Beware the power of the tweet

Political parties need to leave the old command-and-control structures behind

The purpose of holding the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war in public was to ensure transparency. But with the frenetic pace of today's media, the truth often gets mangled, as time for serious analysis is replaced by instant judgement. The advent of 24-hour news channels, blogs and Twitter (which is often the first place where stories break) has placed a premium on shock headlines.

Take the attempted coup by Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon. Chatter about the plotting dominated the news for days, but it transpired that it was supported by only five other MPs. Or the furore Islam4UK caused with its plans for a march, which garnered huge coverage despite this being little more than, according to one expert, a "tiny group of extremists".

With so many media outlets, the purveyors of news are desperate to catch your eye. The usual news cycle is being replaced by what Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, calls "news streams". One lobby journalist told me that writing blogs can be liberating for someone used to working with sub-editors, but it can also become a distraction. "You have to remind yourself to go and talk to MPs," he said.

But while the digital world that we live in has its downsides, it has provided an exciting new arena for exchange of information between the government and the governed, or between one activist and another.

Since it launched in May, the online campaigning organisation 38 Degrees has attracted more than 60,000 members. Based on the successful model of the five-million-strong Moveon.org in the US, 38 Degrees is urging people to petition John Chilcot with what they see as important questions for Tony Blair.

This kind of activism -- largely unreported by the mainstream media, but uniting those with a desire for substance over sensationalism -- is typical of what many see as a yearning for greater engagement and accountability in politics. Last November, I attended the annual assembly of London Citizens at the Barbican Centre, where representatives of 50,000 people debated the living wage and other critical economic issues, as well as danced and drank and socialised. James Purnell said that the evening would have felt "quite familiar to Keir Hardie and the trade unionists and churchgoers who founded the Labour movement".

Or what about Power 2010, a new body funded by Joseph Rowntree that has already attracted 25,000 votes on its long list of proposed reforms for British democracy? Each of these organisations is bypassing conventional party politics, building a pluralistic movement and effecting change.

These developments are taking place while the main parties have been sleep-walking into the 21st century, haemorrhaging members. Labour membership is down from 400,000 in 1997 to 170,000 today, while the Tories have lost a quarter of their membership since David Cameron became leader. Little wonder when the big decisions have been taken in small cabals, with little sense of the membership's point of view.

The respective party headquarters on Victoria Street in London are trying to learn from this grass-roots activism. "The internet challenges a lot of the assumptions that established organisations are based on," says Sam Coates, deputy head of new media for the Tories. "What political parties do day to day will increasingly merge with the activities of interest groups and media organisations."

Both major parties were obviously inspired by Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Labour has harvested tens of thousands of email addresses from voters who care about the environment through Ed's Pledge, a website dedicated to action on climate change. Similar sites encourage activism for development aid and the ban on fox-hunting, and help the party meet people in their own space.

Labour has sent out 20 different versions of an email from Harriet Harman asking for donations to find out which approach worked best. Meanwhile, the Tories have put their draft manifesto to the test by inviting questions and comments through Google Moderator.

The Conservatives -- with their vibrant blogosphere and snazzy website -- were quicker to adopt the lessons from the US, but Labour appears more adept at responding to the latest innovations. Twitter didn't feature in Obama's campaign but has quickly become Labour's mode of choice. Tweetminster, an aggregator of political tweets, published a report this past week showing that the Labour Party has more activity on Twitter than the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats combined.

"We are providing the tools so that people are able to mobilise of their own accord," one Labour insider told me. The Manchester-based activist Grace Fletcher-Hackwood took up the challenge and has used Twitter to encourage Labour supporters all around the country to spend their Monday evenings speaking to voters through an application on Labour's website.

There is a warning, however, from the Labour blogger and activist Luke Akehurst. "Blogs, tweets and Facebook are actually more likely to be what loses a party the election than what wins it," he says. "As the Damian McBride affair showed, one ill-considered email, tweet, blog post or Facebook status upset by a candidate or campaigner can provide a lot of ammo for the old-fashioned media to shred a party's campaign with."

Once campaigning starts in earnest, party leaders will find themselves balancing these concerns. But if political parties want to emulate the new movement politics, they will need to leave the old tribalism and command-and-control structures behind.

Will Straw is editor of Left Foot Forward

This piece originally appeared in the 1 February issue of the New Statesman

 

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Will Straw was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven

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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.