Gove plays the extremism card

Dave Kellaway on the how Tories are using the extremism debate and Labour’s complicity in how it is framed.


Frank Hester, who has contributed 20% of the Tory funds, has called on Diane Abbott to be shot as a Black woman.  Such a statement would clearly make him an extremist on the new Gove definition debate in Parliament today.  Diane  put her finger on what is really going on with the Tories:

“But as the election draws nearer, and Labour stays 20 points ahead in the polls, the Tories are desperate. Their political trump card has always been low taxes and the sound management of the economy. But Liz Truss blew out of water any claim the Tories had to superior economic competence, and taxation is now at its highest sustained level on record. So the only card the Tories have left to play is the race card, and they are going to play it ruthlessly.”

The Tories dirty playbook

All the waffle and fake tone of emergency is really another attempt by the Tories to shore up their dwindling support. Already they have been calling peaceful demonstrations of hundreds of thousands “hate mobs” that prevent the Jewish community from going into London. Police powers to arrest and laws to limit protest have been implemented. Culture wars have been underway for some years. Institutions like the National Trust, the RNLI or the media, civil service or universities are supposedly being taken over by progressive people who do not respect British values. There is a smell of McCarthyism in the air. Eco activists are being given harsh sentences and people are prevented from informing juries of their legal rights.

The Tories also think they can use the definition to present the Labour Party as soft on extremism. At the least they will trap Labour into defining part of the electoral agenda on their terms. They think culture wars and building up an external threat to British values can help them pick up votes. Brexit was successful partly because it exploited racism against migrants. Linking Muslims with extremism works in a similar way. 

Even more so if you link some of the listed extremist organisations to foreigners (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an international Muslim current). Raynor’s immediate response of accepting a bipartisan approach to the issue appears to fall into this trap. In a contest over who can reach the bottom of the swamp fastest, the tried and tested team tend to win out.

The professionals who have to monitor potential bomb makers or terrorists know that making some new parliamentary definition of extremism will not alter their job. Counter terrorism forces already have as much leeway as they need to monitor and track people who pose a violent threat. As Sadiq Khan stated today, such measures are divisive and will increase the perception of a them and us battle, which might drive anyone inclined to violence underground.

What is the new definition and which organisations have been named?

“Extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: 1 negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or 2 undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or 3 intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).”

The previous guidelines, published in 2011, talked about active opposition rather than the much more nebulous concept of ‘ideology’; previously,individuals or groups are only defined as extremist if they show:

“vocal or active opposition to British fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

Gove used his parliamentary privilege – which prevents any organisation or person from taking legal action against him – to name the following groups as a cause for concern

  • The British National Socialist Movement
  • Patriotic Alternative
  • CAGE (an advocacy organisation helping Muslim detainees, originally the ones in Guantanamo)
  • Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND)
  • Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) (which has links to Muslim Brotherhood)
MAB statement

MEND is a not-for-profit company to empower and encourage British Muslims within local communities to be more actively involved in British media and politics. CAGE supports Muslim prisoners and campaigns against the consequences of the so called war on terror.

In a press statement responding to Gove, Mend states:

“Gove himself has a long track record of Islamophobic views and associations. He is a founding member of the Henry Jackson Society which promoted an anti-Muslim agenda over many years and led the government’s role in ‘The Trojan Horse’ affair. This falsely accused a number of schools in Birmingham of an ‘Islamist takeover’ on the back of a fake letter. Subsequent inquiries found no evidence of radicalisation in these schools.”

We could add that he wrote a book called Celsius 7/7 in which he highlighted the “threat of Islamism”.

If you take the trouble to peruse the websites of these organisations it is hard to find evidence of plans to form a totalitarian Islamic sharia state in Britain. Rather, you can see a lot on community work, charity, Palestine solidarity, education and anti-Islamophobia campaigning. No doubt the Tories will say these public sites are clever fronts while the extremism is carried on in secret cabals. Gove should be careful, the Telegraph had to pay damages to CAGE over false accusations about its work.

