on the refugee crisis has led to a fierce debate in Germany. Supporters of asylum-seeker and refugees’ rights point out that these are people fleeing persecution, torture and death and the country has clear legal and moral obligations to them. Meanwhile, their opponents label these supporters “Gutmenschen”, which translates literally as “good people” but is a derogatory term, meaning something like “politically correct do-gooders”. 

If those of us in the UK, who support the rights of asylum seekers and refugees,  are to win the necessary battle for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens and avoid being dismissed as mere “Gutmenschen”, then we need to think carefully about how we argue with those who take a different view. 

We should respect people’s fears. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said last month, it is "outrageous" to describe all people who are worried about the impact of migration as racist. There is a "genuine fear" of the impact on housing, jobs and the NHS. People are also worried about what they regard as the erosion of their culture.

With political will - and money and sensitivity - some of these fears can be allayed but the first step is recognise them and take them seriously.

At the same time, we should challenge attempts to play on and exacerbate people’s fears. Politicians and the media often point to the views of the British public to justify their own positions. However, the same politicians and media can be guilty of stoking those fears. Examples include the use of words like “swarm” and ‘horde” by Tory politicians and any number of front pages and articles in the press.

We need to make very clear the distinction between asylum-seekers and refugees on the one hand and economic migrants on the other.

The UK does not owe the same legal and moral obligations to all those who want to come to live here. There are essentially two categories. Those fleeing death and persecution and those who are not. The first category is entitled to asylum i.e to stay in the UK, the second is not. 

Even anti-immigration UKIP recognises that the UK has a duty to those in the first category.  These are asylum seekers and refugees.

An “asylum-seeker” is someone seeking the legal status of a refugee. The modern definition of a  “refugee” is set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, as being someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted….is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” 

In the second category are “economic migrants”, who are people who go from one country to another in order to improve their standard of living. The decision as to whether to allow economic migrants to stay in the UK is taken on completely different grounds to those which apply to asylum-seekers.

The single word “migrant” is regularly used on the BBC and in the broadsheets as well as in the tabloids to describe all or any of asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants. This conflation - lumping them all together - harms the cause of asylum seekers and refugees, who in crucial respects are very different to economic migrants.

People often think of asylum seekers and refugees as part of an impersonal group, that they feel no human connection with. If people could see them as individuals, they would care a great deal more about what happens to them. 

We can learn from charities and film-makers. When charities advertise they never show a photo of a group of the people they want to help. They always show just one person. 

People remember the little girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List. 

It wasn’t the mass drownings in the Mediterranean that shocked the UK. It was the drowning of just one person - the tragic 3 year old Aylan Kurdi. 

We should acknowledge that asylum-seekers and refugees do need additional resources. It is obvious that a sudden large influx of people will cause more pressure on local services. Furthermore, the new arrivals need help to establish themselves in their new country.  However, it is likely that the drain on the public purse will be only short-term. One could argue that this is an investment, which will pay off for the UK in the medium to long term.

This argument - like all other arguments - is more likely to be given a proper hearing if people think the person making it has some understanding of their fears and is not just one of the “Gutmenschen”.