Sunday, October 25, 2009

Interview: Salma Yaqoob

Many thanks to Salma Yaqoob for agreeing to this exclusive interview where we discuss Respect, politics in Birmingham and democratic reform.

This week has seen three major political events; demonstrations marking the anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, the BNP appearing on Question Time and the postal strike. Politics seems to be becoming increasingly confrontational. What's your approach to this?
I don’t feel the issue of Afghanistan is such a confrontational one any more. In fact, the opposite is increasingly the case. A recent Times opinion poll showed that over 65% of the electorate favoured the troops withdrawing. Of course, it was not always like that. I remember well how difficult it was to speak about Afghanistan after 9/11. For example it was not uncommon to have abuse hurled at you when doing Stop the War campaigning in Birmingham city centre around that time. Thankfully those days, and that sense of isolation over the issue of opposing the occupation of Afghanistan, are gone.

Unfortunately, the issues of industrial conflict and racism are probably going to be very much with us in the coming period. As I write the BBC News are carrying stories about the deepening nature of the recession. At a time when we need more government investment to kick-start the economy, all the mainstream parties are proposing cuts, cuts and more cuts in public spending as a solution.

This invariably will provoke reaction from trade union members wanting, quite rightly, to protect themselves and their families from a crisis not of their making. Invariably, the political consensus of the mainstream parties will be accompanied by the politics of scapegoating. I am expecting there to be an increase in racism and votes for the BNP in the coming period. All the more reason for the broadest unity left wing and progressive forces in the coming period.

Many of my readers may not know much about where you stand on specific policies. I wonder if you'd be happy to say a few words about where you stand on a few? First nuclear power, second refugees and asylum seekers and third, democratic reform.
1. I think the recent United Nations Security Council vote in favour of the need to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons is an important development. However it is only a first step. We need binding and equitable international agreements on reducing nuclear arsenals. And those holding the biggest arsenals need to be the first in showing the way. One very simple but significant step this country could take would be to scrap Trident.

2. It is over 60 years ago that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written. 
In many ways it is a remarkable and inspiring document in its commitment to uphold protects the rights, freedom, dignity, respect and equality of all people. And of course it was written in the shadow of the Holocaust. We must never forget that it was so-called civilized Europe that gave birth to fascist inspired genocide. Our attitude to those others escaping oppression and tyranny today is simply a hallmark of how civilized a society we are.

Britain has a moral responsibility to provide a safe haven to such people and it is a disgrace that tens of thousands of refused asylum seekers are currently being kept in destitution, denied the right to work in order to drive them out of the country.

The way the mainstream parties promote and pander to reactionary and racist ideas about refugees and asylum seekers is deeply worrying. It was noticeable that in the recent edition of Question Time that one quote of Nick Griffin's that nobody mentioned was his comments about boats carrying migrants from Africa to Europe should be sunk. None of the panel dared to go near the issue of asylum and immigration except to present themselves as being ‘tough’ on it. Undercutting racism and prejudice on this issue is a critical task for the left today.

3. I support the call for proportional representation. British politics is suffocating because it is so dominated by the politics of tweedle dum and tweedle dee. The implementation of PR will allow more genuinely democratic expression and enable progressive opinion to better punch its weight. It is ideas, the contest between them, and the commitment to implement them, that will really breathe life back into a political system ossified by a lack of real choice and discredited by expenses abuse.

As a local councillor what do you think the key issues are that face local residents?
I am an elected councilor for Sparkbrook ward and I hold weekly advice bureau. There are three complaints that I hear again and again: lack of local housing, jobs and school places. Birmingham has shocking levels of overcrowding and a chronic shortage of council housing. It is to Labour’s eternal shame that they presided over a halving of the council housing stock in the city.

Similarity, unemployment is critical. A recent study in Birmingham found the with the recession beginning to take its toll, 37 per cent of adults of working age in the city do not have jobs. Finally, many of these same families are having to travel across the city every morning to drop their kids off, often to differing schools, because of shortage of school places, plus we have no secondary school in my ward.

I think it's fair to say that your party, Respect, has been through some radical transformations in its short life. How would you characterise the organisation today?
Making very healthy progress! The SWP are no longer with us and one consequence has been to make it easier for Respect to adhere to the thinking behind its original conception.

I always wanted Respect to be an organisation that seeks to progress the totality of the left, and not just our bit of it. I feel, for the first time, we are actually starting to implement that concept. For example, I am proud of the position we adopted in the European elections where we openly campaigned for Green candidates in the North West and West Midlands because they were better positioned to stop the BNP. And I am proud that we unequivocally came out in support of Ken Livingstone in the last London Mayoral election.

