Source: The Guardian
John Harris, 24 April 2012
An assured and calm operator, Yaqoob is being talked of as her party's potential second MP
Salma Yaqoob: 'I see myself as part of the Labour movement.' Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
In the acres of coverage of what George Galloway showily called "the Bradford spring", one thing was overlooked. He secured his byelection win in the name of a party: Respect, whose tangled history goes back to 2004. He remains its most recognisable public face, but its leader is Salma Yaqoob, whose personal style represents a sharp contrast with the way Galloway does things. Whereas he tends to pursue his aims in the manner of someone single-handedly performing the last act of Macbeth, she is altogether more measured and open: a reassuringly human operator, with a string of celebrated media appearances – not least on BBC1's Question Time – to her name, as well as a few creditable political successes.
In 2006, she became a Birmingham city councillor, having won 49% of the vote in an inner-city council ward; at the last election, she stood in the constituency of Birmingham Hall Green, where there was an 11% swing from Labour to Respect. Now, there are rumours that she may soon stand against Labour in a future inner-city byelection – in which case, like Galloway, she'll stand a good chance of winning.
Just to underline the fact that Yaqoob lives in a slightly more ordinary world than a lot of politicians, when I meet her in a central London cafe, she is en route to her home in Birmingham after a family break in Swanage, with her two teenage sons in tow. The conversation ranges across her upbringing, her ambivalent relationship with the Labour party, the state of the Middle East, and her current focus on Respect's prospects in Bradford, where their candidates are standing for 12 council seats and aiming to be post-election "power brokers" whose support will be needed to keep Labour – who are currently a minority administration – in office. She's also campaigning for a "yes" vote in referendums to decide whether Birmingham and Bradford should have directly elected mayors, with an eye on some very tantalising political possibilities.
Yaqoob, 40, is a qualified psychotherapist, who took her first steps into politics in the aftermath of 9/11. Part of what she felt most strongly then reflects a theme she returns to repeatedly: that social advances she had taken for granted when she was growing up – not least, the decline of in-your-face racism – suddenly felt they were being rolled back. Not long after the attacks, she was spat at in the street – and, she says, "what was shocking was that nobody stopped. Nobody said: 'Are you OK?'"
"The Labour party was the party that was going to war," she goes on, "and that was also really depressing. Because whatever I'd absorbed growing up, it was that the Labour party stood for what was right. So for Labour to do this, and for us to be at the brunt of the racism that flowed from it, and the whole war on terror rhetoric, was really disappointing. I felt very isolated. There was no protection: that's what it felt like."
An initial involvement with the Stop the War coalition led her to co-found the clunkily named RESPECT coalition (it stands for Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community and Trade Unionism), a somewhat unlikely alliance of disaffected Labour supporters, the Trotyskist Socialist Workers Party and members of such Islamic organisations as the Muslim Council of Britain. When Galloway won Bethnal Green and Bow in the general election of 2005, Respect got its first MP – but in 2007, a depressingly familiar leftwing script was followed to the letter, and the SWP split away. "We were a coalition – not a front for them," she tells me. "But unfortunately, their leadership at the time didn't understand that. I learned that the hard way."
By contrast, what are her politics? "I would characterise them as what people think the Labour party should stand for: social justice, and foreign policy about peace, not war. Pretty basic, but it covers a lot of things." Her political lodestars, she says, "are people like Arundhati Roy. I love Tony Benn. I really admire Caroline Lucas."
In the context of modern politics, those reference points might denote radical views – but in one important way, Yaqoob is a little more conservative (with a small "c" ) than hundreds of other people who have opted for politics beyond the usual three parties. As unlikely as it may sound, like Galloway, she sees the Respect party as a means of somehow scaring Labour into moving left – at which point, the need for a separate leftwing force might well disappear.
