Coiled spring that I am, I have only just spotted (two days late) that I have been voted runner-up in the “print reporter of the year” category of Iain Dale’s blog awards. The winner is my very deserving and almost impossibly hardworking ex-colleague at the Standard, Paul Waugh. Thank you all very much indeed! Normal service will resume on January 2nd.
Much synthetic media excitement is being generated tonight about the leaders’ debates just fixed for the general election campaign next year. Of course, any such exposure is welcome. But as a veteran of similar exercises during the London mayoral election, can I pour just a trickle of cold water?
The endless mayoral “hustings” of that campaign were, almost without exception, crucifyingly boring and changed nothing. To be fair, that was partly a reflection of who organised them. They were modern London’s equivalent of Stations of the Cross, in which all candidates were required to perform the ritual genuflections before whichever of the capital’s unrepresentative sectional lobby groups – sorry, diverse’n’vibrant communities – had hired the hall that night. They almost never rose above what’s-in-it-for-us politics, and if I’d had to hear Boris Johnson’s joke about protecting Ken Livingstone’s OAP bus pass one more time, I would have killed Boris myself.
The national debates won’t be like that, but they do risk boredom in another way. If they’re anything like US presidential encounters, they won’t really be debates at all, but artificial, regimented encounters at which the candidates read soundbites at each other. The presence of Nick Clegg, though obviously necessary, will further blunt the opportunity for real interaction between the two actual contenders.
I’d be surprised if it comes anywhere near the electricity generated by the election editions of Question Time: that one where Tony Blair was fearlessly and ruthlessly grilled by the QT audience was one of the greatest highlights of British democracy in many years. I hope, of course, to be proved wrong.
PS: Enjoying the hopeful speculation over the last few days that Boris won’t run again in 2012, choosing to return to Westminster and national politics. Of course I can’t be certain – and knowing Boris, I rather suspect that nobody will know for certain until about 5pm on the day nominations close – but do think this one through, folks.
Which job offers Boris a better platform to achieve his undoubted ambition of being the next Tory leader? Is it (a) minister for paperclips in a David Cameron cabinet, where he will be bound by collective responsibility, firmly sat on by the PM and obliged to share the blame for whatever disasters befall the Cameron regime? Or is it (b) a job with an independent budget, direct personal mandate, massive media profile, Olympics flag-waving powers and full deniability for said disasters?
After some catch-up chats at City Hall, people around Boris Johnson have told me they are “amazed but overjoyed” at the appointment of Simon Fletcher, Ken Livingstone’s former chief of staff, as the London Labour Party’s campaigns and research director. “We had to pinch ourselves when we heard this,” one said. “From their point of view, it is almost unimaginably stupid.”
Fletcher, a former member of the Trotskyist group Socialist Action, ran the 2008 mayoral election campaign which converted a Ken lead of 27 points in mid-2007 private polling to a defeat by 6 points on election night. To the despair of the mainstream Labour figures involved, Fletcher’s campaign majored on a series of themes without wide credibility or traction: that Boris was a racist neo-con “to the right of Norman Tebbit.” (A small symbol of the fact that the campaign was marooned in the 1980s was that it picked as its bogeyman this Thatcher-era politician who few people under 30 would ever have heard of.)
The campaign had nothing to say on the issues that Londoners most cared about – above all, crime. It targeted the small and essentially irrelevant Guardianista vote and largely ignored the white working class, who voted Johnson in their droves.
That old slogan “no compromise with the electorate” springs to mind. Behind it all was the settled conviction that London was the left’s property, and that a Johnson mayoralty was not just inconceivable, but somehow illegitimate.
In the eighteen months since, it is as if nothing has changed. Even last week Fletcher was still banging on about Boris’s outrageous failure to implement Ken’s gas-guzzler charge. Livingstone has shown no sign whatever of acknowledging his mistakes, or reaching out to the people he lost.
He actually thinks he did well last time. He certainly did better than the Labour Party in the same day’s London Assembly elections. But to compare a party contest like the Assembly with a personality contest like the mayoralty is simply not comparing like with like – particularly when there are two such strong, polarising personalities involved. The awkward fact for Ken is that Boris also outpolled his party – by almost exactly the same margin.
Since the election, Ken and his team have seriously undermined their own credibility by criticising Boris for everything short of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. The only thing that has changed is Ken’s overnight handbrake turn from slavish defender of the City to Dave Spart-style command economics. That might please his fans on the left, but it surely puts him even further from electoral success.
There are two interesting political consequences of Fletcher’s appointment. It makes it more likely that Ken could be the Labour candidate in 2012 – something the Tories openly long for. The last poll showed that some candidates could beat Boris. But if there were a Johnson-Livingstone rematch, that six per cent Boris lead of 2008 would stretch to sixteen points. That was several months ago – but more recently, at William Hill, Ken’s odds have lengthened from an already discouraging 8/1 to 14/1. “We are starting a Tories for Ken campaign,” says one senior City Hall figure.
More interestingly, perhaps, it suggests something which might be happening to Labour nationally, and which could accelerate in the event of a general election loss – a retreat to core-vote certainties, an abandonment of the New Labour middle ground, and an electoral oblivion every bit as complete as that which faces the party in London.
You’ve heard of tribunes of the people. My local MP, Nick Raynsford, is a from a different breed of politician: tribunes of the developers. Over the last few months, he’s passionately campaigned on behalf of big monied interests who want to spoil the area he represents. In his latest demarche, for the bonkers plan to put the Olympic horseriding events in Greenwich Park, he’s unfortunately got one or two of his facts wrong. Read all about it here.
