Poppies, football and political symbols

Blog Post by Daniel Fitzpatrick

Despite appeals from the respective football associations of England and Scotland, FIFA has refused to allow players of both teams to display poppies on their shirts during the World Cup qualifier at Wembley tonight. The match coincides with Armistice Day when the United Kingdom traditionally pauses to remember the fallen service men and women killed in conflict.

FIFA’s ban appears to rest on the assumption that the poppy represent a political symbol and as such contravenes Law 4 of the Rules of the Game banning political, religious or commercial messages on shirts or equipment. The Prime Minster took the opportunity at last week’s PMQs to lambast FIFA for its rigidity, decrying its stance as ‘utterly outrageous’.

The controversy over of the poppy ban lies in the confusion on what does and does not constitute the political. Many people would argue that the poppy appeal is beyond party politics certainly (notwithstanding Jeremy Corbyn decision to wear a white poppy). Others still would contend that the poppy is too closely associated with the imperial past of the British state and an implicit endorsement of militarism.

The question is not really whether the poppy is a political symbol; the answer to this is entirely subjective and contingent upon one’s position and relationship to the British state. The more intriguing puzzle is why the poppy is not permitted, when football, and sport in general, is replete with political symbolism. Since the 19th century modern sport (that is organised, codified and then increasingly professionalised) has been an important mechanism for inculcating a sense of national pride, culture and belonging. Important unifying traditions such as singing the national anthem and displaying the national flag are deeply embedded within the fabric of modern sport. So-called sports mega events, such as the World Cup and the Olympics, are utilised for building and consolidating a sense of nationhood and projecting a particular construction of a nation for strategic influence on the global stage.

If the poppy is deemed too political it may be asked why England are allowed to display the Three Lions badge on their shirts. The Three Lions, derived from the Royal Coat of Arms, represents the connection between the monarch and the nation. At the very least the Three lions badge symbolises support for the Crown in the UK (not only England). The motto at the base of the Royal Coat of Arms reads: Dieu et mon droit. The literal translation of this phrase is ‘God and my right’; while now arcane it nevertheless establishes a line of continuity between the period of absolutist monarchy according to the ‘divine right of kings’ and the contemporary era of constitutional monarchy. It also points to a history of military conflict and conquest; it was the symbol used on the King’s shield to identify him in the midst of battle and was displayed by Richard the Lionheart during the Crusades. In this context the badge is far more political, and redolent of war and militarism, than the poppy.

Being more cynical we might question FIFA’s motivations for wanting to keep a clear delineation between sport and politics. FIFA, which is struggling to shore up the crumbling foundations of its legitimacy as the international governing body for football, is attempting to maintain the façade that politics has no place in football. In maintaining the pretence that it is sporting rather than political organisation FIFA is able to preserve its sphere of private governance from incursion from democratic politics. The governing bodies of sport cling to what Lincoln Allison called ‘the myth of autonomy’ for particular institutional imperatives. In arguing that sport and politics can and should be kept apart those in charge of sport seek to perpetuate their position as power holders and arbiters of morality in sport.

This is obvious a fallacy. FIFA, itself, ‘believes that football is more than just a game.’ It publicises a number of laudable policies, programmes and awards on anti-discrimination, poverty and development, and sustainability. In practice its record on these matters is mixed at best, and mere window-dressing at worst. Nevertheless the existence of such wider social and economic aims suggest that FIFA considers such non-sporting issues appropriate for discussion and purposive action in the arena of football. The distinction is that that FIFA launches and administers these programmes in an effort to consolidate its own legitimacy. The more hard line stance over the wearing of poppies now – opposed to the compromise reached in 2011 – speaks to the crumbling legitimacy of the world governing body of football more than the politicised nature of the poppy.

Is Muslim sectarian violence a new reality for Britain?

Author: Parveen Akhtar
The original of this blog text was published in The Conversation, on the 12th of October 2016. The original can be found in the foollowign website: https://theconversation.com/is-muslim-sectarian-violence-a-new-reality-for-britain-66248

Debates on Islam in the West have tended to centre on the compatibility of the values and lifestyles of Muslims and non-Muslims. But two recent murders in the UK have highlighted the need for debate on the compatability of those who hold different Islamic beliefs. As British Muslim communities become more religiously and ethnically diverse, sectarianism could also become more commonplace.

The victim of the first murder, Asad Shah, a Glasgow shopkeeper, belonged to a group of Muslims called the Ahmadiyya. They do not believe that the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was the last and final prophet – a view considered heretical by many Muslims and blasphemous by Sunni Muslims. Ahmadiyya believe that the religious leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who died in 1908, was the Mujaddid (renewer of faith), a Messiah sent to guide Muslims back to the true essence of Islam. Sunni Muslims do not share this belief.

In August 2016, Tanveer Ahmed, a Muslim taxi driver from Bradford was sentenced to 27 years in prison for Shah’s murder. Ahmed was a Sunni Barelwi (a populist form of Islam), who said he’d murdered Shah because he had “disrespected” Islam. Ahmed had driven to Scotland to confront Shah about his beliefs. In a statement released by Ahmed after his conviction, he asserted that the murder was in defence of the prophet: “Asad Shah disrespected the messenger of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him.”

Shah’s murder was inspired by another murder in another country some five years earlier – the assassination in Pakistan in 2011 of the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer. The man convicted of the crime, Mumtaz Qadri, a police officer and Taseer’s former bodyguard, was sentenced to death and hanged in February 2016. Qadri had assassinated the governor for wanting to reform the Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and for supporting Asia Bibi (a Christian) who had been sentenced to death for insulting the Muhammad. Qadri believed that in murdering the governor he was defending the honour of the prophet. Qadri’s funeral was attended by thousands of mourners and today, he is revered by some Sunni Muslims as a martyr and a saint.

