The left cannot remain silent over "honour killings"

We have become complicit in this epidemic of abuse and violence by not doing more to challenge it.

The murder of the teenager Shafilea Ahmed is likely to stand out in British history as a particularly gruesome example of what we now refer to as "honour killings". Shafilea had warned that her parents were trying to marry her off to Pakistan; others knew she had sustained injuries from beatings by her parents; she had even tried to commit suicide in Pakistan. But right until the end, her own life was fated to be out of her control - she went missing in 2003 and her dismembered body was found a year later.

Shafilea's case wasn't a one-off. It took eight years for the murderers of the Sikh woman Surjit Athwal - her own husband and mother-in-law - to be brought to justice in 2007. It took ten years for Mehmet Goren to be jailed, in 2009, for murdering his daughter Tulay, because she fell in love with an older man of a different Muslim sect. Last year Gurmeet Singh Ubhi was found guilty of murdering his 24 year old daughter Amrit because the Sikh girl was dating a white man. There are others too - Heshu Yones, Banaz Mahmod, Nuziat Khan - the list of women murdered in the UK over their "honour" is depressingly long.

Any decent person would be angry and sad when presented with these names. But it isn't enough to be sad: we have become complicit in this epidemic of abuse and violence by not doing more to challenge it. This should be a left-wing cause célèbre but instead there is an embarrassed silence. Left-wing activists robustly challenge racism and homophobia - so why isn't more being done to stand up to this social evil?

Perhaps it's because forced marriages and honour killings are fundamentally about a lack of cultural integration. They almost always happen when parents want to stop their daughters from mixing with British culture and life, instead of abiding by outdated cultural traditions. To these parents, mixing with other cultures or ethnicities has become synonymous with losing the "family honour".

In the past, most left-wing intellectuals and activists avoided the issue of cultural integration for good reason: it was usually a code-word for assimilation and conjured up images of whites telling others their way of life was inferior. But caught between attacks from the right on multiculturalism, and worries that speaking out would look racist, we have become paralysed. Meanwhile, these problems are set to get worse as more second and third generation children of immigrants come of age.

The Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (Ikwro) found last year that 39 out of 52 police forces across the UK had recorded at least 2,823 "honour" attacks over 2010. Some forces showed a jump of nearly 50 per cent in such cases from 2009. Horrifying stories of friends subjected to subjected to verbal abuse by parents for straying past cultural boundaries are far too common. One acquaintance of mine, under pressure to marry before she was ready, was repeatedly told she was being "too fussy" and would end up "left behind on the shelf". Her self-confidence was broken down with every barbed comment until she eventually gave in. Emotional blackmail is one thing, but the Crown Prosection Service estimates that on average one girl is murdered every month in Britain over "family honour" - while the number of forced marriages could be as high as 10,000 a year.

Jagdeesh Athwal, who fought for nearly a decade to get justice for his sister Surjit, told the Independent that Asian community leaders and religious groups "remain deafeningly silent when these killings happen". The author Sufiya Ahmed, whose book, Secrets of the Henna Girl, is about forced marriages, admits there is "a lot of denial" about the problem. "Aside from not wanting to acknowledge that it happens, there are even those who argue that the subject shouldn't even be talked about for fear of branding all Asians with the same brush."

There is a patronising attitude at work here, too: well-meaning liberals have been known to assume forced marriages and such abuse are an inherent part of Asian culture and therefore must be left alone. A few months ago, activist Jasvinder Sanghera's charity Karma Nirvana convinced a teacher in East London to put up posters at the school that said: "Forced Marriage is Abuse Not Cultural". But the posters were taken down and the charity was told the head was concerned they would upset Muslim parents.

A reluctance to offend will only encourage more silence. If self-appointed community leaders won't speak out, then Labour politicians and left-wing activists have a duty to. I'm not calling for a sneering attitude that says, "if you want to be British, you have to integrate into our way of life". Instead, we need an inclusive narrative about integration which is clear that we, as Britons, are equal regardless of religion, ethnicity or background. It has to appeal to both white and non-white Britons. It has to be about what it means to live in this country collectively and what we do tolerate as a society and what we don't. It would give us more confidence to stop the systematic abuse of thousands of women in Britain. Otherwise, we stay complicit in their fate.

A mourner lays flowers at the memorial to Hatun Surucu, was shot in the head and killed by her youngest brother Ayhan Surucu in an "honour killing" in 2005. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.