Respect is a very young, small party of the radical left with a real electoral footprint in two key areas. If we can emerge after the next general election with our support intact or even stronger I think our future will look bright. And I am confident we are going to emerge from the General Election in such a position.

You're running a strong campaign to win a seat in Birmingham at the general election. Good luck. What contribution do you think one lone MP can make whether we end up being under a Labour or Tory government?
Thank you. The only positive contribution a single MP can make is to use the platform to advance progressive issues. And that is the single reason why I am standing.

I have taken the hard route by going outside the ‘mainstream’, despite no shortage of approaches from them. But I have chosen this road because I value my independence. I want to be able to speak my mind about the issues I feel strongly about – war, racism, and inequality - unbeholden to anyone. My hope is to help stimulate genuine debate and discussion, rather than merely re-enforcing the status quo, which has caused many of the problems in the first place.

We need more independent voices in parliament. I hope after next May myself, Caroline Lucas and others will be adding ours to the likes of George Galloway in being prepared to use the office not only to speak truth to power, but to address the democratic deficit such that the concerns of millions of people as expressed through popular social movements are no longer ignored, but genuinely represented.


The Third Estate said...

"I always wanted Respect to be an organisation that seeks to progress the totality of the left, and not just our bit of it. I feel, for the first time, we are actually starting to implement that concept. For example, I am proud of the position we adopted in the European elections where we openly campaigned for Green candidates in the North West and West Midlands because they were better positioned to stop the BNP. And I am proud that we unequivocally came out in support of Ken Livingstone in the last London Mayoral election."

- I don't buy this. It's a pretty way of dressing up Respect's weakened position. It backed the Greens and NO2EU and Ken not because it has a new approach to co-operation, but because the split seriously damaged their organisational structure. Many of the local branches were driven by the SWP activists, for better or worse. Their loss, which even Galloway has lamented, has caused Respect to retreat to its core areas of East London and Birmingham. Galloway even told me that Respect would be calling for a vote for Labour MPs who had backed the war in areas where they were the strongest challenge to the Tories. I have a lot of time for Salma Yaqoob, but this sounds like spin to me.


Jim Jay said...

I don't agree Salman, although obviously the split left Respect numerically weaker.

Beforehand there was a real 'only game in town' attitude where you were regarded as some sort of pond life if you were on the left and not in Respect - after the split this polarising attitude seems absent (well as far as I'm aware it is) - but it was never true to say that Respect was so overwhelmingly significant, even when they had more activists.

It seems to me that Respect is a far healthier current now, politically, than it was and more realistic about itself as an organisation. This is far better than the slightly larger, but more deluded and consistently belligerent to everyone else on the left. They've definitely moved forwards in this regard.

I'm only for voting Labour in very specific and rare circumstances at this coming election but I think the position Galloway outlined is hardly outlandish. It's a simple recognition of where we are and it's one reasonable response to it - although not a response I completely share. I'm sure he'd have a similar position if Respect had not split so I don't really see it as a response to this.

faceless said...

thanks for this, it was interesting reading.

But I was a bit perturbed by Salma not answering the question about nuclear-power directly, instead focussing on nuclear weapons.

The two ideas shouldn't be merged, especially considering the Iranian situation.

The Third Estate said...

Jim, I'm not saying that Respect's position on co-operation hasn't changed. Clearly it has. But I think the prime factor in its decision not to stand candidtates at all in the Euro elections was its weakened position. Standing aside for the Greens in the North West made sense. They were the only party that had a chance of stopping Nick Griffin. Backing the farcical NO2EU in other areas, I think, points to the organisational weakness of the party outside its core areas.

I think given Respect's raison d'etre was always its opposition to the war, calling for a vote for pro-war Labour MPs is quite outlandish. I'm not against voting Labour in specific and rare circumstances. If I lived in Islington, I'm sure I'd vote for Jeremy Corbyn. But lefties calling for a vote for pro-war Blairites for no reason other than a vain hope of stopping the Tories, is exactly the reason democracy is in such a poor condition today.


Derek Wall said...

I think what would be great would to blog some details of how people can practically support good candidates in the General Election, I am off to help Caroline Lucas on November 7th and I would encourage your readers to join me.

Others might want to help elect Salma, are there election action days in Birmingham where activists from around the country can help with leafletting and canvassing?

