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Obama is part of the problem

War rages in the North-West Frontier and the poor are embracing the Taliban because they at least fi

Carlos Marighella, the Brazilian writer, Marxist and guerilla revolutionary, could have been talking about Pakistan’s present-day civil war in the North-West Frontier Province when he said: “It is necessary to turn political crises into armed crisis by performing violent actions that will force those in power to transform the military situation into a poli­tical situation. That will alienate the masses, who, from then on, will revolt against the army and the police and blame them for this state of things.”

Pakistan’s government, in the small league when it comes to the brain department, does

not understand that it has just entered into a guerrilla war in the Swat Valley and surrounding

areas, such as Buner, Mingora and Bajaur. The prime minister, Yousef Raza Gilani, who exists solely for photo opportunities as opposed to

policy decisions, has declared a military offensive to halt the growth of the Taliban along

Pakistan’s northern frontier. This comes after the government ordered the release of Maulana Abdul Aziz, one of the ideological masterminds behind the infamous occupation of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007 – a siege that ended bloodily when the Pakistan army stormed in and recaptured the building by force.

In addition, the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, who on a recent state visit to Washington pronounced himself “commander-in-chief”, unilaterally declared sharia law in the Swat Valley. Behaving in the manner of well-heeled south Asian dictators past, Zardari did not allow the citizens of the Swat Valley a vote. He did not call for a referendum. He simply capitulated to Pakistan’s indigenous Taliban.

Now, the country’s internally displaced population, estimated at one million-strong after US predator drones started flying freely over Pakistani skies last year, has shot up in the course

of just a few recent days. The United Nations is reporting the creation of an additional 500,000 refugees since the government began its own airstrikes against the people of the North-West Frontier Province. Not that this is necessarily disturbing for the government in Islamabad: in the same breath as Prime Minister Gilani declared war against his people, he asked international donors to pony up some cash to deal with the imminent human fallout from the crisis.

The US House appropriations committee has approved a speedy $1.9bn of aid for Pakistan, aid that it assumes will go towards the cause of our growing problem with internally displaced people. It won’t. This government’s history of corruption is well known. Unlike Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed in Bangladesh, who are accused

of graft in the measly hundred-thousand-dollar range, obtained through kickbacks from government contracts, Zardari’s record is the stuff of legend and sits somewhere between two and three billion dollars, allegedly looted from the national treasury during his late wife Benazir Bhutto’s two terms in power.

Zardari’s sometimes ally/sometimes opposition leader Nawaz Sharif also allegedly worked in the big-stakes ballpark when it came to corruption. It doesn’t take an exceptionally sceptical mind to doubt where this frantic US handout of almost $2bn is going to end up.

Pakistan is not going to win this round of conflict, not with this government in charge, not with the army battling an entrenched guerrilla force that is fighting on this terrain, with the added benefit of doing so in neighbourhoods that the guerrillas grew up in and in towns where their families live. The Pakistani Taliban, frightening as they are, are not an army fighting on

the orders of US Admiral Mike Mullen; they are defending a cause that they believe in. Fundamentalism does that to a soldier. Pakistan is

going to lose out for many reasons and President Barack Obama’s complicity will not change

anything.

So far, the “Yes We Can” president has strictly upheld George W Bush’s modus operandi when dealing with Pakistan. The evidence is frustratingly damning: he signalled to Pakistan and the world during the White House buddyfest, which saw Zardari at his most unctuous, that he and his government will prop up their men in the region; that they will do so with “see no evil”

billion-dollar handouts and military support; and that, faced with fostering democracy in Pakistan, the US will always come down in support of the strongmen instead of the people.

Asif Ali Zardari is unelected. He was brought to the presidency in the same way as General Pervez Musharraf was – by the vote of a reliant and powerless parliament. Zardari did not stand for election in 2008. He does not represent a

constituency, and he does not have the mandate of the people. Ditto Sharif who, unlike Zardari, was disqualified from contesting elections.

Yet this did not seem to get in the way of Obama’s pronouncement of generous support for the government.

Perhaps, as Pakistan “fights for its survival” (the catchphrase for this war), this is a moment for political pause. Two weeks ago I met a man who had just returned from South Waziristan. I asked him about the situation in his home

village and he complained about the arbitrary and constant US drone attacks. After telling

me that his house had been all but obliterated when a drone missed its mark, he continued, more upbeat, “But the situation there is improving. The law-and-order situation is very good, better than Karachi.”

He told me about the case of a young

girl who had been molested by three men after being kidnapped from the market near her house. When the Taliban

forces discovered the crime, they not only rescued the girl and returned her to her home, but also took care of the three men.

“They shot them,” my visitor told me, impressed that some form of retributive justice had been served, quickly and easily.