The web of who is and who is not a true Muslim is complicated further by these transnational connections and linkages. Tanveer Ahmed was one of those who considered Mumtaz Qadri a martyr, writing to him in prison while Qadri was awaiting execution. Despite their violent acts, both men were Sunni Barelwis, ordinarily associated with the spiritual aspects of faith. They are often the ones persecuted for not being “proper Muslims” because their populist branch of Islam includes practices such as devotional Qawwali music and the following of saints. These rituals are considered out of the bounds of Islam by some groups of Muslims, such as Wahhabis and Salafis, followers of a more literalist strand of the religion.

Sunni Barelwis have been targeted in the UK too. In a second murder in 2016, a 71-year-old Barelwi originally from Bangladesh called Jalal Uddin was targeted by two men in their early 20s and murdered as he made his way through the streets of Rochdale. The assailants were Salafis who believed Uddin’s practice of ta’widh (amulets containing passages from the Qur’an used as protection against the evil eye) took him outside the fold of Islam. One of the assailants was sentenced to prison for a minimum of 24 years, while the other suspect fled to Turkey and is believed to have crossed the border into Syria to fight for so-called Islamic State.

That the perpetrator of the first murder was of the same faith as the victim in the second highlights the complexities of sectarian divisions within Islam. Barelwis revere Muhammad and have killed to defend his honour. Salafis detest such reverence as false idolatry and link Barelwi customs to black magic. This sectarianism within Islam in the West is a recent development and can be traced to two key factors: greater diversity of those Muslims settling in Europe and the mobilisation of sectarian divisions via the internet.

Long-term immigration into Western Europe is forcing Muslims to confront different ways of practising Islam. Muslim communities in the UK, for example, have changed rapidly in the past 20 years. Changes in patterns of migration have contributed to the development of a highly diverse Muslim population. Between the 1950s and the late 1980s, migration of Muslims to the UK consisted of many primarily economic migrants from a few former colonial countries such as Pakistani and Bangladesh who settled in specific industrial urban locations.

During the past 20 years, fewer migrants from a larger number of countries have made those urban centres their home. New Muslim migrants from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Nigeria share mosques, halal butchers, Islamic bookshops and community centres. This “superdiversity” is not limited to Muslim migrants, but reflects a wider development of diverse types of migration patterns.

It is the pace and scale of difference in the past two decades that has had an impact here, accompanied by religious information and sectarian mobilisation on the internet. Unlike many of the pioneer generation of post-war Muslim migrants, their descendants are fully literate and able to access theological material, particularly online. And they are much more aware then their parents’ generation of the theological differences within Islam. There is a real internal debate going on within communities, often with a streak of intolerance which was not as pronounced 20 years ago.

Research on established Muslim communities has argued that the encounter with other Muslims in the diaspora is crucial in the development of the religion. Mixing with other Muslims can inspire theological debate and has the potential to bear significantly on religious identity and the process of transformation across generations. But as the two recent murders have shown, it can also lead to sectarianism and violence.

Brexit threatens Britain’s reputation as an agenda-setter for foreign aid

Article by Balazs Szent-Ivanyi, originally published in The Conversation on the 26th September 2016. For the original article, please visit: https://theconversation.com/brexit-threatens-britains-reputation-as-an-agenda-setter-for-foreign-aid-64999

The world is facing a host of complex challenges, from climate change to migration to the spread of infectious diseases. No nation acting alone can hope to solve them. Britain has been serious about tackling these problems, but to do so it needs to influence and shape the international development system to reflect them and make efforts to get other donors on board to pursue similar goals. But Brexit means Britain’s ability to do so hangs in the balance.

Britain is currently a highly influential actor in the international development system, due to a combination of its financial clout and soft power, which enables influence without resorting to force or money. The UK has been one of the most important donors to multilateral initiatives such as the World Bank’s International Development Association and the EU’s European Development Fund. This gives it a lot of input into decisions on how these funds are spent.

Britain’s soft power stems from the reputation it has developed in the past 20 years as a highly generous and effective bilateral donor of foreign aid. This reputation has increased British influence even further in the international development system. The previous Labour government’s support for increasing British aid spending, and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s commitment in 2010 to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, enshrined in law in 2015, have been instrumental in building this reputation.

The UK is now the world’s second-largest foreign aid donor after the US, providing £14 billion (US$18 billion) to more than a hundred developing countries in 2015. The Department for International Development has emerged as an internationally respected aid agency, amassing considerable expertise on development issues.

Until now, Britain has had a huge influence on the EU’s aid policy and aid delivery, and it was instrumental in transforming EU aid from one of the worst in the world at the turn of the 21st century into a global agenda setter today in terms of its usefulness and helpfulness. And the goals of the EU’s aid policy are well aligned with British interests: prioritising global poverty reduction, combating climate change, or addressing state fragility. The UK has been able to use the EU to project its national interests through EU development policy, achieving disproportionate influence.

There is some hope that the EU’s development policy will remain aligned with UK interests after Brexit. There are a number of “like-minded” EU members, such as the Nordic countries, who share a similar vision of international development to the UK.

But there are also a number of EU members who would want aid policy to change direction after Britain leaves the bloc. The Central and Eastern European members, for example, would prefer more aid to be spent in the countries on the EU’s eastern borders, such as the Balkans and Ukraine. The southern members would prioritise spending in the Mediterranean.

