The left should weep not cheer at the decline of Compassionate Conservatism

It is fatal to think that the worse the Tories look, the better Labour appears.

A final nail has been bashed into the coffin of Compassionate Conservatism this week and the left should weep, not cheer.

Those receiving benefits, desperate burglars, Europeans, teaching unions, pregnant women and more are now in the sites of a vindictive Britannia that is being unchained before our eyes. In sorrow not anger we should morn the passing of what could have been - a decisive shift in British politics with the rebirth of a caring Tory Party that has turned into a fading dawn. Why and how can this be the case?

The real job of politics is to shift the centre of gravity in your direction for the longest possible period of time. To do this means not just changing your party but your opponents so that when you lose, and you will, nothing really changes. Thatcher realized this when claimed her ultimate triumph was not changing the Tory party but changing Labour. Blimey did she succeed.

The possibility of a one-nation, compassionate Conservatism taking root under Cameron's early leadership was a distinct and tantalizing possibility. Going green, hugging hoodies and the whole big society opened up space that was to the left of the arid spot New Labour finally landed on. A strong connection could have been made to the Disraeli and Macmillan strain of Conservatism that had been lost under the Thatcherite storm. After all, it was a Tory minister that founded our post war system of secondary education, it was a Tory government that built more council houses than any Labour government and under the Tories the NHS used to be safe. Of course it was a paternalistic politics born of an old class system - but a system that recognized obligation, duty, respect and tolerance. Cameron appeared to be of this ilk and not of the dry, utilitarian brand of market fundamentalists that took hold of the party after 1975.

That compassionate Conservatism failed to re-root itself is of course Cameron's fault. He didn't do the work politically or organizationally to dig in. Or perhaps he never really meant it? The crash didn't help either - giving Osborne an easy target with which to attack the state and to have a very lop-sided view of being "all in it together". But the forces outside of the Tory ranks acting against the back-sliding to compassionless Conservatism where too weak to act as an effective countervailing force.  Labour, the unions and wider civil society simply haven't been up to the job.   Too little of the New Labour legacy has survived because it was hardly ever based on principled argument and popular support and was therefore incapable of defining a lasting moral consensus once Labour was turfed out. Devolution stands but little else.

I come from a working class family. I didn't really know any Tories until I was an adult. It confounded my youthful prejudices to find out they could be kind and caring. But such traits find little echo in their party today. Cameron promised but failed to deliver. What happens to these people now - who speaks for them? And what about Ferdinand Mount, Ken Clarke, Peter Oborne and the Red Tory Philip Blond? These people have been adding a richness to the political debate and policy that no longer has a home. Where do they go and what has the country lost?

Some in Labour's ranks will cheer. The lines become clearer for them, a simple world of black and white, good and bad. The worse the Tories get the better Labour looks. Such a view is fatal. It either opens up the threat of Labour marching to the right again to eat up the space being vacated by the return of the great moving right show, or it polarises politics and the whole adversarial system that has done such damage to Britain. Can those who are cheering be so sure the centre of gravity, because of these preference shaping right wing Tories, won't shift even further right?   

The point at which our country was at its most equal was an era in the 1950s called Butskellism, named after the consensus between the hugely influential and decent Tory RA Butler and the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell.  Compassionate Conservatism is not an oxymoron but it's taken another big hit. We should hope it recovers. The NHS being safe in the Tories hands is a good thing. It means poor people don't suffer unnecessarily. The left has to understand its victory comes is when it converts the Tories again to a humane form of politics.

PS The debacle of the West Coast Mainline franchise is yet another example of free market failure being turned into an attack on the state. In echoes of the banking crisis, that was the result of too little not too much state intervention, the right argue that civil service 'failure' merely shows how daft it would be to let the state ever run the railways again. You have to admire their brass neck.  The reality is that in our warped world we have private sector consultants paid £650k a year to shaft civil servants paid just £65k in the battle of who wins the franchise contract war. I wonder? The former are incentivized to make as much profit as possible while later are incentivized by what's in the public interest. The sooner the railways are run by and for the public the better. Where is Labour's brass neck?

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

David Cameron. Photograph: Getty Images

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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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.