Ken, the shaikh, the hard left and the anti-left left

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Tomorrow, a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary hosted and researched by Martin Bright (of “The Great Koran Con Trick” fame) is to be aired, and it reveals Ken’s loyalty to a small far-left sect called Socialist Action, and that he has given well-paid jobs in the Greater London Authority and its spin-off organisations to various members of it; its members have also worked for various other left organisations over the years, according to one of them, Atma Singh, in today’s Sunday Times ([1], [2]). In the run-up to this programme, articles have appeared in the New Statesman (by Bright himself), in the Observer (by Nick Cohen, predictably) and in the Sunday Times alongside Singh’s piece. Accompanying it, there have been two articles at Harry’s Place, which generally supports attitudes like Cohen’s ([1] in response to Martin Bright in the Statesman, [2] supporting Cohen).

Bright’s was the first to appear, and it has two concrete claims: one is that Ken has been known to drink whisky at political meetings, and the other being his embrace of Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi three years ago. Bright alleges that Livingstone has been seen drinking whisky on three occasions at public meetings, including Mayor’s Questions, when others present were drinking nothing stronger than water. He used the excuse that he had a cough, and (falsely, according to Bright) claimed that the “smear” came from the Tories. He surmises:

The Mayor of London has just won the support of several prominent Muslim organisations for the forthcoming mayoral election. The general view is that alcohol is haram (forbidden) in Islam, so I can only imagine they will take a dim view of whisky-drinking on the job.

Writing as a Muslim myself, I can say that Muslims are well aware that many non-Muslims drink alcohol. (Actually, some Muslims do as well, although they are not supposed to.) As I wrote in a comment on the Statesman website, I do not care as long he is not actually drunk on the job, and does not contaminate my food, or anyone else’s, with his whisky. I am more concerned with his politics.

Bright next moves onto the “old news” of Ken’s relationship with the Egyptian Muslim scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Their objection to this had to do with the predictable views of a religious Muslim on homosexuality and related issues, and his approval of Palestinian suicide bombings, a fairly common if not universal position among both religious scholars and the general population in that part of the world. As I wrote at the time, al-Qaradawi is an important figure for the Arab minority among London’s Muslims who predominate in the areas near to the West End; his fame and importance is much less among the Asian community, which predominates elsewhere, although his profile is raised by his appearance on satellite TV. Any representative of religious Muslims would have views not far removed from al-Qaradawi’s, and he was in London to champion the rights of religious Muslims, specifically, women who wear hijab.

Upon reading Bright’s article, I found myself thinking “is this it?” and concluding that this was nothing more than the usual anti-left-left agitation on the grounds of Ken’s closeless to Muslims. Today’s articles give more substance to the claims. Why did Bright hold back? Perhaps he just did want to spill the beans before the programme went to air.

According to Cohen, Livingstone was a fellow-traveller with the notorious Workers’ Revolutionary Party during the 1980s, and “co-edited” one of their newspapers (appointing sympathetic outside figures as co-editors or co-chairs is a common tactic of tiny far-left groups). The WRP is best-known as the party supported by Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, but its leader, Gerry Healy, was a demagogue who was exposed for being a sexual predator and for taking money from Libya and then from Iraq. Livingstone later teamed up with Socialist Action, which according to Cohen had fewer than 100 members, but a number of them have gained “jobs with six-figure salaries at the public’s expense” through Ken. Worse, some of them have gained jobs with campaign organisations including the National Assembly Against Racism and the NUS Black Students’ Campaign (“black” meaning anything but white), according to Atma Singh, in preference to people better qualified and with better understanding of the issues than himself.

Singh also alleges that Socialist Action ideology has motivated a number of the Mayor’s actions while in office, including his “oil for advice” deal with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. The London officials named in the programme have refused to confirm or deny their alleged SA membership, one of them calling the claims a witch-hunt. The GLA alleges that Singh is actually an “embittered ex-employee” who was sacked for “failure to discharge his duties, most seriously in failures to meet requests for assistance from the Metropolitan police antiterrorism unit in early 2005 and to contact the GLA during the terrorist attacks on London on 7 and 21 July”.

Singh’s explanation of his departure from the GLA has much to do with the abuse and bullying he says he received. Cohen, however, has this to say:

Singh walked out when the supposedly left-wing leader made common cause with the Muslim Brotherhood, which carries all the standard prejudices about democracy, freedom of speech, women, Jews and homosexuals we have learnt to expect from the Islamist far right. But he might have resigned because Socialist Action expected its followers to work for Livingstone’s re-election, even though, as public servants, they were meant to stay neutral.

So, if the former is true, it was all right by Mr Singh for Ken to be giving jobs to his cronies at public expense, but not for him to embrace a religious scholar. However, Singh does not mention this issue, instead alleging that Livingstone’s much-vaunted support for Asian issues was tokenism, not requiring actual expenditure or the empowerment of Asian people:

There was no attempt to look at what Asians wanted or what their needs were. I believe that race relations are dealt with simply as an electoral issue: ‘How can we get them on board while not actually delivering?’ …

It a shame that by ignoring me … Ken’s staff were also ignoring Asian affairs. Ken Livingstone didn’t want to know about anything where he himself had failed in quite major ways. So on the issue of the number of Asians who were on the senior management teams of the GLA which was zero, he just didn’t want to know about that. He left it up to Redmond O’Neill or Lee Jasper.

