How Labour can clean up Osborne's mess

The party must make national renewal its essential governing project.

George Osborne has messed the economy up. This might be a somewhat laconic summary of the latest IMF report into the state of the UK economy, but it isn’t a million miles from the truth. The overly rapid imposition of fiscal tightening has led to recession, which in turn means that borrowing is increasing, not falling. Cue ominous orchestral strings.

Yet as George Eaton argued yesterday, Osborne’s failure - and it is an abject, historic, world-class failure – has difficult political consequences. The Chancellor's failure means the next election will be fought under economically cloudy skies. The economy will probably be growing anaemically by 2015, but there will be pressure on living standards and stubbornly high unemployment. Our national debt will still be rising and the necessary return to fiscal balance will be several years off.

So the government has quietly kicked rebalancing a little longer down the road. The IMF reminds us that the government has already announced "further, unspecified consolidation in 2015-17.". That’s the £10 billion of further welfare cuts the government has "planned" for after the next election. The IMF think growth will be slower than the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) does, and deficit targets missed, which means even more "unspecified consolidation" will eventually be needed. To this gloom, the OBR adds that an aging population means return to pre-crisis levels of debt will require additional spending cuts or tax rises worth some £17 billion a year[1] just to return to the debt status quo ante.

These problems are going to land right in the lap of the next government. So what can Labour offer a nation facing weak growth, high debt and demographic cost pressures?

One reaction to the triple squeeze a Labour government would face is to deny that deficit reduction will be needed, that we can find a path to growth in the rejection of spending restraint, or "austerity-lite". In the short-term, that is absolutely the right approach. Debt is historically cheap, and rates are low because money is seeking out the safehouses of government securities. Unfortunately, Labour will not be governing in the short-term. Come 2015, while fiscal consolidation might be slowed, or even temporarily reversed, at some point it will need to be resumed – at least if we are to remain good Keynesians. So in order to create the space we need to invest for growth, we will need to bind ourselves tight to medium-term deficit reduction.

Another argument might be that Labour should support deficit reduction, but primarily through tax increases. If we were to take the current projections, we’d be looking at an immediate £10 billion in tax increases to fund welfare, plus whatever action we took on medium term debt, plus any other cuts we sought to reverse or delay. Then there’s social care, which might need another £10 billion or so. Yet as those dangerous right wingers at the Fabians have pointed out, there is little public appetite for tax rises. Gulp.

I believe neither argument is wholly convincing because neither postponing the debt reckoning nor increasing taxes to preserve services, can renew our national economy. They are responses to problems, not a search for a solution. Instead, our political focus must be directly on the need for the recovery of our national productive capacity.  Naturally, that means we can’t afford the risk of a fiscal event, or to waste money on financing extended debt levels for longer than strictly necessary. So a steady return to fiscal balance is vital. But as well as closing the existing deficit, we also have to do new things to support growth- such as a National Investment Bank, infrastructure, R&D, and education.

Unfortunately, few of these things are free[2]. It is disturbing to think that the key to Britain’s long-term growth is a plan for national renewal which will cost more of the money we already don’t have. No wonder the latest buzz phrase among left-wing wonks is "switch spend" which translates as "cut services to fund investment".

The next Labour government won’t be able to choose between higher taxes and cuts if it is to slowly reduce the deficit, deal with demographic pressures and deliver sustainable growth. Instead, it will have to do both. But how can such a programme ever be sold to an already sceptical electorate?

I believe we need to make national renewal our essential governing project. Our argument must be that national renewal only works if pursued for the long-term and alongside a politics of common sacrifice. The problem for this government is that they do not believe in restraint in any terms other than for the state. If you have wealth, or power, or privilege, restraint is for other people. Labour can offer a distinctive message. Yes, the next few years will be tough if we fight back to economic strength. But we can only do so if all parts of society contribute.

This requires that we change too. If we are to talk of a common purpose, it must demonstrate that restraint is broadly shared. If the risk for the Tories is that they are too indulgent to the wealthy few, then for the left it is that we are unable to be frank with those the trade unions represent. This strategy is risky, I freely admit. It doesn’t sit well with progressives to promise pain today but joy deferred. It will be hard to make the argument to Unison and the GMB that to support long-term growth requires short-term restraint in public service budgets.

Yet the reality is that a Labour government will face sharp constraints, that we need long term sustainable private sector growth to fund our social aims, and that future demographic pressures require more fiscal restraint, not less. That means that a future Labour government would have to make such arguments, like it or not.

Today, politics often sounds tinny and inadequate to the challenges we face.  Perhaps the key to changing that is to frankly recognise the sea of troubles we face, set a great national ambition, and argue that to achieve such may be difficult, but is also worthy. Shared sacrifice, national renewal, common purpose. Maybe it’s just me, but I can see that catching on after selfish Toryism fails.



[1]  "we calculate the additional fiscal tightening necessary from 2017-18 to return PSND to its roughly pre-crisis level of 40 per cent of GDP in 2061-62, as well as that necessary to keep it at the level we expect at the end of our medium-term forecast, namely 75 per cent of GDP, again in 2061-62. Under our central projections, the government would need to implement a permanent tax increase or spending cut of 1.1 per cent of GDP (£17 billion in today’s terms) in 2017-18 to get debt back to 40 per cent and 0.3 per cent of GDP (£5 billion in today’s terms) to have it at 75 per cent."

http://cdn.budgetresponsibility.independent.gov.uk/FSR2012WEB.pdf

P13 Para 52-54

As the OBR says, this figure only gets bigger if the government misses its debt targets for 2016-17.

 

[2]  Though Gregg McClymont’s work on pensions charges shows that not all progressive reforms cost money. The same is true of other consumer and market regulation issues, many of which, ironically enough need to be imported from that bastion of neo-liberalism – the USA.

 

A future Labour government would face tight economic constraints. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hopi Sen is a former head of campaigns at the Parliamentary Labour Party. He blogs at www.hopisen.com.

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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.