What became of Blue Labour?

A year later, there's barely a sight of the buzzword. But its ideas live on, writes Rowenna Davis.

Whatever happened to Blue Labour? Last year I wrote a book about a term that was causing political circles to chatter . Now the name has almost dropped out of existence. Its founder, Lord Maurice Glasman, has effectively been under house arrest in the second chamber after a string of controversial outbursts, the latest on this website. But one year on, Blue Labour is still the rising philosophy of Ed Miliband’s party. The players, the relationships and the policies are having an effect. The name might not be there, but the influence is.

Ed Miliband’s conference speech is set to focus on “predistribution”. Although the term is diabolically policy-wonkish, the concept is spot on. The starting position of Blue Labour is that previous governments were too hands off with the market and too hands on with the state. Predistribution wants us to change that balance. If you force employers to pay the living wage for example, then you don’t have to worry about correcting in work poverty through tax credits. This is central to Blue Labour’s call on the party to value hard work and reduce dependency, and it’s supported by shadow minister Rachel Reeves in a new Fabian pamphlet outlining Miliband’s ideas.

Ed Miliband’s “responsible capitalism” is underpinned by this philosophy. Take the leader’s emphasis on energy companies. If we split up this oligopolistic market and force the companies to compete, we would encourage them to suck out less in profit and dedicate more revenue to improving their offer to customers. Crucially, that means there would be less demand for winter fuel allowance. Similarly, demanding workers’ representation on the boards of companies would give them the chance to challenge fat cat salaries, and call for more profits to be given in wages. Improving vocational education is another way of increasing wages without relying on state redistribution. In economic terms, it’s developing a supply side policy for the left. To your average voter, it’s a way of making a real difference to people’s lives without spending huge amounts of money.

It’s true to say that Glasman is not as close to Ed Miliband as he once was, but he remains tight with people who are. Lord Stewart Wood is a big fan of Germany’s model of worker representation and vocational education, and Marc Stears, one of Ed Miliband’s best friends from university, is working at the heart of the leader’s office. They are both longstanding friends of Glasman.

Meanwhile, Jon Cruddas MP has been chosen to lead Labour’s policy review. Cruddas has been one of the biggest fans of Blue Labour in the parliamentary party (not that this says much) and his close friend Jonathan Rutherford is very close with Glasman. Ed Miliband knew that when he made the appointment. Cruddas is already showing his Blue streak, particularly his call for a referendum on EU membership. We can also expect to see calls for a decentralisation of the state, and a focus on what kind of society we want to build together, rather than an obsession with what processes we want to get there. The conference slogan championed by Cruddas – “Rebuilding Britain” – came from Glasman before anyone else.

The third area where Blue Labour is influencing the party is less well known, but still highly important. A new man has come to work in Ed Milband’s team, focusing on party organisation. Arnie Graf has come from the United States with a long track record of community organising, which Glasman has always admired. Older and wiser than your frantic special adviser stereotype, his gentle but strong manner has won round people from surprising quarters in the party, and last year he was given permission to conduct a root and branch review of its organisation. His report was never published, but he called on the party to open up, raising the possibility of open primaries and less top down control from London. Now he’s taking leave from his work in the US to continue here, and he remains something of a trusted elder to the Labour leader. Few know that it was Glasman who first convinced Graf to come over from the US, and that he was personally responsible for introducing him to the Labour leader.

Whilst all this is happening, Lord Glasman is not sitting still or acting alone. Out of the media spotlight he’s beavering away, building alliances and making new friends. This summer a big conference was held on the “Common Good” – members of the green movement and women’s groups were there alongside MPs and faith groups to discuss how to take the agenda forward. Glasman is also forming links with unions, particularly those representing the private sector, about how they can work together. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also working with the people of Dover to stop the privatisation of their port. A perfect campaign for Blue Labour, it’s about reengaging with the South, supporting private sector workers and mutual ownership. The relationships, the policies, the players – there’s a lot going on. It might not be called Blue Labour, but a rose by another other name…

A ferry sails past the Port of Dover, site of some very Blue Labourish goings-on. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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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.