The UK’s Anti-Malala Backlash

Sadly, Malala Yousafzai became a controversial figure in Pakistan soon after she was shot and the theory that she is a pawn of the West is now entrenched.

It’s depressing, however, to realize these views have also gained currency in the UK. Yesterday, Nihal – a radio presenter – hosted a phone-in discussion on BBC Asian Network, in response to news that some private schools in Pakistan have banned Malala’s book.

The first guest was Mizanur Rahman, who was introduced as a UK-based ‘lecturer’. It’s quite an interview – you can listen to for the next few days here (2:10 onwards). According to Rahman, Malala was always “a tool of the BBC and Western governments” and that the idea she is promoting girls’ education is a lie. Instead, her main purpose is to justify Western aggression against Muslims, and the Taliban in particular.

The Taliban, in contrast, has been much maligned. “The Taliban has always education promoted for boys and girls,” he claimed. Anyone, like Malala, who claimed otherwise was dehumanizing Taliban members in order to justify their killing by American forces. “The Taliban never barred girls from attending schools,” an incredulous Nihal asked. “Never! Never!” Rahman replied.

Other guests refuted Rahman with great gusto, including Bina Shah, who writes about her experience here. Nihal, himself, is a skilled and patient interviewer. “My gosh, he’s a rude man,” was as cross as he got and he did a good job puncturing some of the guy’s more blatant fabrications and distortions.

But Rahman was not without his supporters. One young woman phoned in to say that she had friends from the Swat valley and they had had no trouble gaining an education. Malala’s father was to blame for the attack on her, she said, not the Taliban. She believed that Malala’s story was mostly a fabrication.

So who is Rahman? There is a lecturer with that name at a British business school, but I very much doubt it’s the same guy.

There’s also an activist called Mizanur Rahman, who has a conviction for inciting racial hatred and for soliciting murder in the aftermath of the Danish cartoons. Maybe it was him. If it was, surely the BBC had a duty to warn its listeners about his background and criminal record.

I’d also be interested to see some polling on how widespread Malala conspiracy theories have become in the UK. On the one hand, her book is so widely distributed that it’s one of only a handful on sale in my local supermarket. On the other, I suspect an anti-Malala backlash is now well underway.

Labour’s next election attack lines on the Conservatives’ development record

This piece is published this morning on the Guardian development blog (under the rather fabulous headline Will international development be the undoing of David Cameron?”we can but dream…)

International development may not be among the top five most salient issues at the next UK general election. Yet, for two reasons, it remains in its way a key battleground issue.

First, it’s the last remnant of the signature issues pushed by David Cameron in a bid to “detoxify” the Tory brand. All the others have fallen from grace – “hug a hoodie“, the “big society“, the “greenest government ever” – to the extent that Danny Kruger, the author of the hug a hoodie speech, said last month:

I’d like to know where David Cameron’s compassionate Conservatism has gone … my overall feeling is that there is a loss of drive and energy that David Cameron personally had before the last election.

Development matters for Cameron not only because it provides him with one of his last remaining claims to the political centre, but also because of opposition from his own backbenchers – the reason other detox issues fell by the wayside.

With Cameron’s authority over his party already problematic – and likely to become more so between now and 2015 as his restive MPs contemplate the idea of a second coalition – development represents a key test issue that he cannot afford to lose.

For Labour, on the other hand, development matters because of its unique power to energise a bloc of highly committed, activist-minded voters who are natural Labour supporters.

While Iraq was clearly catastrophic for Labour’s capacity to appeal to this group of voters, 10 years have now passed. This time around, the big question is whether Labour’s offer on development is different enough to motivate them not just to vote, but to put their formidable capacities to organise and mobilise others behind the party’s campaign.

Needless to say, the Conservatives will hope their commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on aid will be enough to neutralise that threat – and to give credit where it’s due, they have delivered on their pre-election rhetoric.

Labour will continue to do what it can to attack this claim – by pointing to the Tories’ failure to keep their promise to legislate for the 0.7% target, for example – but it seems clear that they will have to look elsewhere for its key “dividing lines” on development. So what are their options?

First, inequality. As a Save the Children report published this week underlines, tackling income inequality in developing countries will be essential if the world is to achieve zero poverty by 2030.

This fits easily with the One Nation narrative that Ed Miliband has developed for Labour, but presents much more of a political headache for Cameron (indeed, the relatively weak language on inequality in the recent UN high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, which Cameron co-chaired, was largely at British insistence).

Climate will be a second key attack issue for Labour, given that the coalition’s record since 2010 includes the abolition of solar power subsidies, embarrassingly low take-up of the government’s green deal on energy efficiency, and a 3.5% rise in UK emissions in 2012. None of this puts the UK in a strong position to lead internationally in 2014, when political heavy lifting will be needed ahead of the crucial December 2015 summit in Paris.

Third, a financial transactions tax. While some development experts remain unconvinced of the case for a Robin Hood tax, campaigners adore the idea. But while Ed Balls publicly supports the case for such a tax at international level, the Conservatives remain opposed to imposing such a constraint on the City.

This in turn fits in with Labour’s fourth potential dividing line: a broader message of policy coherence. Before the 2010 election, the Department for International Development was an active player in cross-Whitehall debates on areas such as trade, migration, intellectual property, tax havens, climate, and environment.

Since then, though, it has been firmly pushed back into aid administration rather than a broader agenda of development diplomacy. We’re therefore likely to hear a lot from Labour arguing that, unlike the Tories, it believes aid spending is just one piece of a much larger jigsaw puzzle.

Finally, Labour will attack Cameron’s own record of international leadership. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both exerted huge amounts of energy and political capital on the UK-hosted meetings of the G8 in 2005 and G20 in 2009 – in both cases, putting development concerns very much front and centre.

Cameron, on the other hand, seems a less enthusiastic global advocate for development. His G8 tax agenda appeared half-hearted and under-prepared, while his co-chairmanship of the UN post-2015 high-evel panel was noted by many for his reluctance to attend meetings and clumsy media diplomacy.

How he is perceived on development going in to the 2015 election will depend largely on how much international leadership he is prepared to show over the next 18 months. Given how crucial this period will be for both climate change and the post-2015 development agenda, the importance of this test goes far beyond party politics.

• Alex Evans was special adviser to Hilary Benn at the UK Department for International Development from 2003 to 2006, and blogs at www.globaldashboard.org

Total energy decarbonisation by 2030 AND flat fuel bills? Seriously?

Blimey – Ed Miliband certainly likes to make it hard for himself.

Amid all the coverage this morning of his Labour conference speech yesterday, one small detail seems to have been overlooked: his commitment to total decarbonisation of the energy sector by 2030.

Labour had already committed to including a decarbonisation target in its 2015 manifesto, back in June this year after a cross-party amendment to the Energy Bill in favour of such a measure was defeated by the government – but hadn’t specified the level of the target. This is what Ed Miliband provided yesterday, when he said that

Labour will have a world leading commitment in government to take all of the carbon out of our energy by 2030.

This is a hugely ambitious commitment, and green campaigners will be purring. But you have to wonder – how exactly will this be squared this with the other new policy commitment on energy that he announced yesterday: “the next Labour government will freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017″? Because if we really want to achieve a 100% decarbonisation target in just a decade and a half, it will cost more.

It may be that Labour’s simply ignoring the economics of this because the politics are so good. Jonathan Freedland observes this morning that focus group approval of price controls on gas and electricity is “off the charts”, according to a senior Labour figure. The FT’s political team, meanwhile, notes that however much the Conservatives, Lib Dems, and energy companies howl about the risk of lights going out,

Mr Miliband will relish the backlash, which he hopes will highlight his claim to be willing to side with ordinary families against big business and to tilt the economic playing field back in their favour.

“The companies won’t like it because it will cost them money,” Mr Miliband said. “But they have been overcharging people for too long because the market doesn’t work. We need to press the reset button.”

I assume that Labour knows what it’s doing here, not only because Ed Miliband knows the DECC brief back to front but also because Bryony Worthington is a shadow DECC minister and knows more about the energy sector than most of the energy companies themselves do. But I’d feel better seeing some detailed unpacking of the underlying assumptions…

Labour and Uncle Sam

Should Britain expect more from the Special Relationship with the United States than managed decline? What price should progressives be willing to pay for influence? Latest in our #progressivedilemmas series on conundrums facing the next Labour government. 

The first law of politics

From Janan Ganesh in the FT:

More than any profession, politics suffers from the myth of strategy. Its practitioners and pundits tend to attribute electoral success to a compelling “message” or “narrative” backed by a “ground game”, a media “operation” and something to do with the internet. There is almost nothing that cannot be achieved if you politic hard enough, it seems.

This is, of course, a fantasy. The first law of politics is that almost nothing matters. Voters barely notice, much less are they moved by, the events, speeches, tactics, campaigns or even strategies that are ultimately aimed at them. Elections are largely determined by a few fundamentals: the economy, the political cycle, the basic appeal of the party leaders. The role of human agency is not trivial, but it is rarely decisive either.

The case for (continuing) counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan

There’s a bit of a debate currently about whether the Coalition in Afghanistan should continue to invest in counter-narcotics work in the country. The problem – as articulated by people on the ground is that much of the work has failed. Opium production is up, American troops are no longer allowed to set foot in poppy fields let alone burn them and in a year’s time drugs won’t be high on the Afghan Government’s to do list – if it’s on it at all.  What we do next matters because it is liable to have an impact in the UK… below is a short piece I did for RUSI. Continue reading