The migration crisis has also strengthened calls for diverting EU aid away from the poorest regions of the world to be spent on helping migrants and refugees arriving in Europe. All this would decrease the poverty-reduction focus of EU aid, and so go against British interests to date. The EU will also lose Britain’s substantial contribution to its aid pot, forcing it to scale back expenditure on international development.

Without the ability to project power through the EU, Britain’s influence in other international forums will also diminish. Brexit also threatens the UK’s reputation as a generous donor for three reasons.

It’s not clear what will happen with the money that the UK contributed to the EU’s aid efforts – about US$2.1 billion in 2015 according to the OECD. There is no guarantee that the post-Brexit government will use these resources for aid. And although it hasn’t quite hit yet as forecasted by experts, a Brexit-induced recession is still on the cards. A major recession would put significant pressure on any government to abandon the 0.7% aid commitment. There are already strong voices arguing for this.

The campaign leading up to the referendum has also revealed how parts of British society have become more inward looking. Together with increasing hostility towards immigrants and the EU, the British public’s support for foreign aid has been decreasing – a poll of 2,000 people published in The Telegraph suggested 57% of respondents wanted to see the 0.7% commitment scrapped.

All is not lost however, and the challenges caused by Brexit can be turned into opportunities. The emphasis Brexiters have put on making Britain a global trading nation outside of the EU can hold a key role for foreign aid with its ability to boost trade. Aid can increase incomes in developing countries and so also markets for British products and services. At the same time, there have also been talks about using aid for leverage to secure trade deals.

After Brexit, Britain will also remain part of other key forums which set the global development agenda, such as the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, where the UK can make efforts to increase its influence. Being outside of the EU doesn’t mean that a constructive dialogue with the integration on development policy matters will not be possible – but Britain will have to do it outside of the channels it has grown most accustomed to.

Lessons from the Berlin state election – for politics in Germany and beyond

Last Sunday, just two weeks after a punishing defeat in the state election in Mecklenburg West Pomerania, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) faced another unwelcome electoral challenge in the country’s capital, Berlin.  In the end, the results proved a disappointment not only for the CDU (which secured just 17.6%, -5.7% compared to the last election in 2011), but also for the social democratic SPD, which headed the state’s government (a CDU / SPD coalition), and fell to 21.6% (-6.7%), a remarkably low total for a party topping the poll.  For both the parties, these were record low results in the post-war period.  Back in 1990, the CDU and SPD (known as the Volksparteien, in recognition of their support coming from a cross-section of society) together secured over 70% of the vote.  Now, they are reduced to barely half that amount.  Green Party support held pretty stable (15.2%, -2.4%), the Left Party (15.6%, +3.9%) recovered some ground in a state in which it was historically strong, the liberal FDP regained entry to the state parliament (6.7%, +4.9%), and the Pirates showed that their success in the 2011 election was a flash in the pan (1.7%, -7.2%).  Most strikingly, the populist right Alternative for Germany (AfD) showed that it could make a breakthrough (14.2%) even in a state which was previously expected to be socially too liberal, too tolerant, to witness such a result.

While it is always unwise to read too much into the results of an individual state poll, there are a few claims which can be advanced on the basis of these results (and the usual excellent polling by Infratest dimap alongside them).

  1. While bad for the CDU, it is far too early to write off Angela Merkel. The CDU in Berlin was unpopular, and was felt to have performed poorly in government, with an inept leader, Frank Henkel. Voters preferred the SPD’s mayor, Michael Müller, by a 53% to 23% margin, and indeed even on the issue of refugees, whilst this was a major factor for AfD voters, 57% felt Angela Merkel was right to stick to her approach on the issue (compared to 39% who wanted her to move towards the hardline positions of the Bavarian CSU). For all the criticism of her, there is no obvious successor, let along internal challenger, to Merkel.

2.The CDU increasingly struggles in urban areas. If you roll the clock back 20 years, the CDU held the mayoralty not only of Berlin, but of Frankfurt (now SPD) and Stuttgart (now Green), and was competitive in elections in other major cities, such as Hamburg (where its vote has since collapsed). Now, the party is not in power in any of the country’s major cities, and seems to have little appeal amongst liberally-minded, urban voters. Much has been written of the difficulty faced by centre-left parties in integrating traditionally-minded working-class voters with those of the “new left”, but Christian Democracy faces analogous problems, at least in Germany.

3.The AfD may benefit largely from protest votes, but they look set to enter the federal parliament next year. Although 69% of AfD voters in Berlin said they decided on the basis of disappointment with other parties, compared to 29% who were convinced by the AfD itself, it remains the case that it has successfully overcome the 5% hurdle for representation in every state election since the 2013 federal election. Its election to the Bundestag looks to be only a matter of time.

4. State elections are more than just a judgement on the performance of the national government. There is a lively debate in political science about whether regional or national factors are decisive in regional elections. But in Berlin, there is no question that major dissatisfaction with the performance of the SPD/CDU coalition there (just 36% were satisfied) contributed to those parties’ historically bad performance.

5. The SPD’s involvement of members in deciding policy didn’t seem to give it great traction. Politicians elsewhere might be interested in the decision to allow all party members in the city to vote on such questions as the legalisation of cannabis (narrowly rejected), whether to focus on the number or quality of new flats (members favoured numbers), more police on the streets (supported), and continuing to ban headscarves amongst state employees like teachers (strongly supported).   These answers would then flow into the manifesto. But this enterprise did not really capture the public imagination. What recent successes the SPD has had have tended to be down to having a very popular state premier at its head (such as Malu Dreyer in Rhineland-Palatinate and Erwin Sellering in Mecklenburg West Pomerania).

