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.