by Rob Marchant
Last weekend, the world was shocked to learn that a Labour peer was allegedly calling for a bounty on the heads of Bush, Blair and Obama. “Allegedly”, because there was seemingly no independent confirmation by UK media of the story, which Ahmed vehemently denied. The Labour party, for once, reacted almost immediately in suspending the whip “pending investigation”.
On Monday, thinking it strange that no-one had seemingly bothered to dig deeper into the clip from Pakistani TV, Uncut did a little more research and was advised, by a friendly Urdu-speaking journalist, that, although the clip appears to contain footage from the relevant speech, it was voiced over and did not confirm his exact words. Alarm bells sounded.
On Tuesday it was confirmed that his exact words were different, that he “only” called for George Bush and Tony Blair to be brought to trial for war crimes, a proposal he boasted that he would personally fund. Oh, and name-checked the leader of the Mumbai bombers in a statement of brotherly solidarity.
So, the Pakistani press misreported. And the British press were lazy.
And you know what? He should go anyway and the whip should stay withdrawn. Here’s why.
First, let’s deal with the issue of fairness. Isn’t it unfair? He didn’t say what they say he did, shouldn’t he stay? But what he did say and do is quite enough, and anyway a reason is scarcely necessary. It’s is not like being sacked from a job, or being convicted of a crime. There is no redress, no tribunal, no appeal. You are there because and only because there is a mutual interest in you sitting on that bench. If you don’t want to be there, resign and become a cross-bencher. And if they don’t want you there, the party has the option to break the deal, too.
Second, there is the question of party discipline. This is not a political point: someone should not go because we disagree with their politics (tempting though that might sometimes be). It is not whether a person is to the right or to the left of the party, but whether or not they are a credible person to represent the Labour Party in Parliament. Is it desirable that a person who represents the party in Parliament goes around doing things which are not only ugly but daft, asking for former western leaders to be tried for war crimes, including one from his own party (to whom, incidentally, he owes his peerage)?
Not terribly good for the party’s image, is it? But it seems our expectations have fallen so far in this regard that we are – extraordinarily – actually relieved to find that he did not actually call for someone to kill Tony Blair and George Bush, and that he did not threaten a sitting president. Well, hoo-bloody-ray.
Ah but, you say, should not parliamentary representatives have the freedom to say whatever they like, without fear of punishment? Well no, they should not.
You take the whip because you agree to an unspoken deal. You can more or less say what you like in a political sense – and in today’s Labour Party, believe me, the rules are pretty broad-minded – but you cannot regularly vote against the party and you cannot bring the party into disrepute.
An MP’s statements are somewhat self-policing, because generally voters do not like people who say pathological things: things which are, say, dotty, hypocritical, nasty, or racist. So MPs try not to say these sort of things because, well, their electorate wouldn’t like it and they might be kicked out. Even if, in the odd case, they might think any or all of these things.
A peer, on the other hand, has almost infinite freedom: there is no constituency and they do not usually have local newspapers picking over their words. In fact, the decent work done by very many of them can pass entirely unnoticed. They can continue to wear the badge of the party that created them during long years of service, rarely having to answer to anyone. Except for an occasional wrist-slapping by the whips’ office, in extreme cases of misbehaviour.
That is, you really have to try hard to get the whip suspended as a lord.
These two points alone should be enough to question Ahmed staying on the Labour benches. But the third is an even stronger one.
The fact is that the name of Ahmed, probably hitherto unknown by the general public, is all too familiar to those of us sickened by the welcoming of terrorist sympathisers in the party we love.
Aside from Labour’s shabby deals with him and others to secure electoral support, the fact is that Lord Ahmed has so much “previous”, as Atul Hatwal noted, that he should, frankly, have had the whip withdrawn a long time ago, as in fact effectively happened to his Lib Dem friend from the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, Jenny Tonge, following some unacceptable remarks about Israel’s right to exist.
You may remember the invitation of extremist Islamist preacher Raed Salah (yes, he of the support of terrorism, violent homophobia, and this delightful video) to speak at the Houses of Parliament, a crushing embarrassment for Labour which was called off at the last minute by House authorities. Who booked the room? Step forward, Lord Ahmed. And there is a catalogue of other interesting deeds recorded here, such as meetings with terrorists Al Qaeda and Hamas, as well as known anti-Semite Israel Shamir.
Yes, it is the same cancerous Islamist sympathiser contingent on the march, as many have highlighted several times. And, little by little, the ignoring of it by the party’s high command continues to drag our party’s reputation south, as the press stories get ever more frequent and prominent.
The fourth reason is simply that restoring the whip sends precisely the wrong message to his friends in the party. Say what you like: the party doesn’t care.
So well done Labour, for having the courage of our convictions for once. Time to hold the line.
Update 20/04/1245: We should like to point out an error in the piece where it refers to sharing a platform with a known terrorist, this was incorrect and has now been changed. However, we should point out that Ahmed did express views in solidarity with Saeed, terrorist leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) wanted in the US, who co-planned the Mumbai bombings; that the platform was shared with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), described by Wikipedia as a “far-right party” which enforces Sharia law, and which clearly shares his solidarity with Saeed; and finally, that Ahmed is no stranger to direct contact with terrorists, in 2007 he met with al qaeda fundraiser Abu Rideh when he wanted legal help with his UK control order.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left