Livingstone failed because his old tactics no longer work

The Labour candidate is a casualty of the modern media, but not in the way he thinks.

One day they will write books about the result of the 2012 mayoral election. Politics students will marvel at how, with a respectable national lead in the polls, an experienced, household-name candidate managed to throw the campaign with a series of mistakes, compounded with denials which only exacerbated those mistakes. In the process, he would manage to alienate whole communities and draw heavy criticism from across the left-right spectrum of his own party.

If the vote was relatively close, his personal polling points to this being despite the candidate, not because of him (in the last poll, he was six per cent behind the Assembly vote and nine per cent behind the national vote for Labour). How else could it happen that he ended the campaign with the ignominy of his name being stripped from leaflets? That there remained a mere handful of senior politicians who would actually sign a letter of support for Labour (not, note, for him)? That the party’s chief campaigner could reach the point of saying, on record, “hold your nose and vote for Ken”?

It's not that Boris Johnson was so unbeatable after four mediocre years in office. No, Livingstone sabotaged himself so often, both during and in the years before the campaign, that even close supporters fell out of love with him. The question is: why now, not twelve years ago?

The facts are simultaneously both well-known, yet somehow, in a supreme act of cognitive dissonance, forgotten by Livingstone’s supporters. Not just the wheels spectacularly falling off the campaign itself – the tax controversy, the falling out with the Jewish community – but, since his last election win in 2004, he has gone almost wilfully scattering hostages to fortune: the stories of Lee Jasper, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Oliver Finegold, Press TV, Lutfur Rahman, the Chávez oil-deal-that-wasn’t, the Reuben brothers and the advisors from Socialist Action, all of which would have killed the careers of the less cunning. But it’s not as if he has suddenly changed: Livingstone has always done this kind of thing.

And neither has the public changed: what has changed is the way they interact. He is a twentieth-century politician who succeeded brilliantly in adapting his message to what people wanted to hear; but one who failed miserably to adapt his tactics to the new ways in which they take in information about their politicians.

It comes down to something very simple: as a public figure in the twenty-first century, you have to behave; if only because the technology of communications means that it is so much easier to get caught. You could say, with some accuracy, that the internet has done for Livingstone.

Livingstone’s are the tactics of the old left: do something indefensible and, when there is an outcry, deny everything. They were tactics that stood him in good stead during the 1980s at the GLC, because only a select few could be bothered to pick up his inconsistencies in the detail of the print media, and by then the news cycle would have moved on. Negatives could always be blamed on the prejudice of the Tory press, anyway.

But, over the last decade, no longer. Ordinary people - not to mention journalists - can now check these things very easily. In seconds, a name Googled, a quote confirmed, a video watched, and: "hang on a minute, that's not right." And, in 2012, we see the result. Harsh criticism, not just from the usual suspects, but from normally supportive quarters of the left: the Jonathan Freedlands and the Mehdi Hasans.

So, when Livingstone claims that he never knew anything of al-Qaradawi’s repugnant views on homosexuality, wife-beating and Jews, up pops a video clip of al-Qaradawi saying repugnant things on just those subjects. It is simply not credible any more that one of your staff didn’t research him. When you say that your tax affairs are entirely consistent with your previous denunciations of tax avoidance, thousands of amateurs can download a PDF file of your accounts and realise in a blink that that is not the case (and, incidentally, that neither do the accounts seem to be certified by an accountant).

The free-and-easy availability of information makes it easier to catch politicians out: and if you speak as carelessly as the Labour candidate always has, you will be caught out not once but repeatedly; which is what has happened. Trust, or the lack of it, is what stopped the Livingstone bandwagon in its tracks. That’s the beauty of twenty-first century politics: it requires politicians who say the same to everyone.

In short, it is perhaps Livingstone’s failure to adapt to this new world that has most contributed to his astonishing achievement: of gifting a campaign, which should really have been won, to his enemies, on a very good night for Labour.

In the end the modern, interactive media have helped achieve, too late, what Labour could not through its selection process: it filtered out what people did not want. And if that statement strikes you as glib, you might just reflect on this: how flawed must be the Labour Party’s selection process, if it can select a candidate that not only the public do not want, but that so many of its loyal members and supporters could not bring themselves to vote for.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

Ken Livingstone speaks after the announcement that Boris Johnson had won the London mayoral election. Photograph: Getty Images
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.