I shifted in my seat and, uncomfortably, disagreed that what had happened was the right outcome. For one thing, I said, women have been suffering greatly under the rule of these extremists. “Oh they’re fine,” he said, waving a hand

in the air. “They are grateful for the fact that they finally have basic justice and services, you know. They don’t suffer year-long court delays and mercenary police like we do in Karachi.”

So, Carlos Marighella was spot-on. The solution does not lie in the army fighting its own civilians, generating more hatred for a force that has been acting on the orders of foreign powers for the past eight years and alienating the people whom they are sworn to protect in the process. The solution does not lie in the United States funding and propping up corrupt and illegitimate governments in the face of incompetent leadership and unrest across the country. The

solution is not more money.

The solution lies, rather, in recognising that the residents of Swat didn’t choose the Taliban. They did not vote for sharia law. The Taliban are only there because they built roads that had been unpaved for decades. They provided education, for boys at least, when the government schools failed millions of local children. They opened medical centres when the government hospitals shut down because of lack of funds. They meted out justice when the courts started protecting the government and not the people.

It’s corruption, stupid. It’s the force we need

to be fighting now; it’s the head of the monster, the wellspring of the Taliban’s strength in Pakistan. I for one don’t plan on putting on a burqa any time soon. l

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom

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In the heartlands

What does visiting Wallasey, Pontypridd and Islington North reveal about Labour’s future?

Islington. It’s the idea, as much as the place itself, that the right hates: an enclave of wealthy people who have the temerity to vote against right-wing interests. The real Islington, and Jeremy Corbyn’s patch of it in particular, is not all like that. Although parts of his constituency do resemble the cliché of large townhouses and overpriced flat whites, Labour’s 78-year hold on the seat is founded not on the palatial houses around Highgate Hill but on the constituency’s many council estates.

It’s a place I know well. As a child, Islington North was the place next to the edge of the known world, or, as I would come to call it later in life, Barnet. After going to church in Bow, my mum and I would take the bus through it to choir practice, where I sang until my voice broke, in both senses of the word.

Today, austerity is making Islington North look more like its past. Not the Islington of my teenage years, but of my childhood: grimy streets and growing homelessness. Outside the Archway McDonald’s an elderly woman points out the evidence of last night’s clubbers and tells me that today’s teenagers are less considerate than I was or her grandson is. She’s wrong; I once vomited in that same street. But street-sweeping, particularly at night, has been one of the first things that councils have cut back on under constraints from decreasing local authority budgets.

As for homelessness, that, too, has come full circle. Tony Blair’s government was the first to count the number of people sleeping rough, and by the time Labour left office it had been reduced by two-thirds. In the six years since David Cameron first came to office, the homeless figure in England more than doubled from 1,768 estimated rough sleepers to more than 3,569 today. This is the world that Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters want to fight against. These are the effects of Conservative rule that make Labour activists yearn for an anti-austerity champion.

***

Demolishing the stereotypical views of Islington and elsewhere is vital if we are to understand the currents flowing through ­Labour. This summer, there have been three main characters in the soap opera (or farce) that has played out in the party – the beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of Islington North; the leading rebel, Angela Eagle, whose constituency is in Wallasey; and finally, the eventual challenger, Owen Smith of Pontypridd. I visited all their constituencies in a whirlwind week in the hope that it would illuminate the leadership race and the wider challenges for left-wing politics in Britain.

In all three places, the easy assumptions about Corbyn’s appeal were complicated by the facts on the ground, but a common thread united them. Outside the Holloway Road Odeon, I heard it first: “Jeremy is a nice guy, but he’s not a leader.” The trouble was that even those who questioned Corbyn’s leadership had little faith in those challenging him.

On 4 July, during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Neil Kinnock talked about “the supermarket test”: how people in Tesco or Lidl would say “I want to vote Labour, but I can’t vote for Ed Miliband”. He urged Labour’s representatives in the Houses of Parliament to “apply the supermarket test for Jeremy Corbyn and see what answer you get”.

In reality, they had been applying it for months. That was the spur to the attempts in late June to oust Corbyn as Labour leader. For the 172 MPs who said they had no confidence in him – and the 41 per cent of Labour members who told YouGov that they thought Corbyn was doing either “fairly badly” or “very badly” – he is an obstacle on the road to saving Britain from the Tories. Idealism didn’t create a minimum wage, set up Sure Start centres, or bring in civil partnerships: assembling a broad enough coalition to elect a Labour government did.

The minority of MPs who support him, and the thousands of members who say they will vote for him again, feel differently. For them, Corbyn’s demise would feel like a capitulation. It would feel like ­accepting that neoliberalism, capitalism and austerity have won the day, that the role of the Labour Party is to ameliorate rather than oppose them.

When I visited Islington North, Labour’s leadership election was only just starting to get under way and Angela Eagle was still in contention. Her tough performances deputising for the leader at PMQs have made her popular at Westminster but that enthusiasm has not made it as far north as Islington. “To me, I can’t see Angela Eagle as a prime minister either,” said Mike, one of the regulars at the Coronet, a Wetherspoons on the Holloway Road. “What are they running her for?”