6. 27 years on from the fall of the Berlin wall, eastern and western voting behaviour is distinct, in Berlin and elsewhere. Most obviously, the Left Party did better in the eastern part of the city (23.4%) than the west (10.1%), as did the AfD (17.0% east, 12.1% west – with the party coming first in some of the outlying, high-rise estates in the east), while the CDU, Greens and FDP did significantly better in the west. Such differences can also be clearly observed when comparing state polls in western and eastern Germany.

7. And last but not least, grand coalitions lead to a rise in support for smaller parties. When the major parties of centre-left (SPD) and centre-right (CDU) are in government, whether at a state or a national level, the combined total of their support is almost guaranteed to fall, with the smaller coalition partner especially vulnerable. When it comes to Germany’s federal election next year, it appears likely that minor parties – of left and right – will profit at the expense of CDU and SPD. In Berlin, this has now meant that no two parties have a majority, though, in contrast to the national level, the Left Party (along with the Greens) is likely to be invited to join a coalition with the SPD, thus bringing the period of grand coalition to an end.

Ed Turner is Senior Lecturer and Head of Politics and International Relations at Aston University, based in the Aston Centre for Europe. He has written widely on German party politics and federalism. This blog was initially published, in slightly edited form, at Left Food Forward.

The hidden costs of closed borders for migrants stuck in Serbia

 

Originally published by The Conversation, 19 September 2016. 

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik (Aston University) and Marta Stojic Mitrovic (Ethnography Institute, Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences)

In Spring 2016, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia “closed” their borders to migrants who had been transiting these countries via the “Balkan route” on their way further into the European Union. The closures follow other attempts at shutting EU borders: Hungary built a fence along its border with Serbia, while the so-called “EU-Turkey” deal was intended to prevent people from reaching EU borders by sending those who had crossed the Mediterranean back to Turkey.

Despite the border closures, the Balkan route is still active – a problem recognised at an EU leaders’ meeting in July. Now those refugees not able to get any further are stuck in limbo. Non-governmental organisatons (NGOs) and the UNHCR estimate there are at least 200 arrivals per dayin Serbia, with around 5,000 people stuck in Serbia alone.

Even though the number of people stuck in Serbia is comparatively small, our interviews throughout the summer of 2016 showed that a lack of resources and attention is precipitating a secondary humanitarian crisis: a growing refugee population is living in increasingly precarious conditions and is almost wholly reliant on smugglers to leave. The UNHCR believes that border closures divert problems and aggravate living conditions, while Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) told us they see a correlation between the closures and increased levels of violence against refugees – both by smugglers and border authorities.

The situation in Serbia

Serbia became a focal point of the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, when an unprecedented number of new arrivals crossed into the country on their way to Western Europe via Hungary and Croatia. Typically, most people stayed in Serbia for only a few days before moving towards the EU. In contrast to measures employed by its neighbours, the Serbian government adopted an official policy stating that it would not erect fences and would respect international laws on human rights by not restricting movement of people searching protection. This changed dramatically a year later, and although Serbia has not completed sealed its own borders, policy has shifted from protecting rights to protecting borders.

These attempts at sealing borders have been accompanied with a complex and fragmented regional regime of asylum registrations and so called “push backs”, where people crossing the border into Hungary, for instance, are intercepted and returned to Serbia. The official and “legal” way to cross into Hungary is via one of the waiting lists operated by local authorities. But one local NGO working with refugees in Serbia said the information about how these waiting lists operate is unclear and contradictory.


In a Belgrade park, fenced off so migrants can’t camp there, people wait for free meals provided by local NGO. Jelena Obradovic-WochnikAuthor provided

Only 30 people are admitted  into Hungary legally each day via two border points point with Serbia, but the number of people arriving in Serbia each day far exceeds the number “allowed” to leave, so people are staying for longer periods of time (in some cases, several months). Refugees are also reporting to aid workers that they are facing increasing violence against them by Hungarian border police. Similar reports are also being collated by activists working with refugees in Belgrade.

Crossing borders into Hungary or Croatia now takes several attempts, both for people attempting to cross legally and illegally. The prices paid to smugglers have, according to our informants, increased dramatically: crossing the Serbia-Croatia border with a smuggler, we were told, now costs €1,500 per person. Deaths have also occurred along the Bulgaria-Romania border, as refugees try to find alternative routes, following the “closure” of the Macedonian border.

Pressures on resources

The Serbian state is partly unwilling and partly unable to provide adequate support and welfare for the growing number of refugees. Politically, its policy has shifted away from supporting refugees towards controlling borders in an effort to appease voters who are no longer sympathetic to the refugees’ stay in the country. In practical terms, the state has a support system in place – a state-run Commissariat for Refugees and Asylum, which oversees distribution of aid and runs “asylum reception centres”. But the infrastructure in place is not wholly adequate in meeting the actual needs of the refugees.

UNHCR reports that 87% of refugees are housed in official centres. But the need for shelter far outstrips supply, and homelessness – particularly among single men – is growing. The state-run “asylum reception centres” are located near Belgrade, the Hungarian-Serbian border, the Croatian-Serbian border and in Presevo, near the Macedonian border. Information on the centres is contradictory.


An informal camp near the Hungarian border, June 2 2016. Marta Stojic MitrovicAuthor provided

 

 

The government claims that reception centres with a capacity for 2,000 people are not full. But during our visits to the centres between June and August 2016, it was clear that in at least four of them, people were being accommodated in tents pitched outside of the centres themselves, suggesting overcrowding.

It’s also possible that refugees are choosing not to go the official camps, as it is unclear to most people – including aid workers – whether refugees staying there would be allowed to leave Serbia later. Informal camps and settlements along the Hungarian border have also sprung up, and we saw families with small children living in these settlements.