The extremism definition is vague enough to include any number of groups who want to change our society. For instance many left groups seek to deepen and extend democracy, going beyond and replacing liberal democracy. Eco activists often want a complete system change – the definition says anyone wanting to replace the system of liberal democracy is an extremist. Remember the definition talks not about actions but promoting an ideology. So a socialist who argues that it is justified for the working class to defend itself against state repression in a revolutionary crisis would be damned as a terrorist for raising this as a possible scenario.

The government has been careful to name only a couple of very small neo-fascist organisations and three much bigger Muslim groups. The far right libertarians in the Tory party like Miriam Coates and even the Daily Mail have criticised the Gove line and it has possibly pushed Gove to start with a limited list. These groups are not the key organisers of the solidarity movement but do support it and so provide the political basis for Sunak and the Tories to smear the demonstrations as Islamist or intimidating.

Once this definition is adopted any government can add further groups for consideration. At this stage these five are causes for concern. The next phase is their examination by a ‘centre of excellence’ made up of civil servants, academics and specialists which will make the final recommendation. There is no right of appeal. Any judicial review by an organisation would be costly. As Nick Lowles from the anti-racist campaign Hope not Hatesaid today, this process takes place in secret. He added that its brief is not to examine anti-Muslim or hate speech coming from mainstream parties.

Jonathan Hall KC, who scrutinises the government’s state threat legislation, told the Guardian that the risk lies in how the definition “focuses on ideas, on ideology, not action”. 

Gove made much of the fact that at the end of the process these groups are not banned but all contact with the central government would end in terms of consultation or funding. Surely local government would fall into line – particularly since Labour are not raising any real objections to the programme. Universities, quangos, public appointments and the police would also be drawn into blacklisting people affiliated with such groups. 

If your organisation is named, as Galloway said today in Parliament, just try and get a bank account. If you are a member you would be careful not to let your employer know. This is an attack on democratic and civil rights similar to the Cold War attacks of McCarthyism on progressives in the 1950s, recently dramatized in the Oppenheimer movie. All this is being done without changes in the law but through a government decided process.

“This is an attack on democratic and civil rights similar to the Cold War attacks of McCarthyism on progressives in the 1950s…”

Unsurprisingly Angela Raynor, replying to Gove, basically said the Tories have been slow in dealing with this extremism issue and that Labour would work in good faith with them. She accepted the overall Tory narrative and uncritically welcomed Gove’s hypocritical posturing on ‘our diversity and our values making the country stronger’. At least the Bradford Labour MP Hussain correctly criticised how the Gove initiative was targeting Muslims. He was backed up by Richard Burgon who asked how Hester’s extremism would be tackled by the new definition and called out how the government was trying to smear and discredit the Palestine solidarity demonstrations.

You would think Labour, with its huge poll lead, might be more critical.  Both the Anderson affair and Frank Hester’s call to shoot Diane Abbott might have provided them with a strong political basis for questioning where the real danger of extremism is from. But no, they give credibility to Gove which allows the Tories to own the discussion and move it away from extremism in their ranks.  One SNP MP pointed out that extremist statements come from the Tory mainstream press too – she referred to how the supreme court judges were deemed ‘enemies of the people’. Once again Sadiq Khan has taken a more critical position than the Labour front bench. It is getting to be a habit for him.  (Another reason for the left to vote for him in the Mayoral election against the Trump loving Tory candidate.)

Zara Mohammed, the secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain which was supposedly on the list in earlier drafts, understands what is happening much more clearly than Angela Raynor:

“I think we are a very suitable political punchbag and that’s what we’re seeing right now. The Muslim Council of Britain is always being targeted. I think there’s this ongoing theme of demonising Muslims.”

The whole of the left needs to link up in a campaign to defend our democratic rights with the Muslim community and all other organisations or groups likely to be affected by this new definition of extremism.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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