Making a difference?

Salma Yaqoob's politics have more to do with mainstream liberalism than with socialism, says Alan Fox

Salma Yaqoob's appearance on BBC TV's Question time on January 19 ought to have been the occasion for the voicing of a different, radical politics, far removed from the normal establishment fare - if you believe that Respect is equipped with a coherent set of radical policies, that is.

Predictably though, Salma Yaqoob, Respect's vice-chair, was not about to break the mould, coming over as the mainstream liberal that she is. On both the proposed single sex offenders register and two-women brothels she came over as a slightly more caring Blairite than your average New Labour politician. She even proposed a date for Gordon Brown's 'Britain day' - June 15, the anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta (in 1215 the barons forced king John to give them their 'fair' share of the ruthless exploitation of the English peasantry).

Yaqoob on occasion had the other panellists - Labour's Chris Bryant, Ming Campbell of the Liberal Democrats, shadow trade secretary Alan Duncan and even Sir Andrew Green of Migration Watch - nodding in agreement with her sensible suggestions. On the government's proposal for allowing two prostitutes to work together from a private dwelling, she was "in favour, with caution". Yaqoob thought that providing the protection of safe houses, while at the same time offering encouragement for women to give up prostitution, was the road to go down.

This debate became diverted by Campbell and Bryant into a general bash against so-called 'people-traffickers' who bring women into Britain with the aim of forcing them into the sex trade - their illegal existence meant that they were unable to escape for fear of being arrested and deported. Pimps therefore feel free to beat them and pump them full of drugs.

The answer that was crying out to be made was that no worker should be illegal - everybody should be able to come and go as they please. The abolition of border controls would legalise such women at a stroke. But of course Yaqoob is unable to make such an argument, since Respect has consistently voted down such a position.

Neither was she able to counter the position of Duncan and Green - that the legalisation of mini-brothels would be unpleasant for the neighbours and should be opposed. Prostitution is hardly a desirable phenomenon. But instead of banning such a desperate means of gaining a livelihood, we demand work or benefits - paid at a rate which guarantees a civilized level of subsistence. Either way, sexual relations freely entered into should be a private matter - including when they happen to involve a cash payment.

Salma Yaqoob is a social worker and her response reflected that, rather than adherence to any kind of working class programme.

On changes to the sex offenders register, she was uncritical of education secretary Ruth Kelly's proposals. Instead of opposing this latest extension of surveillance and control, Yaqoob said that the creation of a single register would be a "positive move" and she thought it was right that 'experts', not a minister, should be responsible for deciding whether an individual should be permanently banned from working with children, as Gordon Brown has suggested.

On that other bright idea of Brown - a special national holiday to celebrate our common Britishness - Yaqoob's views were pretty much in accord with the official anti-racist, nationalist consensus. She stressed her own Britishness and that of people of migrant descent in general. True, unlike the other panellists, she thought there was "not enough immigration" since there are now "too many old people", but Yaqoob clearly sees nothing wrong with wrapping ourselves in the union flag and promoting a classless identity.

On the Liberal Democrats' leadership election, Salma noted the advantage of appointing "a leader with gravitas" - she pointed out that Jacques Chirac is in his 70s and Ariel Sharon his 80s, and recommended Ming Campbell over and above an inexperienced youngster.

The final, brief, question concerned George Galloway's appearance on Celebrity big brother. Yaqoob said she was "as shocked as anyone" when she switched on the programme and saw Galloway walk into the house - she promised she "will have words" when he comes out. But George had "taken a risk" and she was hoping that it might come off.

Not if his behaviour in the week since Question time was screened is anything to go by. The aim of Big brother is to atomise the contestants and provoke petty strife in the name of 'controversial' entertainment - and Galloway fell for it hook, line and sinker: he was bitching and backstabbing with the best of them. Far from 'winning over' millions of young viewers by the sheer force of his personality (let alone propagating an anti-war message), by the end he was widely regarded by viewers and housemates alike as a grumpy old man - a prime candidate for eviction. More than 67% of those who took part in the phone and text ballot that culminated in his removal on January 25 voted for the Respect leader to be booted out rather than the other two nominees.

Salma Yaqoob's appearance on Question time was much more to the liking of the Socialist Workers Party than was Galloway's on Big brother. Respect national secretary, John Rees, speaking at the members' caucus before the January 21 RMT conference on working class representation, proudly declared that it was only because of the achievements of Respect that Salma had been invited onto Question time.

He did not explain what advantage it was to have a member featured whose politics seemed virtually indistinguishable from that of the establishment parties. 'Making a difference' is what matters now - and to do that you have to tone down your politics in order to win elections (Big brother excepted) and get onto TV.