Pushed out of public places

In places like Belgrade, people, mainly single men unable or unwilling to access official camps, are sleeping rough in parks and squats. Ever since the crisis unfolded, public parks have been important hubs for sharing information about the route, and establishing contacts with other refugees and activists. Parks have free public wifi, free meals distributed by the NGO Refugee Aid Serbia, and various activists – some who speak Arabic and Farsi – who help refugees access information, answer questions and provide free tea.

This summer the local authorities started to clear the city of refugees by discouraging people from sleeping in the two centrally located parks – the Luka Celovic Park and Bristol Park – both located near the central bus station, via which many refugees arrived into Belgrade. In July 2016, all the grass in the central parks populated by refugees was dug up, and the parks fenced off, which precipitated a hunger strike by them.

For a while, people sleeping rough in the park relocated to decrepit buildings in a nearby derelict storage yard, living in a squat with no facilities, except for a single hosepipe. But on September 16 2016, local authorities evicted refugees as some of the buildings were being demolished to make way for a controversial development scheme, Belgrade Waterfront.

Refugees living in squats and parks rely on food donations by Refugee Aid Serbia for survival, and wait for a chance to cross the borders. Longer stays mean that many are running out of money and must either wait for money to arrive from family abroad, or seek increasingly desperate means of procuring it.

The fencing off of the parks has led to vocal protests by activists who see this as an attempt to break up the refugee communities, push them to the margins of the city and disable them from contacting smugglers, who use the parks as places to establish contact with refugees.

The support networks to help refugees are continually under threat: all NGOs must register with the commissariat in order to operate, but the official policy towards them is becoming increasingly hostile. Volunteers are also starting to report police harassment of activists aiding refugees in the park, particularly those not officially affiliated to NGOs.

Local tensions

Another perceptible change has been the shift in public mood. While outright xenophobic attacks against refugees are rare in Serbia, there have been some local anti-refugee protests.

In the border town of Sid, residents are petitioning for the removal of the refugee camp, and in Belgrade, a group of residents carried out a daily protest throughout August 2016 against refugees living in the park. This marks a drastic departure from a broadly sympathetic public attitude in 2015 and the emergence of solidarity networks. The change in mood can partly be attributed to the population’s own economic woes, mass unemployment and generally poor welfare provision, and the feeling that refugees have now overstayed their welcome.

Our interviews this summer show how the border closures around transit countries come with hidden costs. Politicians are able to claim that specific routes are “closed”, so giving the impression that all problems pertaining to these routes have been dealt with. In reality, border closures simply mean that attention is diverted from the increasingly precarious living conditions in which refugees stuck in transit zones find themselves. The EU border closures have left a significant population reliant on volunteers, donations, aid organisations and smugglers.

Assessing the fallout from the Mecklenburg West Pomeranian election – is the party over for Merkel?

Land (state) elections have a high profile in Germany. They serve a dual purpose: on the one hand, they elect a Land parliament and then government, responsible for legislation in a range of policy areas – most significantly, education – and implementation of national legislation in numerous others. On the other hand, the Land government sends representatives to Germany’s national second chamber, the Bundesrat, which has a veto on any legislation that affects the Länder (states).

That being said, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania might have been perceived, to some extent, as a rather sleepy backwater, and its elections would not always have the highest profile. It stretches from the picturesque, sleepy state capital, Schwerin, through to the Hanseatic cities of Rostock (a major port and seat of an old university), Greifswald, Wismar and Stralsund.

It encompasses the island of Rügen, with its varied flora and fauna, a large number of lakes, and perhaps best known, its sandy beaches stretching along the Baltic coast towards the Polish border. Its population numbers just 1.66 million, thinly spread around the largely rural region, and the biggest industries are agriculture, fishing and maritime areas, and tourism. Unemployment, at 9%, is somewhat above the federal average of 6.5%, and youth unemployment, at 12.1%, is the highest in the country.

Politically, though, the significance of the election on 4 September was heightened by the fact the state is home to Angela Merkel’s constituency (including Rügen, Stralsund and Greifswald), and it was also home to the first formal coalition between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the successor party to the East German Communist Party, at the time known as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and now called the Left Party (Die Linke). On a darker note, in 1992 the Land attracted notoriety following arson attacks on accommodation for asylum seekers in the Rostock district of Lichtenhagen, and the far-right NPD won seats in the Land parliament in both the 2006 and 2011 elections.

In the Land election campaign, the SPD (which had governed as the senior partner with the Christian Democratic CDU since 2006) focused strongly on the popularity of its state premier, Erwin Sellering, while the CDU struggled to make headway under Lorenz Caffier. Although early polls pointed to a lead for the CDU, towards the end of the campaign there were clear indications that the SPD had taken a clear lead and the CDU would struggle to make second place behind the right-wing, populist AfD (Alternative for Germany).

The actual results certainly caused serious ripples through the German political scene. As the table below shows, the SPD topped the poll with 30.6% (5% down on 2011); the AfD, standing for the first time in a Land election, polled 20.8%, and the CDU came a miserable third with 19.0 (-4%). The Left Party also fell to 13.2% (-5.2%). Both the Greens (4.8%, -3.9%) and the NPD (3.0%, -3%) failed to make the 5% hurdle for representation, while the Liberal FDP, with 3.0%, also failed to win any seats.

The dominant media narrative on election night was that these results, with the relative triumph of the AfD and a humbling defeat for the CDU, constituted a humiliation for Angela Merkel on her home turf, and in particular a reflection of the unpopularity of her policy (at least, the policy of 2015) of relative openness towards refugees. The staunchly conservative Bavarian Christian Democratic Party, the CSU, was almost gleeful in pointing to a “clear signal in Berlin”, and demanding faster deportations and a cap on the number of refugees.

