I respect Nick Cohen a lot. He's one of the few political journalist's I always read. He's also been incredibly supportive of blogging in general and this blog in particular. Indeed, he once, entirely unsolicitedly got his agent to try and send me a copy of "pretty straight guys", his latest book. I couldn't accept it, because I couldn't think of a way of having it delivered anonymously, but it was a lovely gesture, so I bought the book anyway, enjoyed it, and am finally getting round to plugging it.
Indeed, I put Nick in the small bracket of journalists (with Nick Davies and David Aaronovitch) where when I disagree with him, I find it important to re-assess and re-justify my own position (as I disagree with him a lot, this can cost me an inordinate of time).
So it is with Nick's Observer article today. In it, Nick alleges that Labour is using the proposed new law against religious hatred as a wedge issue to seperate disatisfied Muslims from new allies in the conservative and Liberal democrat camps. Nick edges up to accusing Labour minister Mike O'Brien of anti-semitic pandering (So that's why he bought down Peter Mandelson!), suggests that Labour is practising communal politics (a term meaningless in English politics, which carries heavy hints of religious bigotry, the BJP, Gujarat and Indian riots).
Well these are serious points and deserve to be considered.
The history of Labour's support in the Muslim community is pretty straightforward. Labour was the only party prepared to accept and work with the Muslim communities (and Hindu, and afro-caribbean) as they established them selves in Britain's Inner cities. as a result, they became one of Labour's most loyal supporters, both individually, and through an en-bloc approach dictated by "community leaders". There were occassional fractures, most notably over Kashmir, where Labour refused to take up a completely pro-pakistan position, but in general Muslims overwhemingly voted Labour.
This changed when the Labour government prosecuted the Afghan and Iraq wars. Muslim voters deserted the Labour party in great numbers, accusing it of many things- including Pro-Israel bias, acting against the interest of Muslims, and generally being anti-Muslim. This was made most obvious in the series of by-elections across 2003-4 where Labour lost the Muslim vote heavily. defections generally went to the Liberal Democrats and Respect, based in most part to their opposition to the Iraq war.
Nick's case is that consequent to that, Labour decided to use a law against religious discrimination as a tool to hold onto Labour votes.
For this we need to go back to the 1986 Racial Hatred Bill, which made it illegal to incite hatred on the grounds of race. Case law established that this also extended to religious groups that were also ethnic groups (Jews and Sikh's notably). However, this did not extend to Muslims, and after the 2001 terror attacks, racist groups, Notably the BNP, began to focus their attention less on the "black" menace and more on the "Muslim" menace. (for examples, see here). While the Government could stop distribution of leaflets aimed at inciting hatred against Pakistani's, Jews and Gypsies, it could do nothing about the targetting of Muslims.
Now, Let's assume that the law will be applied to protect Muslims in the same way it is used to protect Jews today. Who will suffer? Well, if case law is any guide it will be people like Abdullah El-Faisal, who argued that it was legitimate to use Chemical weapons on Jews. The Home Office guidance notes that if he'd said the same thing about Muslims he would not have been prosecuted under the old laws.
I agree with Nick that any restriction on freedom of speech is especially troubling and should be examined with the most sceptical of eyes. aftrer all, if you hold that all speech should be free, this is merely society falling down a slippery slope. however, it seems to me that the extension of a protection currently enjoyed by Jews and Sikhs to Muslims is neither a hypocritical pandering, nor merely a piece of political demagoguery. It would not work as the former, and whether you agree with it's proposals, there is a legitimate case for the law on social grounds.