It should be noted that there is a history of distrust between Muslims who seek to organise as Muslims and what they call “the race industry” which seeks to bracket all Asians together, or even lump them all in as “blacks” while excluding white (converted or native) Muslims.

I am personally not a huge fan of Ken Livingstone. I was always opposed to his Olympic bid, a position he admittedly shared with the Lib Dem and Tory mayoral candidates in the last election, which threatens to gentrify an area of east London with a heavy Muslim (and otherwise ethnic) presence. I oppose his congestion charge, particularly the western extension, which rewards wealthy residents of Kensington and Chelsea by enabling them to commute by car to the City at a reduced rate compared to those living in Camberwell or Hackney, but punishes poorer residents of council estates within the zone, particularly in the areas north of Kennington and the Elephant & Castle, who own cars. His latest environmental wheeze, the Low Emission Zone which becomes active next month, forces owners of older commercial vehicles to buy new ones (with Euro 3-compliant engines) or cease their activities; this may well result in companies sending all their old trucks up country while concentrating the nice new ones in London, which is too bad for residents (and drivers) in other cities without this new scheme. For small businesses and sole traders, of course, the first scheme is a huge expense and the second a potential commercial death sentence. As one who has been working as a van driver for several years, the western extension makes my job much more difficult and less enjoyable, closing off a number of once common, and harmless, cut-through routes such as the road from Victoria to Chelsea Bridge.

The radical left do not really like small business. It’s much easier to cut deals with big bodies, particularly state bodies, than with a whole succession of small players; they are often better able to pay bigger wages and to accommodate workers with complex needs, and more likely to form personal relationships with their workers rather than becoming merely “the boss”. When researching an undergraduate essay in the 1990s, I came across this article, hosted by supporters of the Peruvian Shining Path but sourced from the American communist publication Revolutionary Worker, which defended the assassination of a local political figure in Lima who was known as Mother Courage. The RW published a letter from “A Comrade” pointing out that the eponymous Mother Courage of the Brecht play was “the furthest thing from a heroine of the people”; she was a small merchant. Marxists, by and large, do not like merchants; they are independent people and do not want to be state clients (though they might not mind the state being their client).

Shiraz Maher, writing in the most recent New Statesman, cites the so-called Centre for Social Cohesion as authority that Iraq and Palestine, and other Muslim issues, are not the priority for Muslims when they vote; our priorities are supposedly the same as other people’s, such as crime and “clean streets” (see Pixelisation for another Muslim comment on this). The proof is the fact that MPACUK tried to use Iraq to unseat Jack Straw in his Blackburn constituency, but failed. However, Straw was strongly supported by the mosque establishment in Blackburn, and as Roy Hattersley pointed out in the Guardian in 2005, Straw helped the Muslim community there by making it easier to get marital visas, which are rather popular in that community. So Muslim issues were very important in keeping Straw’s seat for him - but local Muslim issues, not global ones. Similarly, Livingstone has a positive record on Muslim women’s education rights, which may well be more important in keeping the Muslim vote for him than his outspoken views on Iraq and Palestine.

I may prefer Boris Johnson’s stance on the congestion charge; I do, however, like the improvements to the buses, which have improved in frequency and density over the last few years. The fact also remains that Boris Johnson is a bigot, and his record as editorship of the Spectator stands as testimony to this fact, even if interviewers on BBC London will not bring it up. Voters at the coming election face an unpleasant choice between Livingstone, who despite apparently thinking he has a divine right to the job, despite the claims of cronyism, whose veracity will no doubt be tested before long, and despite his ruining east London with his Olympics and despite his Congestion Charge, has no ambitions wider than London, unlike Boris Johnson who has been a Tory front-bencher in Parliament and no doubt will be again once he finishes with the platform the London mayoralty offers him, and is a demonstrable bigot.

I find it depressing that the British intellectual left cannot let go of Ken Livingstone’s relationship with the Muslim community. Lest we forget, they endorsed the war led by the American right, a coalition of corporate interests, the neo-con cabal and the Christian right who are scarcely more progressive than al-Qaradawi. Those people were not campaigning for rights, but these elements of the left thought they could gain advantage for their cause in Iraq. The Muslim Brotherhood opposed it, as did many on the left, despite there being potential advantage for them too from the ending of Saddam Hussain’s repression, presumably because they could not countenance the destruction it would entail and because they did not trust Bush’s motives. They are every bit as guilty of cosying up to reactionary religious elements as they claim Ken Livingstone is, and nobody has been killed as a result of Ken hugging Shaikh Yusuf.

As for the coming election, I expect I will vote for Brian Paddick or the Green Party candidate first and transfer to Livingstone. It is a pity that the Labour party cannot find someone more moderate than Livingstone who is not a leadership patsy; these revelations risk handing victory to Johnson, which by the reckoning of even Martin Bright, is the worst possible outcome.

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