Horst Seehofer, the CSU’s leader, talked about a “disastrous result” and a “dangerous position for [Christian Democracy], and the Bavarian Finance Minister and a possible heir to Seehofer, Markus Söder, commented that “Instead of [Merkel’s famous comment on refugees] saying ‘We can do it’, we need to say ‘We have understood and we will change it’”. Senior SPD figures chose to emphasise Sellering’s success and popularity, although one of its deputy leaders, Ralf Stegner, suggested that the CDU had been punished for opportunistically “fishing in brown [i.e. far right] waters”.

As ever, the election has been thoroughly analysed by Forschungsgrupppe Wahlen and Infratest dimap. It is possible to construct a case laying the blame for the defeat squarely at Merkel’s door and from that point to a strategic need for the CDU/CSU to reposition itself in a more conservative fashion, as the CSU urges. Such critics would highlight the fact that the AfD’s support base went beyond those associated with far right support in recent times: not only did it win the support of 33% of working-class voters and 29% of unemployed voters, but also 27% of the self-employed. It did better amongst those with lower-level qualifications (26%) than minimal qualifications (18%), and also 13% of the votes of those with degrees.

They would note that the public assessment of Merkel’s refugee policies was highly critical, and not just amongst AfD voters: 85% agreed with the statement that “The number of refugees should be limited in the long-term”, 46% that “more is done for refugees than the indigenous population”, 62% that “because of the influx of refugees, the influence of Islam in Germany will become too great”, and 50% that “the way we live will change too much”. Such views received near-unanimous support from AfD voters. Merkel’s satisfaction ratings nationally were at 47% in August, a far cry from the overwhelming ratings of yesteryear. All this seems to have led to a position where the CDU’s drift towards the political centre, under Merkel, has allowed the AfD to establish itself securely in the German party system (much in the way that Gerhard Schöder’s welfare cuts allowed the Left Party to flourish).

But there is another view, forcefully put forward, for instance, by the pollster Manfred Güllner, that attributing the AfD’s success to Merkel and proclaiming that her days are numbered is not justified. He points to polling evidence that, in a federal election, the CDU in Mecklenburg West Pomerania would have scored 33% rather than 19% (and come top); in this view the result simply points to the weakness of the local CDU in the Land. Such a view is supported by the fact that issues other than refugees (such as social justice – 53% – and the economy and jobs – 44%) were considered decisive by voters – the refugee question being named by just 20%.

It can also be argued that, in state elections where Merkel’s CDU has lost (Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg would be examples), another candidate has been better able to mobilise centrist voters on a Land level, but these will return to the CDU at a national election. Güllner argues that the AfD only gained support from the “minority of eligible voters [12.6%] who were always susceptible to anti-foreigner, racist, right-wing radical views”, and certain trends support that assessment: for instance, the AfD, like many right populist and far right parties, did far better amongst men (25%) than women (16%). Indeed, across Germany the assessment of Merkel’s policy on refugees is not overly negative: in August, 44% thought Merkel was doing a good job, 52% disagreed, and amongst CDU/CSU supporters, 66% supported Merkel’s policies. The CDU would still top the poll at a federal election with 35% of the vote, and there is no clear internal challenger or obvious successor to Merkel as party leader and chancellor.

In summary, the Mecklenburg-West Pomerania poll runs a serious risk of over-interpretation, notably by those with a particular, anti-Merkel or anti-refugee axe to grind. However, it would appear that the days have finally passed where there is, according to the imperative of one-time CSU grandee Franz-Josef Strauss, “no democratically legitimated party” to the right of the Christian Democrats, and the AfD has established itself in German politics, with entry into the national parliament only a matter of time.

Ed Turner is Senior Lecturer and Head of Politics and International Relations at Aston University, based in the Aston Centre for Europe. He has written widely on German party politics and federalism.

This article was initially published on the LSE EuroPP blog at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/09/08/merkel-cdu-win-in-2017/

The party is over for Respect, but George Galloway could find a home again in Labour, by Parveen Akhtar

The following post was originally published on the site of The Conversation, on the 23rd of August 2016. For the original post, please visit: https://theconversation.com/the-party-is-over-for-respect-but-george-galloway-could-find-a-home-again-in-labour-64263

The Respect Party, launched 12 years ago as a platform for opposing the Iraq war, has ceased to be. After it lost its only parliamentary seat in the 2015 election, the party has “voluntarily de-registered” from the Electoral Commission.

The demise of the party has led to much speculation about what the future holds for George Galloway – the man who was the party’s leader and its only ever MP. Many now assume he will attempt to rejoin the Labour Party, which has shifted significantly to the left under Jeremy Corbyn. These two parliamentary stalwarts share many political ideals and fought together against the Iraq war in the early 2000s.
Losing Respect

Respect emerged in 2004 out of the anti-war movement. Galloway was a high profile figure and, within the space of just a few months, the party managed to win a quarter of a million votes in the European parliamentary elections. Galloway himself was almost elected as an MEP in London.

A year later he went one better in the 2005 general election and was elected as MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, a constituency with a large Muslim population. More success followed in the 2006 local elections, when Respect became the official opposition on Tower Hamlets council.

But by 2007, the party was beginning to fragment. There was a bitter factional split between Galloway’s supporters and those close to the Socialist Workers Party. Most thought the party was finished and its electoral results in 2010 seemed to confirm this. The party lost Bethnal Green and Bow back to Labour and Galloway failed to get elected in Poplar and Limehouse (he vacated his previous seat for a Bengali candidate, as promised).

