Baroness Warsi has done much to endear the Conservatives to British Muslims. Photo: Getty
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The bitter truth: the Tories have done more for Muslims than Labour

It won’t be quickly forgotten that the strongest condemnation of the killings in Gaza came from Baroness Warsi, a Tory politician.

I am from the Iraq War generation. I was 13 when 9/11 happened, and watched the War on Terror unfold throughout my teens. The viciousness of the Iraq War became synonymous with Tony Blair, and thus with the Labour Party. I was 17 in 2005, and I remember trying to convince my father, a first generation Bangladeshi migrant, to vote for anyone but Labour. He wouldn’t relent; Labour supported him when he first came to the United Kingdom, and that support won a lifetime of loyalty.

After Gordon Brown took office in 2007, I looked again at the Labour Party. The shadow of Iraq was still there, but I recognised the values Labour stood for at home – a welfare state, support for the poor, and a belief in the power of the collective. These all resonated with me and my personal ideals, shaped as they were by Islam. I voted for Labour in 2010, something I couldn’t imagine myself doing in 2005.

When the Conservative Party, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, took power, I was worried. This was the party of the white elite I had been told, racist to the very core, and bad news for the economy. In retrospect, I’ve had to face up to a bitter truth - the Tories have done more for Muslims than Labour.

David Cameron has played his role as Prime Minister incredibly well, and is visibly more comfortable with religion than Ed Miliband or even Brown and Blair. “While I am Prime Minister of this country, halal is safe in Britain,” he announced to warm applause at the Muslim News Awards dinner. In an act of public relations genius, he popped in for a casual Nando’s in Bristol during the height of the halal hysteria, telling reporters later “I’m happy to eat halal meat”. On the wall of my local mosque is also a letter from the Prime Minister himself, congratulating Muslims on the beginning of Ramadan and highlighting the contribution of Muslim soldiers to the First World War. After the Woolwich murder, Cameron was equally clear in announcing the killings as “a betrayal of Islam”, stronger words than ever used by Blair, whose speeches on Islam while in office often blurred the line between religious conservatism and violent extremism.

On the other hand, Ed Miliband has had little success engaging with British Muslims. He called the Iraq War “wrong”, but has seldom discussed the issue since. His relationship to religion of any sort seems awkward at best – he announced a desire to become Britain’s first Jewish Prime Minister, while also proclaiming himself an atheist, and having images of him biting into a bacon sandwich slathered over the internet. He has made some efforts to connect to a British Muslim demographic however, most recently with an Eid reception on the 31 July that was described by one attendee as “naff”.

What does stand to Miliband’s credit amongst many British Muslims is taking a strong position on Gaza – an issue incredibly close to the heart of many Muslims. Yet even here, he has been outdone by a Conservative. Baroness Warsi’s resignation may have harmed the Tories in the run up to an election, but in the past four years she has done much to endear the Conservatives to British Muslims. She has campaigned against Islamophobia, balanced out Michael Gove’s ideological opposition to Islam, and even publicly challenged the white, Eton-dominated elite of the party. And it won’t be quickly forgotten that the strongest condemnation of the killings in Gaza came from a Tory politician.

It isn’t too late for Labour however. Ultimately, most of Cameron’s success with Muslim voters has been on superficial issues. A powerful antidote to this will be through a commitment to the values that made Labour successful amongst my father’s generation– namely the welfare state, opposing racist anti-immigration rhetoric and supporting ethnic minority candidates. Mayor Luftur Rahman’s success in Tower Hamlets is an example of all three. Yet all this isn’t enough. Iraq is not something which is confined to history but is absolutely contemporary. ISIS’s rise today in cities like Mosul is a result of the Iraq War; George Galloway is still riding a wave of anti-war sentiment as MP in Bradford. If Miliband is to win back the Iraq War generation, and truly free himself from the Blair legacy, he must condemn the War on Terror entirely and make penance for the sins of New Labour.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser