Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Labours Race and Faith Manifesto

Fair play to Jeremy Corbyn, at least the Labour party have made a public statement of their policies relating to racial minorities and faith groups. The Conservative strategy, as evidenced by a manifesto roughly half the size of those of the other main parties, is that the less you say, the less you can be tripped up with.

Labours Race and Faith Manifesto, published yesterday under the shadow of the Chief Rabbi (of which more later), is a creditable attempt to analyse a major area of social injustice, and put policies in place to tackle it. Most of the manifesto is about racial inequality, expressed in pay, poverty, under-representation, policing, policies towards immigrants, right through to climate change and how aid money is spent. There is a series of policies aimed both at correcting outcomes, and at influencing culture. The former includes greater investment in mental health, using monitoring and regulation to increase BAME participation in academia and business leadership. The latter includes changes to the education curriculum and policing culture.

On Faith, there isn't quite so much - an early paragraph commends 'the contribution of faith groups in filling the gaps left by austerity Britain', and nearly all of the policy stuff is about supporting freedom of religious expression at home and abroad, and combating hate crime and anti-religious prejudice. Page 5 includes a commitment to "ensure the views of communities with or without faith are respected and protected across our society". That's a big one, if they really mean it: the liberal social agenda expressed elsewhere in Labours programme won't be one supported by faith groups.

Yesterdays spat with the Chief Rabbi, and the response from the Muslim Council of Britain, throw all of this into sharp relief. There should be no tolerance of anti-Jewish racism or anti-Muslim prejudice. However the notion of Islamophobia itself needs some refining, and both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are sometimes used carelessly - someone who criticises the actions of the state of Israel is not necessarily an anti-Semite, and someone who criticises aspects of Islam is not Islamophobic.

Whilst some of the standard antisemitic formulas centre on an imagined global financial conspiracy, there is real evidence of the influence of hard cash elsewhere. Whilst some  Muslim students, among others, don't feel that university is a safe place to be themselves and express their views, academia itself is coming heavily under the influence of oil money from the Middle East. This impacts on the freedom of universities to maintain standards of critical scrutiny of Islam, its sources and its history. This isn't isolated of course - we're seeing universities caving in to China, gender lobbyists, you name it, with 54% actively censoring free speech in some form or another.  But intellectual freedom and free speech are not qualities prized by Muslim governments and their billionaire leaders who finance faculties from Exeter to Edinburgh. The same goes for China - is it possible for a Labour government to 'respect and protect' the views of Chinese students who try to shut down protests about Hong Kong on British campuses?

The Muslim Council of Britain, representing 500 mosques, schools and organisations (for comparison, my own Diocese of Bath and Wells represents over 500 churches, plus dozens of schools and other organisations), not so long ago boycotted Holocaust Memorial Day. Ironically, in a move which parallels the Conservatives decision to broaden their Islamophobia investigation, they once called for the day to be expanded to one covering all forms of genocide.

Just as with the gender and sexuality debates, emotive labelling can be used both to shut down uncomfortable criticism, and to identify real examples of the things it refers to. Most people reading a tweet don't have time, or don't bother, to work out which of these is at play.

 This is a subspecies of the debate over rhetoric and hate speech, and one of the major challenges of making a multi-cultural society work. It is made even more difficult by the lack of an overarching narrative: our current post-Christian liberal Western democracy has evolved from a mishmash of sources. In a postmodern culture which no longer recognises overarching truth or grand narratives, be they Christian, Marxist, Muslim or The American Dream (itself, like Marxism, a heavily morphed version of the Chosen People/Promised Land motifs of the Old Testament). We are left with competing visions of life, sets of 'rights' which keep colliding with each other, and only Tolerance and Respect to hold ourselves together. It may not be enough.

Labour, at least, are trying to address some of the fallout from this. There is no sign of it in the Conservative manifesto at all. Search the document for 'race' and the only return is the word 'embrace'. 'Racism' occurs once, in the mother and apple pie statement 'we will tackle racism', and the most concrete expression of free speech is the scrapping of the Leveson enquiry, which tells you just a little bit more about the malign influence of money on UK life and politics. In respect of the Conservative policy on race, religion, culture, community cohesion and tolerance, how can you blog about and criticise something that doesn't exist?

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