Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Start the peace process in Afghanistan

The disclosures in the Independent on Sunday that General McChrystal had some very downbeat assessments of the situation in Afghanistan, shines a light on the reality of NATO policy there. Nine years into the war only five out of 116 key strategic areas are under the control of the Afghan government. The new 'clear and hold' strategy - capturing territory, ensuring security and embedding new forms of governance - is failing. The small town of Marjah was supposed to be a showcase. Yet four months after seizing it from the Taliban 'US marines are involved in frequent gunfights on the edges of town, while roadside bombs are a constant threat.'

The head of the British Army is pessimistic about military victory and calls for peace talks to commence sooner rather than later with the Taliban. It says something about the way our politicians are failing us that it takes a military man to grasp the nettle of a negotiated settlement to this conflict. But any talk about withdrawal invariably faces the rejoinder that if troops leave a bloodbath will start; that Afghanistan will be used as a training ground for terrorist attacks on the West; that our troops are making the ultimate sacrifice over there to keep us safer here; and talk of withdrawal is a betrayal. While these arguments have a powerful emotional pull, intellectually they increasingly don't stand up.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Cuts Kill

Slashing welfare benefits and governmental spending by 25% could cause up to 38,000 extra deaths according to new research. Read more here. Also, the TUC shows that the Lib Con budget will result in Britain's poorest 10% suffering a 21.7% cut in their incomes while the richest 10% will suffer a cut of just 3.6%. So much for the 'progressive budget'.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Pro war camp are losing the battle over Afghanistan

I thought The Big Question went well yesterday, especially the debate about Afghanistan. With even the head of the British Army casting doubt on the likelihood of the current NATO military campaign achieving success and calling for negotiations with the Taliban sooner rather than later, the debate is finally moving on to more sensible and honest ground. As I said on Sunday, it is simply only a question of time before formal negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgent leaders commence. The sooner that process starts, the better for the people of Afghanistan and for our troops and their families. I hope to post a response to concerns about a peace process on this blog tomorrow. In the meantime, you can watch Sunday's episode of The Big Question here.

The debate about this war is shifting. A space is opening up which the anti-war movement can fill.  Now is the time for us to go on an offensive of our own by explaining why the surge won't work and why a peace process can.

The Muslim and Irish experience

There is a very informative and timely film here comparing the Irish and Muslim experience in Birmingham.  It is well worth a watch.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Some big questions...

I will be a guest on Nicky Campbell's The Big Question which is being broadcast from Birmingham tomorrow. The topics up for discussion are Afghanistan, legalising drugs and whether Islam needs better PR. Should be interesting! The programme is live on BBC1 at 10am.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Afghan surge is failing

The sacking of the head of US forces in Afghanistan by President Obama is not just about his irreverence towards his superiors. It reflects a much deeper crisis of US policy in Afghanistan. General McCrystal was the architect of the shift in US counter insurgency strategy towards clearing large areas of Taliban control and building up civic institutions and local government. The hope was that when local Afghan institutions took root they would keep insurgent forces at bay sufficient for NATO troops to start a gradual withdrawal.

Despite the hype at the time of its launch, and flawed comparisons with the so-called 'success' of the Iraq surge, it is clear now that McCrystal's strategy is simply not working. Take the case of the city of Majra, designed to be a showcase for the success of the new policy. Except it isn't. Despite saturating this small city (pop. 35,000) with 15,000 NATO troops, that's one soldier for every two civilians, (according to US counter-insurgency strategy, one soldier for every 50 civilians should suffice) NATO were unable to clear it of Taliban influence. McCrystal was forced to admit as much when he described Majra as 'a bleeding ulcer'. And if NATO forces cannot take a city of 35,000, imagine what will happen if they try and take a city like Kahandar (pop. 331,000) in the middle of Taliban heartland. Not surprisingly, after the failure in Majra, plans to start the offensive in Kandahar have now been put back to September.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Nothing 'progressive' about this government

The government's description of the budget as 'progressive' is an example of doublespeak that is truly Orwellian.

Yesterday's edition of the Sun, that renowned flag bearer for progressive causes, trumpeted what they saw as its high points. These included freezing child benefits for the next three years, ending the Health in Pregnancy benefit given to all mums-to-be at 25 weeks pregnant, restricting housing benefit and introducing a new medical test for those claiming disability living allowance. In total the welfare benefit bill is to be slashed by £11bn over the next four years. And that is just for starters. While government ministers were saying that subsidies for bus travel, winter fuel and television licences for older people were going to be protected their minions were briefing the press that such cuts were inevitable. Throw into the mix VAT increasing to 20% plus freezing public sector pay, and plans to increase the retirement age to 70 and the regressive nature of the budget is clear.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Suspect communities

Over 100 people attended Sparkbrook Ward Committee last night and as expected spy cameras dominated the night. The Police were heavily criticised and for the first time they said that if the public did not want the cameras, they would be removed. But overall  there was still too much fudging, back tracking and justifications from the Police on the grounds of community safety for my liking. As one member of the public said the Police simply fail to convey any empathy about how their actions are making an entire community feel criminalised. And they fail to understand how these cameras are in danger of undermining community cohesion.

There is going to be an attempt to resell these cameras on the grounds of enhancing community safety and crime prevention. I understand people's concerns in this regard. And I am supportive of CCTV projects in certain circumstances. But Project Champion is different. This is funded on the grounds that its primary objective is anti-terrorist surveillance. The Police say these cameras should reassure us. The message from last nights meetings is that they have the opposite effect. Ringing an entire area with spy cameras is stigmatising an entire community.

These spy cameras are sinister, divisive and damaging of trust between the community and the Police. They must be taken down and Respect Councillors in Sparkbrook are committed to campaigning against them until they are take down. To that end we have acted to make the police and the Council accountable for their actions.  We moved the resolution at the Constituency Committee meeting to write to the Home Secretary Theresa May calling for the removal of the cameras. We raised the issue in the Full Council meeting to find out to what extent Cabinet Members sanctioned these cameras. (The Cabinet member for Equalities claimed he knew nothing about them). We have taken complaints against the Police to the Independent Police Complaints Committee and we have been in contact with solicitors specialising in civil liberties about a judicial review. We have highlighted the issue in the media. We will continue work with the community to oppose these cameras until they are completely removed.

Photo is of myself and anti-spy camera campaigner Steve Jolly, who has done great work in bringing this issue to the attention of the local and national media.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Budget will hit the poorest hardest and undermine economic recovery

The government's claim that this budget is protecting the poor is a con. Increasing VAT, slashing welfare benefits and freezing public sector pay will hit the poorest and low income earners hardest. The Lib Dems have been particularly deceitful. They opposed VAT before the election and are now reneging on that promise. As President Obama  has warned, savage cuts in state spending could plunge us into a new recession. It is impossible to see how the private sector can be expected to restart the economy when across Europe reduced public spending is increasing unemployment, hitting consumer spending power and restricting markets. State investment in the economy is vital at this time. Instead the government is using the recession to force though an ideologically driven assault on the role of the state in the economy. This budget is Thatcherite in its thinking and it will have Thacherite consequences of deepening social division and prolonging recession.

300 dead. For what?

The deaths of three hundred British soldiers in Afghanistan is a sad landmark to a failed policy. Contrary to claims made by supporters of the war that escalating it would bring greater stability, the opposite is the case. The entire situation is a complete mess. The UN report that Afghanistan has become much more dangerous in the last twelve months as violence has soared. Indeed, the country is so unstable that David Cameron was forced to cut short his recent visit for fear of attack. The Afghan President is said to have 'lost faith in the ability of the US to defeat the Taliban'. British commanders are blaming corrupt local police as the main reason for Afghans joining the insurgency but their own operations have been ill-conceived and by their own admission have fuelled the insurgency in Helmand. The British envoy to Afghanistan, 'known for his scepticism about the western war effort and his support for peace talks with the Taliban', has quit. Instead of US aid rebuilding civil society it is instead building empires for warlords. And on it goes...

David Cameron may claim that this is not a war of occupation and that we have to be in Afghanistan to prevent it being turned into a terror base from which attacks can be launched. But this is nonsense. There are estimated to be only around 100 Al-Qaida in the whole of the country. For the Afghan's supporting the insurgency it is the presence of foreign troops on their land that is driving the war. The Taliban have been consistent in saying they will not stop fighting until foreign troops are withdrawn though in the past they have raised the issue of peace keeping forces from Muslim countries while a peace is negotiated. We need an urgent change in policy. David Cameron should start withdrawing the troops and start the peace process.

And while we reflect on the human cost of war, it is also fitting on Budget Day to ponder the financial cost. The cost of war to the British economy since 2001 is at least £20bn.  It would cost £2bn to scrap tuition fees. Ken Livingstone is spot on when he says 'We could have had ten years of free education for the next generation for the same cost as following George W Bush into war.'

'Sparkbrook Respect Party councillors lodge complaints over spy cameras'

Read the full story here. The issue of the spy camera will take centre stage at tonights Ward Committee meeting which I will be chairing. The police will be attending for the discussion. The meeting starts at 6.30pm and takes place in the Sparkbrook Family Centre, 31 Farm Road, Sparkbrook, B11 1LT.  All welcome.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Back to the future

Some of our local Lib Cons have been getting a bit wound up by my recent appearance on Question Time. At last week's council meeting a number of them made reference to my comments about how the 1945 Labour government tackled a much more severe crisis by pumping money into the economy instead of slashing public spending. 'Ahh, but what about the Marshall Plan?' they heckled, apparently in the belief that American funding at the time was a no-strings bailout. This is not true.

Much of the money was in fact in the form of loans that we only recently paid off. Only around $3bn was in the form of aid from the US that was not later repaid. This was just 3% of the total national post-war debt. It was investment and growth that finally reduced the debt, and not any contribution from the US.

In fact, recovery could well have been faster had the US not imposed 'strings' which encouraged huge military spending to support the American war in Korea and Britain's own declining colonialism in places like Kenya and Aden.

So, rather then undermine my argument, the example of the Marshall Plan only strengthens it. If investment not cuts was the way out of a much worse recession post-1945, even at the price of a national deficit over 250% of GDP, it is the way out of recession now when both the recession is not as bad and the deficit is much lower.

As President Obama has warned, the right wing penchant for savage cuts in public spending could not only hinder the recovery of the global economy, but plunge us into a new recession. But slash and burn economics were never about economic logic. These cuts are an ideologically driven assault on the role of the state in the economy. If the Tories are successful , they will entrench inequality in this country for generations. The battle for progressive alternatives to the cuts agenda must be won. The future of our children depends on it.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

'Police under fire over Muslim CCTV surveillance scheme'

Guardian journalist Paul Lewis is doing some really good investigative reporting on the spy camera scandal. Read his latest report here.


Friday, 18 June 2010

Police mislead public over spy cameras

Press release

Salma Yaqoob calls for action over police officers who have misled public over surveillance cameras

Respect Party Leader and Sparkbrook councillor Salma Yaqoob said:

'Birmingham Safety Partnership have accepted that the public was not consulted over the introduction of surveillance cameras and said they will be covered up and not activated. Their apology is a step in the right direction.

But this is not the end of the matter. The police have admitted that more cameras are hidden, but the BSP press release makes no mention of them at all. There is also a widespread feeling in the community that the police have deliberately misled the public.

There are three meetings a month in Sparkbrook ward between the police, residents and councillors. The police had every opportunity to consult with the public about this issue but chose not to. Indeed, not only did they fail to properly consult with local residents and councillors, they also failed to consult with the Cabinet Member for Equalities and Human Resources.

By acting in such an underhand manner the police have seriously undermined any trust they have built up in the community. It is going to take a lot more to restore that trust than a temporary cover up of the cameras.

The public have spoken. They want these cameras removed. And the police now need to take urgent action to recover the confidence and trust of the community. They should start by holding to account those officers who deliberately misled us.'

ENDS

For more information ring 078 121 72885

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The politics of amnesia


One thing this government has achieved since coming to power has been to induce mass amnesia as to the cause of the economic mess we find ourselves in. Anybody would think the recession and the deficit was really caused by irresponsible public spending rather than the irresponsibility and greed of bankers and the private financial sector.

As the TUC point out, cutting public spending in a recession is voodoo economics and will only make the situation worse. Slashing public sector jobs – up to 750,000 we are now being told – will have a knock on effect on private sector jobs, further increasing unemployment. Rising unemployment means even less tax receipts while increasing the burden of welfare spending on benefits – increasing not reducing the deficit.

The ConDem cuts will hit the poorest in society hardest. And all this is justified by the argument that we have to keep our international credit rating. But as the economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, ‘appeasing the markets is like trying to reason with a crazy man; after Spain announced its cutbacks, the ratings agencies downgraded its debt because of lower growth prospects as a result of those cuts!’.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

How we treat asylum seekers is a test of our humanity

The author Pat Barker once wrote, "it's the hardest thing in the world to go on being aware of someone else's pain." When it comes to British politicians empathising with the plight of asylum seekers, there is much truth in her words. Years of the political establishment stoking up prejudice against asylum seekers has left many a heart cold to their plight. Hopefully this shocking report from the Red Cross might make some rethink their attitudes. They highlight that up to 20,000 failed asylum seekers are living in destitute conditions. 87% often surviving on one meal a day.

We are one of the wealthiest nations in the world. We like to pride ourselves on being an advanced and civilised society. Surely one test of that is our ability to show empathy with the most desperate people in our society?

The current asylum system is in urgent need of reform. A good place to start would be to implement the recommendations of the Red Cross ‘for a support system that will ensure individuals have the right to work, and access to healthcare, throughout their application until they are either granted leave to stay or helped to leave the country’. It is the very least we should do.

Speech to Stop the War anti-Islamophobia conference

I recently attended the Stop the War conference on tackling Islamophobia. I took part in a very informative panel discussion with a range of speakers including Seamus Milne from the Guardian, Arun Kundnani from the Institute of Race Relations and Tony Benn. You can hear my speech below.Seamus’s, Arun’s and Tony’s are here, here and here. Thanks to Ady Cousins for the recordings.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Free the hikers

One of the highpoints of the movement against the war with Iraq was the walkout of over 4,000 Birmingham school students who left their schools and marched into the city centre in an inspiring display of student power. It was a fantastic display of international solidarity and testimony to the character of our young people. One of those at the centre of the protests was Emily Churchill, a 16 year old student at Queensbridge School in Moseley.

Queensbridge School had previously walked out in opposition to the invasion of Iraq and as news of their action spread across the city it inspired others to do the same when the date was set for a city wide student strike. Emily described her experiences at the time:

Monday, 14 June 2010

Israel's inquiry is a sham

Israel's announcement of an inquiry into its attack on the Gaza freedom flotilla is a sham.

At least nine people died on board the Mavi Marmara at the hands of Israeli commandos. And despite outrage around the world, Israel has predictably refused to give in to demands for an international investigation, or indeed any investigation that it cannot control.

Equally predictably, the latest Israeli attempt to cover up its crimes has the backing of the USA.

Housebuilding to "grind to a halt"?

The new Office for Budget Responsibility presented its growth forecasts today. You don't need to be an economist to understand the bottom line; the economy is in a worse position than the previous Labour chancellor expected it to be, and future growth will be slower and weaker.

We already know what the Tory-Lib Dem response to this will be. The figures will be used to justify even deeper cuts in public spending. But even without the madness of more cuts, critical sectors of the economy are facing disaster.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Question Time - challenging the cuts agenda

If you missed my appearance on Question Time last night you can catch up with the debate here (although the programme will only be available for the next 7 days).

It's not easy to get across all the points you want to in a live TV debate, but one thing I really wanted to do was to expose the weakness of the argument for cuts in public spending. I hope I suceeded. A programme of investment for growth really does offer an alternative to this cuts madness, and it is one that makes moral, political and economic sense.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

I am appearing on Question Time tonight

The programme goes out at 10.35pm on BBC One. Find out who else is on the panel here. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Interview with BBC Midlands Today on surveillance cameras

I have just done an interview with BBC Midlands Today about the surveillance cameras. It will be broadcast at 6.30pm tonight and after the 10 o’clock news. Anger about the cameras is building. At last night’s packed Hall Green constituency meeting I moved a resolution calling for the removal of the cameras. It was unanimously supported. I also received support for my call for legal action. Birmingham Safety Partnership and West Midlands Police were exposed at the meeting for giving misleading information about the purpose of these cameras. They further admitted they had delibertely excluded the public from discussions.

Jewish Gaza aid flotilla

International solidarity with the besieged of Gaza continues to spread. Here is an inspiring story from Germany of plans for a Jewish aid flotilla.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Surveillance of Muslim communities - meeting tonight

The issue of covert surveillance of Muslim communities, which was highlighted in a report in the Guardian newspaper that includes quotes from myself and Cllr Ishtiaq, is on the agenda for tonight’s Hall Green Constituency meeting. The meeting starts at 7pm and will be in Clifton Primary School, St Pauls Road, Balsall Heath. It is open to the public. Please come along and express your concerns.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Speech to Gaza demo

Here is my speech from Saturday's brilliant free Gaza demo and here are some photos of it. Thanks to Ady Counsins and Richard Searle for both. This photo includes flotilla activists Kevin Ovenden and Sarah Colbourn. It was really great to see them both back in Britain safe and sound.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

New land and sea convoys to break the siege of Gaza

Yesterday's free Gaza demo was very large and very inspiring. If Israel thinks murdering peace activists will intimidate, they are seriously mistaken. Palestinian solidarity is set to hit new heights. As ever George Galloway made a great speech. You can listen to it here. And he announced plans for massive land and sea convoys in September. I intend to be on it. George has issued the following the press release.

“After extensive discussion in Istanbul I can announce that a land convoy will leave Britain shortly after the end of Ramadan in September this year and travel through Europe, down through Turkey and Syria into Jordan. We will ask the Egyptian government then to ensure passage from the port of Aqaba to Rafah and into Gaza.

Friday, 4 June 2010

A Just Peace for Palestine

Yesterday I took part in a vigil organised by West Midlands supporters of the new national campaign, 'A Just Peace for Palestine'. I gave a reading, alongside Barbara Payman, a Jewish woman and trustee of the interfaith charity Spirit of Peace, and Shari Brown, a Christian and the Coordinator of Restore (a project of Birmingham Churches supporting refugees)

It was a lovely and well attended event. Afterwards I interviewed Ben White, author of 'Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide.' It will be online tomorrow.

Congrats to Revd. Ray Gaston, Interfaith Enabler in Birmingham for the Methodist Church for organising the event and thanks too for inviting me.

Coach details for Gaza demo

Birmingham coaches for Saturday's Gaza demo are leaving from 8.30am. To book a seat on the those leaving from Central Mosque ring Manzoor on 0797 007 2594, from Carrs Lane ring Nick on 0782 801 3091, and from Hamza Mosque ring Tahir on 0786 175 086.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Sarah Colborne exposes Israeli terrorism

I am really pleased to hear that Sarah Colborne is back in Britain. Sarah is the campaigns officer for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and one of the British activists kidnapped and detained by the Israeli's. In a press conference earlier today Sarah describes an ordeal in which:

• unarmed activists were shot by Israelis using live ammunition;
• the death toll of nine is likely to rise, because some activists remain missing;
• the Israelis ignored calls over the tannoy and on written signs calling for them stop firing and to evacuate the critically injured;
• the Israeli forces handcuffed members of the activists' medical team who were sent to help treat the injured.

Read the full report here. Well done Sarah. We are really glad to have you back with us. When you get some rest, come up to Birmingham and share your experiences.  Like you, we are even more determined after this latest Israeli outrage to ensure Palestinian solidarity hits new heights.

Kevin is safe

I have just heard that my Respect colleague and Viva Palestina organiser Kevin Ovenden is in Istanbul, after being deported by the Israeli's. I look forward to seeing him soon. Kevin has issued this statement:

'The massacre on the Mavi Marmara must be a turning point. Passengers from 32 countries were murderously attacked by the Israeli forces.This is the Sharpeville and the Soweto of the movement for Palestinian solidarity. People of those countries around the world must now tell their governments that we are not prepared to continue to allow Israel to flout international law. The inhuman siege of Gaza must end now! The Israeli government has used terror for political ends, but we are not afraid. We who survived the Mavi Marmara massacre will redouble our efforts to bring humanitarian assistance to the people of Palestine and end this siege.'

I have received no information yet about Ismail Patel, chair of the Leicester-based campaign Friends of Al-Aqsa, or Sarah Colbourne, campaigns officer of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. My thoughts and prayers are with them all.

Peace vigil today at 1pm

Today I will be taking part in a vigil to mark 'World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel'.  The event is being coordinated by the West Midlands Christian Network for a Just Peace for Palestine, a group involved in advocacy and campaigning, and affiliated with the new national campaign, 'A Just Peace for Palestine'.

The Vigil will be held in grounds of St. Phillips Cathedral at 1pm. Please come along and support.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

End the siege of Gaza - protest this Saturday

Like countless others across the world I am angry at Israel's latest murderous actions, frustrated at the way their lies dominate the airways, and worried about the fate of those kidnapped and detained. But when my emotions subside, one fact confirms itself again and again - Israel has scored a spectacular own goal. Their actions have provoked unprecedented condemnation from the United Nations Security Council, they have focused world attention on the barbarity of the siege of Gaza, and rather than intimidate Palestinian solidarity activists, Israeli brutality has only given birth to a new generation of campaigners. Even one the most servile states in the Middle East, the bankrupt Mubarak regime in Egypt  which earlier disgraced itself by deporting George Galloway and attacking Viva Palestina convoy supporters, has been forced to bow to public anger and open the Rafah crossing. After this latest outrage there is one thing we can say for certain - Palestinian solidarity will hit new heights. Those that have died have not died in vain.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Still missing

I am very worried about my friend Kevin Ovenden who was on the flotilla. He is one of dozens of British citizens, including Sarah Colbourne of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, who are still missing. Please contact the Foreign Secretary William Hague to express your concerns. Contact details, and a copy of Jeremy Corbyn's letter to the Foreign Secretary, are available on the website of the Stop the War Coalition.

Speech to yesterday's Flotilla massacre protest in London

Around 5,000 people marched on the Israeli Embassy in London yesterday in an impressive mobilisation at very short notice. I was one of a number of speakers, including Jeremy Corbyn MP and Tariq Ali, who addressed the crowds before they set off. You can here my speech here and those of others here. Thanks to Ady Cousins at Counterfire for the recordings.