Labour's contemptible election trade-off

Ministers have written off free speech as collateral in the Iraq war. By proposing to make it a crim

A couple of weeks ago Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat MP who has been a diligent defender of civil liberties, and Lord Lester, a distinguished Liberal Democrat lawyer, invited a delegation from the Muslim Council of Britain to the Inns of Court in central London to discuss their differences.

The Lib Dems - like the Tories, a few serious writers and actors, and most human rights groups - are appalled by the government's plans to introduce a new offence of incitement to religious hatred. Ever since the Iraq war, Muslims have been turning to the Lib Dems, and Harris and Lester tried to explain why new Labour's plans to woo them back by suppressing free speech would be disastrous.

The arguments are complicated, but overwhelming. Devout believers in each religion inspire hatred of other religions because they believe theirs is the one true way. This hatred shows when they seek to convert. Is proselytising to be a criminal offence? Even in these PC times, it is not a crime to hate others, any more than it is a crime to envy them; and, in any case, what the Saudi religious police do to women, and the Catholic Church's rules on contraception in Aids-ridden Africa, are both hateful. There's a good case for saying that it is morally wrong not to seek to inspire hatred of the hateful rather than stay silent and let evil triumph.

If this law is passed, the next Salman Rushdie would be prosecuted or there would be riots if he wasn't. Either way, the government would be inciting dangerous passions and handing to reactionary clerics the power to damn dissident voices in minority communities as un-Islamic, or un-Hindu or un-Sikh or un-Jewish. As with all other ideas, religion must be open to fair, unfair and even hateful criticism. Abandon this principle and you might as well have a law against inciting hatred of Blairism. (I know, I know: you shouldn't put ideas in their heads.)

Lord Lester knows the theoretical arguments as well as anyone, but he was as interested in the practicalities. The government says that all it wants to do is frustrate neo-Nazi groups, which can't attack Pakistanis directly because of the law against racial hatred but put out propaganda against "the Muslims" instead. Lester pointed out that this reasoning was threadbare. The existing law against inciting racial hatred already covers "racism by proxy", and any half-decent prosecutor can use it for that purpose. He told the Muslim Council that he and his Lib Dem colleagues had proposed that the statute should be rewritten to make it clear that racial hatred disguised as religious hatred was still racial hatred. This would remove the need for an extension of censorship.

If new Labour had its way, white supremacists would be turned into free-speech martyrs, liberal middle-class opinion would turn against minority religions and the white working class would feel that it couldn't speak its mind in its own country. Far better to concentrate on what hurts people in real life. Lord Lester said the Lib Dems had proposed a bill to punish daily acts of prejudice - taxi drivers who refuse to pick up women wearing veils, shopkeepers who refuse to serve customers fondling a string of beads. He said they wanted to promote the principle of equality, and the government had agreed to do it, although when it would bring legislation to parliament was anyone's guess.

Oh, quite soon, interrupted the men from the Muslim Council of Britain. We've been sent a copy of the draft bill for our comments.

Lord Lester and Evan Harris went very quiet, for no one in the Lords or Commons had seen this bill. No one knew what it was likely to contain. Nor when, if ever, it might be delivered. No one apart from the Muslim Council of Britain, which was already studying it and proposing amendments, and evangelical Christian groups which had had the same courtesy extended to them.

What the Lib Dems learned at that moment was what many had suspected for months: a deal was going down. Her Britannic Majesty's Government was prepared to sacrifice Britain's liberties and run the risk of religious riots for the sake of grabbing the votes of fundamentalists. Freedom of speech was to be written off as collateral damage in the war against Saddam Hussein.

Mike O'Brien, in my view the most unscrupulous of the new Labour junior ministers, spelled it out in an article in Muslim Weekly. All right, he said to the readers, you're furious about Iraq and ready to storm away from Labour in a righteous rage. But where will your rage take you? To the Tories? "Ask yourself what will Michael Howard do for British Muslims? Will his foreign policy aim to help Palestine? Will he promote legislation to protect you from religious hatred and discrimination? Will he give you the choice of sending your children to a faith school? Will he stand up for the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab?" He will not, was the message. So stick with new Labour. If you tell us to, we will force your children to be indoctrinated in sectarian schools and your women to hide behind veils. We will give you what you want, when you want it, like an online supermarket.

O'Brien went on: "Recently Iqbal Sacranie, the general secretary of the Council, asked Tony Blair to declare that the government would introduce a new law banning religious discrimination. Two weeks later, in the middle of his speech to the Labour party conference, Tony Blair promised that the next Labour government would ban religious discrimination."

As for the Lib Dems, they're no better than the Tories, he wrote. "A new crime bill, announced in the Queen's Speech, is coming before parliament to toughen the laws on incitement to religious hatred. This has upset some MPs such as Evan Harris MP, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, who has said he will oppose it because it is unnecessary!"

An odd choice of target, that. Evan Harris is hardly a national figure. The Oxford MP isn't even on the Lib Dem front bench. Why not pick on Charles Kennedy? But then, Kennedy's family isn't Jewish and Harris's is - as is Michael Howard's. "I am appalled by the way the Labour minister went out of his way to name me specifically," Harris remarked. "Is it because I am the only Jewish Lib Dem MP?"

It's hard to tell. There is a foul smell coming from O'Brien, but then there has been ever since he pushed through the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which made it harder for genuine victims of persecution to reach this country. For what it's worth, I doubt he's a real anti-Semite. That requires consistency and I suspect consistency, even in bigotry, is beyond him. What he and new Labour are trying to do is not to win over one particular group of fundamentalists by appealing to their prejudices, but to maximise votes by making an ecumenical appeal to fundamentalists of all religions. It's business, not personal.

Just as Ken Livingstone's continuing support for Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, in the face of all the evidence that he is allying himself with the far right of the Arab world, does not mean Livingstone believes that wives should be beaten or that gays and Jewish civilians should be murdered, so his party's leaders don't believe that women should be forced to wear a veil or that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are puppets of world Jewry. I'm sure that in private they find such ideas repugnant.

But at a time of low turnouts, the party knows that motivated minorities can be decisive. Hence the ecumenicism. When fundamentalist Christians put the home phone numbers of BBC executives on the net because BBC2 was showing Jerry Springer: the opera, the government was silent. Children were threatened, along with their parents, but Labour ministers, normally so quick to advertise their toughness on crime, chose to lie low. Similarly, when the play Bezhti was driven off the stage in Birmingham by a mob of Sikh protesters, the Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart declined to stand by the right of the theatre to go about its lawful business, or to criticise the violence.

What Rushdie calls "the currently fashionable Blairite politics of religious appeasement at all costs" is based on the calculation that, in the lazy, postmodern world, those who used to stand up for free speech won't become as angry as the religious fundamentalists and so won't refuse to vote Labour. The next few months will show whether this contemptible calculation is correct.