Labour discipline is in a woeful state, but there is more than that at stake with the Ahmed affair

The only surprising thing about this case is that no one seems to have realized Lord Ahmed was an accident waiting to happen
  • @rob_marchant

The last few days have seen a shocked political outcry over the comments of Lord Ahmed, Labour peer, after The Times translated from Urdu an interview with him by Pakistani media from last year. The paper quotes Ahmed as claiming, astonishingly, that it was Jewish influences on the judiciary which had led to his conviction and subsequent jailing for dangerous driving.

That is, despite his own guilty plea, and the evidence of multiple text messages sent immediately prior to the accident, which killed a 28-year-old man in 2007. I should add that Ahmed is at time of writing claiming "no recollection" of the interview, although it is obviously recorded.

It’s not surprising that he is alleged to have made such controversial remarks; he was previously suspended from the Labour Party for other comments, also made in Pakistan a year ago, as we shall see.

It is not even, sadly, surprising to hear reports of a Labour parliamentarian uttering disturbing words about Jews - after all, we remember Paul Flynn's statements last year about the British Ambassador to Israel, who also happens to be Jewish.

The surprising - no, extraordinary - thing is that no one seems to have realized that Ahmed was an accident waiting to happen, and therefore acted before now.

This is a man who, during that Pakistan trip of April last year, said he could offer £10 million in order to bring two former world leaders "to the International Court of Justice".  But the Pakistani press exaggerated his words at first, and were later forced to apologise (it was not, as they claimed, a "bounty", implying violence). Labour's whip, which had been temporarily suspended in that case as well, was restored. Ahmed wriggled out of a very tight spot, unscathed.

But less reported and more shocking was, in the same paragraph, the careless name-checking of Hafiz Saeed, wanted terrorist (terrorism as defined by the UN) and alleged "mastermind" of the Mumbai bombing, in which 164 died. He later equivocated about Saeed to Channel 4 News, saying that he "has been, however, released by Pakistani courts without any charge". Acceptable behaviour by a British parliamentary representative this was not.

This is a man who, last November, issued - and then later retracted - a claim which was at once both scurrilous and, frankly, rather idiotic. The claim was that Malala Yousafzai, the fearless and determined schoolgirl who had fought with the local Taliban theocracy to attend school in her native Pakistan, receiving a near-fatal bullet in the head for her pains, was actually part of a dastardly Western plot against the Taliban (as if, presumably, that would be a bad thing). While the world was being inspired by that brave little girl breathing on a ventilator, Ahmed was trying to find reasons to apologise for the unspeakable thugs who put her there.

And in the storm over inviting then-banned preacher and convicted terrorist funder Raed Salah to speak at the Houses of Parliament, who originally booked the room? Just guess.

So with all this history, we ask, how could it possibly transpire that, a whole year after the notorious Pakistan trip, Labour still had this man representing them in parliament?

Now, formal expulsion from the party, a rule-book matter, is the responsibility of the party's National Executive Committee (NEC), and takes time. But withdrawing the parliamentary whip can be done, de facto, by putting the MP's membership into administrative suspension, something the General Secretary can do with minimal consultation with the party's political leadership. It's quick.

Indeed, compare and contrast the disciplinary speed with the case of Aidan Burley, the Conservative MP who attended the "Nazi stag party". Six days later, he was sacked from his job as a PPS. It is important to note that Burley was never seriously accused of actual racism, merely offensive behaviour (he has so far managed to retain the whip). But the Tories acted quickly.

The main thing is that it is not that hard to withdraw the whip, and Labour did so speedily in other cases, such as Phil Woolas and Denis MacShane. So, why so unsuccessfully in this case, until now?

Heaven alone knows, is the short answer, but there are some sensible guesses we can make: that Labour did not want to antagonise its supporters in communities in Britain's northern cities, where Ahmed was thought to have been something of a kingmaker; that it was nervous of accusing a senior member of an ethnic minority of such unpleasant behaviour, and therefore to risk "playing into the hands of racists"; or simply that there are several other parliamentarians with similar views, and they don't want to have to deal with all of them.

So yes, the days of New Labour control-freakery are clearly long gone, when representatives can get away with such behaviour with impunity (not to mention, incidentally, Ahmed's support of a non-Labour candidate Lutfur Rahman, normally an expulsion offence - but then again, they didn't want to expel Ken Livingstone, who did the same). But there is a deeper, and uglier, issue than mere discipline.

We Labour activists who care about such things, and who have watched cases like Ahmed's evolve with a depressing predictability over the last few years, can only hope that the party will learn its lesson from this case.

That it will start reflecting, and listening, on an issue - the tolerance towards extremism shown by a number of its own representatives - which is screaming to be heard.