However, two years later, Respect had their man back in parliament with a spectacular by-election victory in Bradford West. The Labour Party, confident that this was very much a “safe seat”, lost by more than 10,000 votes. Galloway polled more votes than the other seven candidates put together. Then, three years later, he lost the seat to Labour’s Naz Shah after one of the 2015 general election’s most divisive and bitterly personal campaigns.
The Galloway brand

Galloway alienated many people in Respect, especially women. Salma Yaqoob, one of the original founders of Respect, and the party’s other high-profile politician, cut ties with the party in 2012, citing Galloway’s comments about rape allegations made against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

But he was electric on the campaign trail and there is little doubt that Respect’s greatest successes were largely due to his charisma and personal appeal – particularly for young Muslim voters.

Galloway couldn’t always pull it off. A shambolic campaign in the Scottish parliamentary election of 2011 (which delivered just 0.35% of the local vote) and his most recent foray into the 2016 London mayoral election (when he won 1.4% of the vote) showed that without the right issues and electorate to exploit, his rhetoric could only get him so far.

His career in politics has been anything but dull. Serving as an MP between 1987-2010 and 2012-2015 he was also a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother and more recently brought out a film about Tony Blair. He is a household name in British politics; something that cannot be said for most of the politicians serving in Corbyn’s present shadow cabinet.

Galloway has always maintained he was “Old Labour”. He even said so in his 2012 by-election victory speech as leader of the Respect Party. He had been expelled from Labour in 2003, for bringing the party into disrepute over his opposition to the Iraq War. But in 2013 there were rumours that he had been in talks with Labour’s then leader, Ed Miliband, to rejoin.

He again stated his desire to rejoin the party during last year’s leadership election, a move which would have been deeply unpopular with many in the party – especially the Blairites.

If Corbyn stays on as leader – which is widely expected as the 2016 leadership campaign plays out – the balance of power will have shifted resoundingly to the left, paving the way for Galloway to possibly return to the fold. He and Corbyn were both heavily involved in the anti-war movement led by the Stop the War Coalition and Galloway describes Corbyn as his “friend and comrade for over 30 years”. Indeed, Corbyn, alongside other far left comrades, opposed Galloway’s expulsion from the party in the first place.

Respect was founded as a radical alternative to the New Labour project. While its roots were firmly in the anti-war movement, it brought together leftist campaigners on issues ranging from the environment, equal rights and socialism. It rejected the “third way” espoused by Blair during his tenure. But since Corbyn was elected leader, the rationale for a separate party no longer exists.
Friends again?

It’s worth pointing out that Respect’s electoral results make it Britain’s most successful radical left party. These successes may have been restricted to a handful of areas with significant Muslim populations (Birmingham, Bradford, east London) but it managed to do so on a shoestring budget and with a tiny membership. It was able to mobilise previously disenfranchised members of the community to turn out in force to overturn previously safe Labour seats. That should remind Labour of one of the first rules of representative democracy – not to take the electorate, even loyal supporters, for granted.

Respect will go down as a unique electoral experiment. It was derided as a single-issue party but survived for many years after British troops had left Iraq. Under a different electoral system, it would have had even more success.

Who would bet against Galloway standing as a Labour parliamentary candidate again? Given the events in British politics over the last year, and particularly in the Labour Party, anything seems possible.

What our students thought about studying Politics at Aston

As Clearing 2016 gets under way, another one of our former undergraduates – now our PhD student – had this to say about his time studying politics. Luke John Davies joined us through clearing, and has recently come back to pursue a PhD.

“I went to Aston through clearing, originally to do a combined degree in Politics and Business Admin. However I changed to doing Politics with International Relations after my first year because I found it to be an amazing thing to study. There is little point in teaching people knowledge any more because the entire country carries Google in their pockets. What I learnt doing Politics at Aston, and what I think makes it such a valuable subject, is to read between the lines. I learnt how to discern opinion from fact and to spot the kernel of truth hidden in spin – whether that spin be politics, advertising or even in personal interactions. It was the skills to think critically, to assess what is presented and how and to weigh up the reality of it before making a decision that I owe to Aston that have helped me in my life since.

One of the other good things about Politics at Aston is it is based in the School of Languages and Social Sciences, meaning it has a much more rounded feel and you get an insight into other aspects of political life feeding in from the Sociology, Public Policy, International Relations courses and even from the cultural modules of the languages courses from students who take those as a minor discipline alongside Politics (as above I took IR) so you get much more of a complete picture.

Outside of the lecture hall, to me the really unique thing about Aston is how it has the best of both a small campus university – the close-knit community, the shared experiences and the interaction with students studying other disciplines – and, because of its location next to Birmingham city centre, the best of a big city university in terms of the facilities, the night-life, the transport links and the culture of a major British core city.

For those reasons and more I loved my time studying Politics at Aston, and I’d recommend it to anybody.”

Luke John Davies BSc (Hons) MA
@LJDavies87

Secretary, Birmingham Fabian Society
Chair, West Midlands Young Fabians

Studying Politics at Aston

This blog post comes from Silvia Grant, our former undergraduate Politics Student, who is now completing a PhD at the School of  Languages and Social Sciences at Aston. 

Here, Silvia highlights some of the things students can expect when studying at Aston. 