"I consider myself part of the Labour movement; I consider myself a genuine friend of Labour," she says. In a lot of her explanation of this, there's the implied prospect of her joining Labour at some future date if it somehow returns to the righteous leftwing path, and rethinks two big areas of policy. "Stop being austerity lite," she advises them. "And on foreign policy, get the troops home, and stop this rhetoric about more wars in Middle East. It's not difficult."
If someone votes Respect, what exactly will they be getting? We talk about the party's somewhat uneasy history of combining secular socialism with politics at least partly based on Islam, before getting to the question of whether its most high-profile face actually takes the business of democratic representation that seriously. The numbers are clear enough: while he was representing Bethnal Green and Bow, Galloway's miserably low attendance at parliamentary votes placed him 634th out of 645 MPs.
"It depends what they want their MP to be doing. If they see their MP championing them, that's what important – whether it's in their local area, or in the media, or just getting things done. And in terms of whether he was there [ie in the House of Commons], from what I understand, George Galloway was there, but there were certain votes he chose not to take part in."
It still doesn't look great.
"No, I understand that. But it's down to what people want to do. There are loads of MPs who are like a herd of sheep. Their bums might be on those green benches, but what have they done for their constituents?"
What of Galloway's questionable record on supporting Arab dictatorships? His salute to Saddam Hussein's "courage, strength and indefatigability" barely needs mentioning. On a recent Newsnight, he was challenged about an email he sent to a media advisor to President Assad of Syria, which made reference to the country being the "last castle of Arab dignity" and offered Assad – whom Galloway once called "a breath of fresh air" – his "respect and admiration" (to put the message in context, Galloway was asking the Syrian government for their help in getting a humanitarian convoy to the Gaza strip).
"I don't think people are naive," says Yaqoob. "They know that our own establishment politicians are happy to meet those people and sell them arms. And George Galloway maintains that the whole 'salute' quote was about the Iraqi people."
What about the Assad email?
"Again, who the goodies and baddies are changes."
Not for people with her politics, it shouldn't. A dictatorial regime is a dictatorial regime, isn't it?
"Again, you don't always get a choice in certain things … some people feel that he was standing against imperialism, and for that reason they may have had some support for him. But it doesn't mean you don't criticise when you need to criticise. It's not as straightforward as a Hollywood film: complete good guys and complete bad guys." This, in fairness, is eventually followed by something much less equivocal: "Assad is a brutal dictator, and it is time for him to go. I'm not saying: 'Prop up Assad.' But definitely, do not intervene militarily. That's not the answer."
Owing to ill health that she'd rather remained a private matter, Yaqoob stepped down as a Birmingham councillor last year, but there are now whispers about her possible arrival in the House of Commons. The basic plotline has already been sketched out: the ex-shadow minister Liam Byrne could be picked to run as Labour's candidate for mayor of Birmingham, and resign his seat of Birmingham Hodge Hill – causing another byelection, and leaving the way open for Yaqoob to become Respect's second MP. This prospect, it seems, is what lies behind recent Labour suggestions that sitting MPs might be barred from running for mayoralties, in case electoral carnage ensues.
"I think Labour has gone a bit mad since Bradford West," she says, laughing. "The people spreading those rumours are Labour people. I can't commit to anything next week, never mind November. My only issue is health, which is frustrating. But the fact they're saying: 'It'll be Hodge Hill next,' and trying to stop Byrne standing says a lot."
About what? "Well, people are rejecting the neoliberal consensus. They don't necessarily have the language, because it hasn't been articulated. But when people like Caroline Lucas and George Galloway articulate it, and people get a chance to hear that message, they vote for it. Because that's where people are at."
We meet a week or so before the National Front do well in the first round of the French presidential elections, but what Yaqoob says next attests to the fact that even if our troubled times might raise the profile of her kind of leftwing dissent, much uglier forces can also prosper. "It can go either way," she says. "When you get these kinds of economic pressures, things can swing to the right. And that's why it's so important that we put forward these politics, and don't allow all this scapegoating of people. What we need are alternatives."
Source: The Guardian