May plays into hands of poppy burning Muslims Against Crusades

Anjem Choudary and his trolling friends like the publicity.

Muslims Against Crusades, the attention-seeking troublemakers who have burned poppies to enrage people who write for tabloid newspapers, have now been banned.

Whether this move by the Home Secretary Theresa May will get rid of this group's trolling polemic remains to be seen; what's happened before is that the group has simply changed name, kept more or less the same personnel and continued.

Anjem Choudary and his friends are keen to get into the news -- under a previous incarnation of Islam4UK they promised a vigil in the former repatriation town of (Royal) Wootton Bassett, for example. Will anything different happen this time?

The timing is significant. Today is the 11 November, and we are approaching Remembrance Sunday. It is possible that another stunt may have been planned to disrupt the minutes of silence, which are now observed with more scrutiny and participation than was the case ten or 15 years ago, to get the group more hate-headlines and more publicity for their deeply unworthy cause.

What MAC have done, however, shows an unfortunately strong nous for PR, for we are living in a time when we are more sensitive than ever about our symbols of remembrance. After years of playing in football shirts without poppies to mark the week of Remembrance in November, the England team has been involved in a controversy surrounding their presence on the strip this week, with figures such as Prince William, Sepp Blatter of FIFA and Prime Minister David Cameron getting involved.

Poppies mean more to us than they used to -- whether that's a good thing or not is up for debate, but we are more sensitive about these things than we used to be.

As uncomfortable as I am with the idea of anyone provocatively burning anything that people find important or sacred in their culture -- be it a paper flower symbolising fallen heroes or a holy book -- banning MAC plays into their hands.

As with the hastily-withdrawn promise of a march through Wootton Bassett, the thing itself isn't the goal: the headlines and the outrage are the aim, and that has now been achieved. Muslims Against Crusades will be in your newspaper today, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

You get the sense that the likes of MAC don't even burn poppies because they want to burn poppies, or talk about marching through Wootton Bassett because they want to march through Wootton Bassett: they're simply picking the totems that will cause the greatest amount of outrage and upset possible.

Who would care about a well organised but completely non-outrageous protest which took place on 11 November? Probably no-one. Probably no-one would cover it either, and there's the problem.

That a few poppy-burning nitwits could manage to garner more coverage than many more Muslims going out to collect for the British Legion, for example, says something about how our priorities have become skewed. We seek out the challenging, the outrageous, the relentlessly controversial, often at the expense of the reasonable, the community-minded, the positive. And I think that's a shame.

What I realise, of course, is that in writing this article about Muslims Against Crusades I've just played into their hands even more, giving them more of the limelight they're so desperate to get.

So instead of that, I think it's time to stop mentioning them altogether, and just let them get on with their sad little protests, putting them in the context of much larger, more positive activity that hardly ever gets a look-in.

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.