Highly amused to read the police’s latest defence today of their absurd and sinister policy of targeting photographers. They’ve been claiming that it “may have foiled a massive al-Qaeda attack” after it resulted in the arrest of an “Algerian national” (oo-er, suspicious already) who “filmed four lengthy clips on a Nokia N95 phone.” This, according to the cops, was “hostile reconnaissance” on possible terror targets in London.
Read a little further into the story, however, and you learn the following inconvenient facts:
It happened five months ago.
Although arrested under the Terrorism Act, the suspect was actually charged with… fraud.
Detectives “were unable to find direct links to a terror group”.
The fact is that harassing photographers is not just illiberal, but a monumental waste of police time. Terrorists can use any number of undetectable ways to recce targets – such as pretending to talk on their phones while taking pictures with them, discovering the joys of Google Earth – or buying a picture postcard. No terrorist would be as obvious as this Algerian guy, who was probably taking pictures for some lower-level crime, such as pickpocketing.
If this is the best example Plod can find, then all it actually confirms is what a disgrace their policy is.
Ed Balls just can’t stop digging, can he? You may remember that the Schools Secretary – the Minister for Hizb ut Tahrir – has taken stick for supporting, and funding, two schools run by supporters of this racist, separatist and extremist Muslim group.
In last week’s Spectator, I reported in her own words from a Hizb ut Tahrir pamphlet, the disgusting views of Farah Ahmed, the head of one of these schools and trustee of them both. You can see that at the end of my previous post on this blog. In a letter to this week’s magazine, Mr Balls has responded. “The pamphlet Mr Gilligan quoted from was written… six years ago,” he says. “This is not evidence of extremist views actually being taught in the classroom.”
Leave aside that what should be “taught in the classroom” was, in fact, the exact topic of the pamphlet. Leave aside that Mrs Ahmed has never repudiated her views. Leave aside even the absurdity of Mr Balls’ position (if supporters of the BNP – Hizb’s white equivalent – were running schools at public expense, I think we would be able to cut its funding without needing to prove that the children sing the Horst Wessel Song in class.)
Yet even without any of that, there is separate, and very compelling, evidence, of what is being taught at these schools – evidence which even the Minister for Hizb ut Tahrir might accept. It is the school’s curriculum (also, by the way, written by Farah Ahmed.) It’s been obtained and analysed by the think-tank, the Centre for Social Cohesion. And as their analysis shows, there are stiking parallels between what Hizb teaches its recruits – and Mrs Ahmed teaches her pupils.
In defending these schools, Mr Balls has made a terrible, terrible mistake. When is he going to admit it?
UPDATED – with PDFs of the fundamentalist document.
Haringey Council – the authority which brought you Victoria Climbié, Baby P, and the foster child sent to live with the family of one of the airline bomb plotters – has scored yet another bullseye. Late this afternoon, with no doubt deliberate timing late on a Friday, the council announced the outcome of its official review into a school run by supporters of the extremist, racist and separatist Islamic group, Hizb ut Tahrir, which received £113,000 of public money. The funding was suspended after I exposed it six weeks ago in the Telegraph.
And the verdict? “No evidence was found to suggest inappropriate content or influence in the school.” Funding has resumed.
The claim that “no evidence was found to suggest inappropriate influence” is breathtaking. Eight days ago, I myself sent – to Haringey Council’s chief press officer, Monica Brimacombe – quite indisputable evidence. She acknowledged receipt and tells me that she passed it on to the people doing the investigation. Read it for yourself at the bottom of this post.
The evidence is a chapter in a Hizb ut Tahrir pamphlet written by one of the three trustees who run the school, Farah Ahmed – who’s also headteacher of the Haringey school’s sister establishment in Slough. Mrs Ahmed has refused to deny that she was a member of Hizb ut Tahrir.
This chapter does more than “suggest inappropriate influence.” It screams it from every page. Mrs Ahmed attacks the religious studies elements of the National Curriculum for “primarily push[ing]…the idea of ‘religious tolerance’.” This, she says, “further aids distancing the Muslim child from the concept of Islam being the only reference point.”
She criticises the curriculum’s “systematic indoctrination” of Muslim children “to build ‘model British citizens'” and to “integrate all individuals into the fabric of secular society and develop them as personalities who uphold the values adopted by the society around them.”
“Naturally,” she says, “such a system [secular capitalism] will not be suitable to the needs of Muslim students as the aqeedah [belief system] of the Muslim is in complete contradiction to this.”
She decries “attempts to integrate Muslim children” into British society as an effort “to produce new generations that reject Islam.”
She describes English as “one of the most damaging subjects” a school can teach and attacks fairy tales, saying these “reflect secular and immoral beliefs that contradict the viewpoint of Islam.”
Mrs Ahmed attacks the “obvious dangers” of Shakespeare, including “Romeo and Juliet, which advocates disobeying parents and premarital relations,” and “Macbeth, which questions the concepts of fate and destiny.” She describes democracy as a “corrupt tradition,” and Western education as “a threat to our beliefs and values.”
I know for a fact that others have also supplied Haringey with the another doucument, the school’s curriculum, which has clear echoes of Hizb ut Tahrir ideology. I ask in all seriousness: what more evidence do they need?
It is my strong suspicion that Labour-controlled Haringey is desperately trying to cover the back of its ultimate political master, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, who dropped a massive clanger a couple of weeks ago by backing the schools after they were attacked by David Cameron.
But though Balls may have been stupid, he didn’t have this document in front of him when he gave the schools the all-clear. Haringey Council did. That makes them, in my view, complicit in delivering impressionable young children into the hands of fundamentalists – with a handy Government subsidy to help them on their way.