Few politicians are as well-mannered and gracious as Communities Secretary John Denham. He is popular with the Labour Party faithful because he is has no airs and is prepared to discuss his ideas openly. In the past decade he has navigated the Blair-Brown sectarian divide with great skill and made an astonishing comeback after resigning from the government over Iraq. But he is not without enemies.
His historic association with Palestinian issues and a perceived soft stance on radical Islam have made him deeply unpopular in certain sections of his own party. Some elements within the Jewish community are also deeply suspicious. When I told the leader of one major Jewish organisation this week that I was interviewing John Denham, I was informed that the general view was that he was “a total git” who was hostile to Israel and didn’t understand the seriousness of the threat of Islamic extremism.
One offence (among many) is that he is said to have lobbied hard within Cabinet for a restoration of relations with the Muslim Council of Britain. The government suspended links in March after the MCB deputy secretary general, Daud Abdullah, was found to have signed the Istanbul Declaration, which called for attacks on Israel and British troops.
Mr Denham is eager to clarify his views on the matter. “The position with the Muslim Council of Britain is that relations were suspended because Daud Abdullah signed up to remarks which the government finds unacceptable and which caused a real problem. But I think we do recognise that the Muslim Council of Britain does represent and includes a lot of voices the government would like to engage with.” He said the matter was under discussion between his officials and the MCB.
I ask if his personal position is that Mr Abdullah’s actions were unacceptable. “There isn’t too much room for doubt about its interpretation in terms of support for violence, including against British troops. So I’ve been very clear about that,” he says.
But he has also been clear that, in an ideal world, the MCB would be in regular dialogue with his department. “This is an organisation with over a thousand affiliates from many different walks of life, many of whom, in the normal course of events the government would want to engage with.”
For the present at least, the situation is that the MCB is suspended. But does he have a strategy for engagement in general. Does he, like his predecessors, Ruth Kelly and Hazel Blears, place conditions on dialogue? Where were his lines in the sand? For instance, was recognition of Israel’s right to exist a precondition for organisations funded by his department? Or would they be allowed to take a hard-line position as long as they did not advocate violence?
I suggest this is a key issue not only for Jews, but for Muslims too. “I’m not going to play down the importance of the issue,” he says. “But I’m not aware of this ever having been raised. As a matter of principle I sometimes think getting drawn into the ‘what would you do if this happens?’ argument can set up its own debate and have its own consequences. I think that’s better to avoid.”
Asked if there is anything he can say to the Jewish community to reassure them that he has their interests at heart, Mr Denham points to his exemplary record of opposing racism. During his time as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee he raised the issue of antisemitic attacks in France and Holland on the floor of the House of Commons. “There was a simple physical fear of being visibly Jewish on the streets...I warned that it should never happen here. I would say look at my record on anti-racism and look at my record on the importance of tackling antisemitism.”
He knows he is suspected in some quarters as being an Arabist anti-Zionist. “It is certainly a matter of record that I have been critical of some of the things suffered by the Palestinians, but I’m equally on the record as committed to the right of Israel to have security and to the two-state solution being the only lasting settlement.”
His stance on the Iraq war demonstrates that he has always been his own man. His more conciliatory stance on radical Islam has already ruffled a few feathers, but he denies he has taken government policy on community cohesion on a 180 degree journey from that taken by Ms Blears and Ms Kelly. He says the new policy with its emphasis on other forms of extremism, such as the activities of the neo-Fascist right, is based on evidence and consultation. “I think that’s not a sharp change from one secretary of state to another,” he says. “I think it’s another year of experience of the programme and seeing how it works at the local level. And having the willingness, which politicians should have, to change if it’s going to make you more effective.”
At the end of our interview, Mr Denham enters still more controversial territory. Did the government get it fundamentally wrong in its response to the 7/7 terror attacks in 2005, as some have suggested, including Nick Clegg in last week’s JC?
“I think you could draw some analogies with the broader history of Labour in power,” he concedes. “When we came in with underfunded public services with very poor measures of performance and little idea if we were getting value for money, you had to make things change by getting a grip on them centrally. But everyone knows the peak of that has passed,” he says, before making the link to policy on radicalism.
“I think the same is true in community policy and the response to terrorism. You had to move quickly, you had to make changes, you had to put things in place. But you also had to learn from what works and what doesn’t work. Much of the innovation and the best practice happens in the front line rather than in central government.”
Mr Denham’s next move is to establish a group of trusted religious advisers to talk to on faith issues. He has advertised for panel members and those selected will be announced shortly. He is also hoping to host a series of dinners, including one with the Jewish community. I wish him luck persuading them that he is not a “total git”.