I started studying Politics and International Relations (BSc) at Aston University in autumn 2008. I had come from Rome, and it was my first time abroad. At first I was a bit bewildered; cars driving down the wrong side of the street, the local Brummie accent sounding nothing like the edulcorated BBC English we were taught, and always thinking ‘I think it’s about to rain any moment’, but then it doesn’t. Within a few days, however, my worries were blown out the water with Freshers week. During this induction week we were all introduced to one another, I made lots of friends I still keep in touch with, we were introduced to the wonders of the city centre, were introduced to the dozens and dozens of different student societies and clubs, and were taught how to navigate the main building. The main building is huge structure with different wings, and takes some getting used to. I prefer it to other universities which have a number of scattered smaller 2-floored buildings because it’s as if it were a microcosm in itself, you bump into lots of people, and you can spend years trying to find your favourite corridor.

My Politics and International Relations (PIR) course was the exemplar politics course. Our first year had a lot of ‘Introduction to’ courses, which I first thought was slightly redundant as we had been ‘introduced to’ topics at school. Didn’t take much at all to realise that these were instead crucial, as there are some topics which deal with very sophisticated and complex notions. You have some liberty in choosing which modules to take, but overall in my three years I studied UK Politics (history, domestic, and foreign policy) political economy, philosophy and ethics, US politics, comparative European politics, EU (history, relations, institutions, and law), politics and law, international relations (history, theory and application), security studies, terrorism, charismatic leadership, political communication, and post-Cold War conflicts. At points I felt stretched, because there is plenty of reading to do, but then I got back into the flow of it. What really made the difference were the lecturers. The PIR team was incredible, and still is. We really got involved in discussions in the seminars, and we could feel a real sense of urgency in what was being debated. Politics students also read lots of news, as they feed into Uni studies. Amongst other things, we are given a distinct advantage in critically interpreting and understanding the news, their spin, and the world around us.

Our shiny new library
Our shiny new library

Politics courses are ‘sandwich’ degrees in the sense that you can decide to have a placement year in your third year. Aston is really strong at offering placements, and it’s a great opportunity to get some work experience, to get a prestigious internship, to travel abroad to learn a language, get a taste of studying abroad at one of Aston’s partner Universities, or otherwise pursue the beginning of your post-degree professional interests. Our Uni has a great close-knit community, is walking distance to Birmingham city centre (and its multi-million pounds regenerations), and is top ranked in many tables. Aston also has a reputation for matchmaking powers, as many students have found their other halves during their degrees, including me.

Our Campus
Our Campus

@TrulySilvia

#astonuniversity #alevelresults #clearing #clearing2016

Labour’s century-old problem: leadership performance

Author: John Gaffney
This blog post was originally published in the British politics and Policy LSE blog on the 12/07/2016. For the original version, please see: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/labours-century-old-problem-the-politics-of-leadership-performance/
A shorter version of this article also appeared in the Sunday Express on the 03/07/2017.

There is turmoil in the Labour Party: once again related to the question of leadership. From Hardie to Corbyn, the question of leadership has driven the party on and off the rails; and at the heart of its dilemma is the still – one hundred years later – unresolved question of the leader’s triple relationship to the party, the parliamentary party, and the electorate.

The great irony is that the Labour Party hates the topic. Worse than that, it doesn’t understand it. ‘Leftism’, like republicanism, posits an impersonalism: we are equal, we progress as a collective, no one is indispensable. To think otherwise, will lead us to infantile hero worship or worse, tyranny. (The right makes the opposite mistake of fetishizing leadership.)

This blind spot in Labour’s vision of politics means that whenever leadership issues arise, and they do all the time, they immediately become crises because it doesn’t know what leadership is, doesn’t want to know, and doesn’t like it – so doesn’t know what it entails. The whole issue is compounded for Labour with the emergence of ‘celebrity politics’ – which it also hates – not realising that there is a wide range of ways to play this.

Tony Blair is the best recent example of knowing how to ‘perform a character’: regular guy, modernizer, decisive, in-touch with national sentiment (e.g. the Diana speech), and so on. In fact, Blair’s low point in terms of rhetorical performance was not over Iraq or Bernie Ecclestone, but the slow handclapping of the Women’s Institute when in 2000 he addressed their conference and made, to their fury, a ‘political’ speech.

What the Labour Party has always done to cope with the very real issue of leadership, rather than seeing leadership as a performance within a cluster of relationships (with members, media, etc.), has been to apply a series of simplistic character traits – usually negative – to its leaders: the treacherous (MacDonald, Blair); the idealistic (Hardie, Henderson, Foot); the not up to it, though ‘good and decent’ (Foot again, Miliband, Corbyn); the modest (Attlee); the wily (Wilson); the reliable (Callaghan), and so on.

Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership election in 2015 not because he was left-wing but because his performance was stunning. And his three opponents’ performances were awful: Did we overspend? – “Yes we did.” – “No we didn’t.” – “I wanted to vote against Osborne’s welfare cuts but I couldn’t but I will next time.” – “You should stand down.” – “I still go for a drink with my old friends up North.” Into these dire exchanges Corbyn erupted wanting to talk about everything, and he fired people’s imagination and created a stampede of excited support.

Then he stopped, and that is why we are where we are today. And, ironically again, he stopped performing at the moment of his victory. His victory speech was in direct contrast to his style throughout the campaign, of the ‘I don’t mind if the media attack me but not my family’ type, singularly underwhelming for the occasion. And since winning, he has just talked to the Corbynistas instead of ‘enchanting’ all parts of the party by choreographing his leadership style and ‘seducing’, as it were, his opponents.

And Corbyn’s poor performances during the Brexit campaign ‘betrayed’ his ambivalent attitude to Europe. And ambivalence is a major political resource and a rhetorical device that has to be deployed with enormous care. We are now in an age of the politics of leadership performance. Those now trying to unseat Jeremy Corbyn would themselves do well to heed this. In the Conservative leadership race it was clear that in her leadership launch Theresa May, of all people, has already understood this.