The Third Estate said...

Are the Greens standing a candidate against Salma? They stood against Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow last time around, do you think their position on co-operation has changed as well?


Strategist said...

"Are the Greens standing a candidate against Salma?"

Good question! I seem to recall that a meeting of the local party to decide this was imminent, and Caroline Lucas had made her view known that they should stand aside to gove Salma a clear run. (NB This is my memory - it may not be accurate!)

Can anyone help - did that meeting take place? Did it take a decision??

PS Good interview, BTW

Jim Jay said...

Salman: the thing is in the long term the decision not to stand in the euros has strengthened their position because it has allowed them the space to create warmer relations on the left and, dare I say it, avoided getting a humiliating result that demoralised their supporters.

They have strong support in some areas but it's very focused so they might not have fared much better than No2EU - I actually think the path they've taken is much more serious and good for them long term.

Derek: I've linked to Salma's sites in the piece and people who want to help her can go via there. Obviously I'll be supporting Green candidates at this election so a more eclectic approach is probably more appropriate for a different sort of blog - although I certainly have warm fzzy feelings for many people who are in different organisations.

Strat: the announcement of the Birmingham ballot is due any moment now... drum roll... (nice to meet you in person the other day by the way)

The Third Estate said...

Jim, I definitely agree with you that it was a wise decision, that it's strengthened their position and that it's facilitated greater co-operation. The means and the ends are all congruous. I just feel the motivation for it was not quite as altruistic as Salma tries to paint.


Ger Francis said...

The suggestion that Salma’s and Respect’s position about broad left unity is a cynical maneuver designed to mask organizational weakness is itself both cynical and inaccurate.

Yes, the national organization was weakened by the split with the SWP, but we still could have stood candidates in the London Mayoral election and the Euro's, certainly in the West Midlands, North West and London if we so wanted. We choose not to because we wanted to maximize opposition to Boris Johnson and the BNP, even in the knowledge that pursuing the argument was going to cause considerable internal division.

The issue of backing Ken was always a very fractious one, way before the SWP departed. Similarly the issue of whether to stand down in support of the Greens even after the SWP left, who were always unremittingly hostile to any such suggestions, initiated a very sharp debate which culminated in Nick Wrack’s resignation as National Secretary.

The Third Estate said...

You're right, my position is cynical Ger. I put a lot of time, effort and even a fair bit of money into helping to build Respect and campaign for it because I saw it as the last best hope for left unity. Its utterly baffling split has left me incredibly cynical and unwilling to join either side in the near future. I would still vote for George Galloway or Salma Yaqoob if I lived in their constituencies, and have a great deal of time for a lot of the people still in Respect, but my support as an activist has gone to the Greens.

Jim Jay said...

I don't think it's necessary to be defensive/cynical about this Salman. It seems to me that Respect and Greens are going to be natural allies on many issues, although probably not everything. We can always agree to differ on those.

You don't have to want to jump into Respect to see that mutual cooperation is a good idea and beneficial for both sides.but in Salma's defense I don't believe she was *ever* one of the ones who made it difficult for Greens to work with Respect, and she certainly isn't now.

Personally I'd say moving on and looking to the future is the most productive position to take.

Speaking of which... Birmingham Greens are having an exec meeting as we speak/type where they are discussing the results of the ballot... expect an announcement in the next couple of days.

The Third Estate said...

Jim, I'm sure it's not necessary. It might not even be rational. But it's where my experiences have left me and it's the reason my natural instinct is a pessimistic one at the moment. Despite my personal feelings, however, my political opinions remain as unequivocally pro left co-operation as they've always been and I admire your optimism.

friendlylefty said...

Interesting interview, thanks. My plug for it and thoughts, here:

The Friendly Lefty

Jim Jay said...

Thanks Friendly.

Just to let people know the results are in and Birmingham Greens have voted overwhelmingly to stand aside in Hall Green.

thehoatzin said...

I wouldn't give my voice to the representative of a party that welcomed George Galloway - a propogandist for a repulsive Iranian regime that executes gays etc shouldn't be in ANY party in this country.

To paraphrase Chumbawamba: you know I hate every politician I ever met.

faceless said...

to thehoatzin - can you provide any evidence of Galloway being a propagandist for Iran?

I watch his shows on Press TV and can provide numerous examples of him condemning rules put in place by the Iranian government.

Maybe he's involved in double-bluff propaganda? I'll fetch my conspiro-specs.