The same sentiment prevailed in Wallasey, the Wirral constituency that Eagle has represented since 1992. There, too, were a few pockets of Corbynmania. There was also a sense that Labour is heading for defeat as long as Corbyn remains in place – but little faith in Eagle’s ability to alter that trajectory.

Wallasey is of less long-standing Labour vintage than Islington North. It remained steadfastly Conservative even between 1945 and 1966, and Eagle first won the seat in 1992. Although she is now in possession of a 16,000-vote majority, her neighbour Margaret Greenwood took Wirral West seat back from the Conservatives by a margin of only 400 votes. Tory strategists still eye the Wirral hungrily.

Wallasey is home to New Brighton, the seaside resort commemorated in Martin Parr’s 1985 series The Last Resort. A popular tourist destination for most of the first half of the 20th century, New Brighton was hurt by tidal changes in the River Mersey, which stripped most of its sand, and by the closure of its pier, but it remains a favoured destination for retirees and day trippers. In times past, Liverpool families that did well for themselves crossed the Mersey, bought a home – and promptly started to vote Tory. Wallasey, and the Wirral as a whole, is still where Scousers who have made it good set up their homes, but nowadays their politics usually survives the river crossing unscathed.

Yet there is still a vestigial sympathy for Conservatism in the leafier parts of Victoria Road and Seabank Road, one that is largely absent from Islington North. Perhaps Theresa May’s diligence in dealing with families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned frequently when I asked people for their opinion of the new Prime Minister, is sufficiently well regarded here that it is beginning to erode the Thatcherite taint still hanging over the Tory rosette on Merseyside.

However, it is not just Labour politics that is proving increasingly capable of weathering the journey across the Mersey. In Westminster, the chatter is that Militant – driven out of Labour in the 1980s, though most of its members continued to live and work on Merseyside – is back as a force in the city’s constituencies, and that many of its members have moved out and retired to New Brighton. Their influence is blamed for the series of damaging stories that slipped out of Wallasey in the days after Eagle declared her candidacy.

“There’s a reason why they’re so good at getting themselves on the national news and in the papers,” one MP tells me. “It’s that they’ve done all this before.”

***

The perception that Eagle “lost control” of her local party, as well as a disastrous campaign launch, led to support from fellow MPs ebbing away from her. It went instead to Owen Smith, the MP for Pontypridd, a little-known figure outside Westminster, but one who has long been talked of as a possible Labour leader inside it.

Smith’s great strength, at least according to some of his backers, is that he is a blank canvas. Certainly, as with Corbyn in Islington, there was a widespread perception in Wallasey that Eagle was not cast from the material from which leaders are made. Smith at least had the advantage of introducing himself to voters on his own terms.

His slim hopes of defeating Corbyn rest on two planks. First, the idea that a fresh face might yet convince wavering members that he could win a general election. A vote for him rather than Corbyn can therefore be seen as a vote against the Conservatives. Second, he is willing to call for a second European referendum. Among Labour Party activists, who backed staying in the European Union by 90/10 per cent, that is a compelling offer.

In Islington and Wallasey, both of which voted Remain (and both of which still have  houses flying the flag of the European Union when I visit), that message also has wider appeal. But in Smith’s own seat, a second referendum is a tougher sell. The Valleys voted to leave by a near-identical margin to the country at large. No one to whom I spoke was enthused about replaying the referendum.

Smith’s status as a “blank slate” will only be useful if he manages to write something appealing on it over the course of this summer. It is also possible he could just remain largely unknown and undefined.

Travelling around the country, I became accustomed to explaining who he is. Even at my hotel in Cardiff, which borders his constituency, the name “Owen Smith” was met with blank looks.

Unfortunately, the habit proved hard to break once I was in Pontypridd, resulting in an awkward scene in the back of a taxi. “I know who my MP is,” my driver said angrily, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about the arrogance of London-based journalists and a London-led Labour Party. The accent had changed, the setting was more confrontational, but the story remained the same as in Islington and Wallasey: he was convinced of neither Jeremy Corbyn’s nor Angela Eagle’s ability to fight and win an election. “That voice? In a room with Putin?” he said of Eagle. Then he said something unexpected. “But I’ll tell you what – they need a change from Jeremy Corbyn – and why not Owen Smith?”

“Why not Owen Smith?” As much as they might wish to deny it, that is the message with which Corbyn’s critics will try to take back control of the Labour Party. It is a message that feels unlikely to move or inspire. As I catch the train back to London, I reflect that those who want to convince Labour activists to give up Jeremy Corbyn – and what they feel he represents – need to offer them something compelling in return. No one puts “Vote for the lesser of two evils” on a banner.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue