28 December 2013

Two views on immigration

This morning has brought a couple of different pieces in the newspapers about immigration which are worth a short comment.

Firstly, in the liberal-left’s house rag the Guardian, former New Statesman and Independent on Sunday editor Peter Wilby has written an interesting piece on how the Labour Party could somehow banish immigration concerns by seeking to restore the “historic bargain” with its traditional working class supporters on wages (which stagnated during the last great phase of immigration during the last Labour government).

Then in The Daily Mail, the liberal-left’s bĂȘte-noire, comes a front page story that England has now overtaken the Netherlands as the most crowded country in Europe (excepting tiny Malta), with 411 people per square kilometre, compared to 374 in 1997, and with an estimate of an increase to 460 by 2030.

The [Hate] Mail’s journalism is often dismissed on the left as shrill and heavily biased, but besides the typical tabloid hyperbole and blame games in the story, the research itself is sound. It was in fact gathered by House of Commons researchers on a request by the Conservative MP James Clappison, based on data from the UK and EU statistical agencies.

The Mail said: “Population growth is so rapid that four times as many people will soon be crammed in as France and twice as many as Germany.”

It added: “The research raises concerns about how the UK’s infrastructure can cope with the increased pressure on schools, hospitals and roads.

The large numbers packed into the country will also affect water and power supplies, and will increase pressure to build over green spaces.”

These are all legitimate concerns which are rarely addressed with much attention by the dominant left when opining on immigration.

Wilby’s piece, while interesting and thoughtful, is another example of that genre.

He says:

No subject is so encrusted with myths and misconceptions that are firmly accepted by a majority of the public. Voters hugely overestimate, for instance, the numbers of migrants already here, the cost of their claims on welfare and the NHS and their access to social housing.”

This comment points to the essential conceit which underlies the dominant liberal-left position. This conceit is that knowledge matters more than meaning. By this view, if someone overestimates the number on certain measures of immigration (which are open to plenty of misunderstanding and manipulation remember), their opinion on whether there has been too much immigration is somehow invalid.

This is not a decent way of approaching things. It assumes that our feelings and opinions are, or should be, primarily based on our knowledge of abstract facts presented to us by statisticians and economists. By that rationale, someone’s opinion on how the economy is ‘performing’ (GDP figures etc) should dictate whether their opinion about their own economic circumstances is valid.

There is a widespread conceit here which perhaps points to why our politics in general feels so distant from ordinary people. It is at root a view that people’s opinions are not worth considering unless they are ‘right’. It is therefore fundamentally anti-democratic, for democracy* is based on everyone having a say, whoever they are and whatever their opinion is.

Wilby also reminds us of historical white working class racism and union opposition to immigration (now largely reversed or suppressed). This provides an essential background to conventional liberal-left attitudes, which take this racism as assumed and look to work around it and manage it rather than consider the real situation here and now, which is very different to the 1940s or 1970s.

On the left, we also generally fail to address the issue of land, which is brought to the fore in the Mail story. As our population grows, we need land for more homes, schools, hospitals, social infrastructure like sports pitches and children’s centres, and physical infrastructure like roads and railways. We therefore occupy more and more land that would otherwise be used for food production or left to nature (and on that note, where has lefty environmentalism gone?).

By demand going up, supply of land for all these ends (or no end) gets squeezed, and prices go up.

Refer to Labour’s main theme of the moment: the cost of living crisis, and you have a clear match.

So what has been Labour been up to over the Christmas period?

Answer: attacking Thomas the Tank Engine as sexist for not having any female engines, and blaming that in part for the lack of female train drivers.

Shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh’s point is not a bad one on its own. But as an example of the preoccupations of Labour’s elites and their distance from everyday people, they don’t come much better than this.

* The first article I did as a blogger was on 'Democracy, immigration and the liberal left'. Also, I have written in more detail about the theme of legitimacy and the existential aspects of immigration here.

21 December 2013

On Labour Party Reform - my submission to the Collins Review


How we do things is who we are

The Labour Party’s internal problems are largely down to a lack of ethical standards in the party culture.

I joined Labour around three years ago and it has become clear to me that conflicts of interest are rife in party organisation, seemingly at all levels, and are exploited widely by those in positions of responsibility.

The way we do things is who we are, and the way we organise processes is often dominated by group- and self-interests rather than commitment to any values or ethics. There is a culture of fixing which encompasses all factions and all powerful groupings within the party, not just the major unions.  The ethical framework this relies upon is anti-ethical, the justification being that it is right to fix and manipulate processes in order to secure the right result. This is anti-democratic and indicative of the poor state of democratic culture and practice within the party.

Also, positive discrimination processes contribute to generalised double standards in the party culture, in which poor behaviour by those within favoured groupings is accepted and forgiven out of ideology, and goes unchallenged. There is a deep and damaging discrimination here in the assumption that some people are not capable of decent standards of behaviour. We should expect the same standards from all representatives and party officials. This is true equality.


·         All party officials, representatives and candidates sign a code of conduct, perhaps in some sort of ceremony, committing them to good standards of behaviour and a new statement of Labour values (see below).
·         Draw up a new statement of values detailing publicly how we expect Labour officials and representatives to fulfil their roles. These values should include equality, honesty, integrity, accountability, transparency and a commitment to democratic practices.
·         Create a division within national and regional party organisations for running and promoting democratic processes and culture in the party, with those filling the roles committed to absolute neutrality between factions and individuals in all internal elections.

15 December 2013

Labour’s double standards on gender segregation

Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna has gained a whole load of plaudits with his unequivocal opposition to Universities UK’s advice on gender segregation at events hosted by universities.

Umunna, whose brief covers university education, told the website Left Foot Forward:

“It is deeply troubling that Universities UK has issued guidance suggesting that segregation would be tolerated at higher education institutions. It was mistaken to do so,” he said.

“A future Labour government will not tolerate segregation in our universities – it offends the basic norms of our society. People should, of course, be free to practice their religion privately, at places of worship and religious events, but universities are publicly-funded institutions of teaching, learning and research and state-sponsored segregation would be utterly wrong.”

So, ball placed firmly in the political net there by Umunna amidst the gathering outcry, which David Cameron and Michael Gove have since joined, saying respectively that “universities should not allow this” and that the guidance was “pandering to extremism”.

But there are some startling double standards here, especially from Labour. Examples of gender segregation and other forms of segregation are widespread in our universities and elsewhere in public life as I have pointed out here, but of all institutions, gender segregation is probably most widely practised in ... the Labour Party.

Every year the Labour Party precedes its annual conference with a Labour Women’s Conference for its women members. The party and its associated institutions hold numerous other women-only events, and it also holds women-only candidate selections. Men are segregated completely out of the room at many of those women’s events and are segregated completely off the ballot paper in those selections: this is about complete separation in practice.

When you raise these contradictions, the cry comes back, “No, but they are different.”

Damn right they are different: they are approved of, while Muslim groups attempting their own form of segregation is not approved.

What we have been seeing with the clamour against the UUK guidance is a basic exercise of preferentiality and favouritism towards some groups and against others. It is classic double standards through the practice of identity politics, privileging some forms of identity (gender, skin colour, sexuality) over others (religious, Muslim), based largely on negative assumptions and associations – perhaps justified, for the most part – about the latter.

The reasoning at work here is clearly more about curtailing the power of Islamist groups on university campuses (often described as stopping ‘pandering to religious misogyny’) than any sort of principled stance on segregation.

This is a decent enough aim in my view, but saying you’re taking a principled stance against  something that you yourself don’t just tolerate but actively and aggressively promote is not the best way to do it.

12 December 2013

Gender segregation, and a clash of ideologies

‘Segregation’ is quite an emotive word, especially now with thoughts of Nelson Mandela and apartheid fresh in our minds. But segregation in practice isn’t such a simple issue as many people make out.

A report from Universities UK offering guidance on how to deal with external speakers has ignited quite a storm over the issue of segregation, specifically over a hypothetical case study example of  a religious speaker wishing for his event to be segregated according to gender.

It’s probably worth quoting the scenario (not quite in full):

“A representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group has been invited to speak at an event to discuss faith in the modern world. The event is part of four different speeches taking place over the course of a month exploring different approaches to religion. The initial speaker request has been approved but the speaker has since made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender. The event organiser has followed agreed processes and raised the issue with university management. The event has been widely advertised and interest levels are high.” 

The report goes on to consider the different legal and moral dilemmas involved (see p29-30) and the issues that university authorities need to bear in mind. One of its concluding remarks is: “In practice, a balance of interests is most likely to be achieved if it is possible to offer attendees both segregated and non-segregated seating areas, although if the speaker is unwilling to accept this, the institution will need to consider the speaker’s reasons under equalities legislation.”

This seems reasonable to me, as long as the speaker’s record of speaking and their explanations for wanting segregation get proper consideration.

However Nick Cohen among others has written about this in outrage, in his case in two articles for the Spectator. Cohen is a fine writer for whom I generally have a lot of time. His book ‘What’s Left? How the Left Lost Its Way’ is an excellent and much-welcome primer on leftist idiocies from a left-wing perspective.

He says of the report and its authors: “They insist that the wishes of the misogynist cleric must be paramount. If he wants sexual segregation, he must have it, regardless of the views of the audience. It would be an attack on his human rights to refuse him.”

In this case, Cohen falls right down into the sort of identity politics which he is often so good at attacking. He attacks sexual segregation for the fact of a ‘misogynist cleric’ wanting it, rather than for any specific inequality being practised by segregation of this sort. In other words, he is privileging the supposed identity of the speaker and their supposed misogyny rather than the actual practice of segregation.

The Universities UK report made the correct point that, in this case study example, “Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.” This is crucial, for we can see that inequality is not necessarily being practised. The report added that if for example women were seated at the back and men at the front, then there would be a problem, with women potentially being disadvantaged by being further away and thereby potentially less involved in debate and questions. This would be an example of discrimination being practised against women, rather than just simple discrimination between men and women.

I think we should pick our battles based on principles which do not discriminate against people for who they are (or, more accurately, who we perceive them to be – because we don’t have access to the real person), but rather for what they say and do. In that view, we should not exclude or reject from our universities an Islamist preacher for being an Islamist preacher. But we should reject someone who lambasts women’s equality as a crime and calls for the slaying of non-Muslims (or Muslims for that matter).

What people say and do should be paramount, rather than our assumptions and suppositions about what they think based on a practice which is strange to us and which we don’t like. Something may indicate misogyny to us, but if it is not itself misogyny, as is the case with males and females being divided into separate areas of a lecture theatre, we are practising prejudice.

Myself, I have already been subjected to strong criticism and abuse in expressing these views in the comment section of Nick Cohen’s second article, and also in Twitter exchanges.

As I see it, this is largely about the clash of different ideologies: in this case Islamism and the mainstream liberal-left’s ‘equalities agenda’ (with feminism at its forefront). These have been on a collision course for some time, but the classic liberal-left reluctance to engage with problematic issues has maintained an uneasy distance between the parties.

On the liberal-left side this often sees the effective ‘outlawing’ in discourse of certain forms of discrimination, calling them out as examples of inequality.

However, as a principle, opposition to discrimination falls apart upon even cursory examination, for we discriminate/make choices all the time in our lives, and so do our public authorities, without imposing any sort of inequality. We have gender separation in the provision of changing rooms, toilets, education through single-sex schools, on our sports teams and in organisations set up around ethnic and gender groupings (like different BAME groups and women’s networks). These are all forms of discrimination and segregation, but there is nothing necessarily wrong about them.

To take the point to its ultimate, absurdist, conclusion, we actually discriminate between men and women by calling them men and women. We discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims by calling them Muslims and non-Muslims (something I was actually attacked as ‘racist’ for saying by one charming individual on the Cohen comment thread). However, if we called women inferior or non-Muslims ‘infidels’, that is a discrimination against those groupings – and that is wrong.

There are wider issues here about the clash of ideologies and the intensifying Culture Wars taking place in Britain (on the North American model). As a liberal-lefty myself (albeit not in the mainstream), I hold the conventional liberal-left ideology as vastly preferable to any Islamism or other religious ideology that seeks to separate men and women in lecture theatres and that has hostile and even violent attitudes to non-believers.

But in the closing off of avenues for conversation and reconciliation by condemning practices which we don’t like but could easily tolerate, I think we make a mistake and cause unnecessary antagonism.

We should condemn and ban people only when clear, real harm is being done. 

Otherwise we are simply asserting our own cultural dominance: which isn’t very liberal, or egalitarian.

Postscript: Universities UK released a further statement clarifying its position, but then withdrew its guidance after criticisms from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, from whom it is now seeking advice about how to proceed.

Postscript 2: A Muslim woman, Myriam Francois Cerrah has published this piece in the Independent giving some background to this issue in terms of concrete circumstances at University College London in March. She says she opposes segregation but also opposes banning it.