Budget 2010 -- first steps to a new decade

Labour has to show it has a plan for global growth. And that starts with jobs.

The Chancellor's Budget message is clear: we are optimists about Britain's future. We believe that Britain can win in global markets. And here at home, the right decisions -- about jobs, tax and public services -- can spread that wealth fairly.

It's a message that matches the mood on the doorstep. And it sets the scene for the decades ahead. Let me explain.

Knocking on doors throughout the winter, I've felt the national mood change. People have gone from thinking a week ahead -- would they still be in a job? Would their hours be cut again? Would another shift get taken off? -- to thinking about the future.

They're asking how we will help them get and keep good jobs. Will they and their kids get public services that help them turn their aspirations into success? And can we regain and retain a sense of community in a world which is changing before their eyes?

These are themes that must be taken forward in our offer to the British people at the next election, which, as Gordon Brown says, will be the first election of the global age.

Globalisation has dominated the years since I left university. Before the crash, the past decade had seen the greatest lift in world trade and world wealth since the Second World War. This great global growth helped Britain grow faster than Japan and continental Europe for the first time in a century.

But the 200-plus residents' meetings, the school-gate surgeries and street surveys I've done in Hodge Hill have taught me a great deal about how people in my constituency think about their community's connection with this new "globalised" world. And it's fair to say that they are not exactly head over heels in love with it.

 

Looking for a payback

Unless we share the "prizes" of globalisation with those who feel like they are paying a "price", people will not vote for it. In Europe, the far right is on the rise. In the US, only 59 per cent support the idea of the free market. There is nothing inevitable about "open".

So, looking ahead from this Budget, we need a manifesto for global gain -- not global pain -- for the aspirational voters who decide the outcome of every election fight. And that starts with jobs.

In Hodge Hill, residents are not just interested in work that simply pays a wage. They want work that paves the way to a better life for their family.

They know that might require them to improve their skills. And they are happy to do it. But they want to know it will have a payback. Which is why skills have to be part of our agenda.

New Labour should be prepared to strike a new bargain with business. We should say: We will invest in the innovation and infrastructure that make you more profitable. But if your workers get skills that help your profit grow, then you should give them a pay rise. This will require us to forge a new partnership with business whereby employees can make progress and get the rewards.

Second, we have to show how public services will add to people's ability to get on and have the quality of life they are aspiring to. As I have argued before, I don't think that means we can limit our agenda to more and more choice.

What people really want is control. Sometimes that means being able to choose a different GP, or a better school a bit further away. But sometimes it means more power to change the school that is at the end of the road, or the beat patterns and priorities of your neighbourhood police team.

We have transformed the quality of public services in Britain. We should be so proud of this that we should never flinch from trumpeting what's changed.

But I think we can also admit that we have spent too long pushing an account of "supply-side" reform in public services and too little about giving users more power. "Choice" promised more than it could deliver because it came without greater control and personalisation. More emphasis on "demand-side" reforms -- guaranteed entitlements to service, online access and customisation, individual budgets -- which in turn shape public-sector provision, must be next.

Third, let's be the party of strong communities. I serve a very multi-ethnic community. But every corner of my community would be more comfortable with change if the people felt the place they lived would still feel like home in ten years' time. People know nostalgia does not pay the bills. But they treasure familiarity. Of habits. Or traditions. Of strong connections with their neighbours.

Yet, right now in Britain, we drastically underestimate how much we have in common with our neighbours: there is no moral schism today in Britain because, overwhelmingly, the law-abiding majority is not only bigger than it has ever been, but it shares some common causes.

Like being a law-abiding neighbour. Like getting a job if you can work. Like being a good parent. Labour is the party of these ideas. But we must also be more imaginative about ways of renewing civic life -- as our great-grandparents were when they built Britain's urban fabric in the 19th century.

 

A network with a purpose

Policymaking in government can help foster a greater sense of community and reciprocity. But one of the other ways in which this can be done is by changing the way our political parties serve our communities, making them a force for social action.

Pretty soon after being elected, I found out that my constituents were much less interested in the minutiae of Westminster-focused constitutional change than I am.

They wanted to know what the Labour Party would do to change what going on outside their front door.

Make no mistake, traditional forms of political reform, such as a democratic House of Lords and votes at 16, both of which I support, will be important at the next election. But this is the hardware of political reform. Let's change the software, too.

That is why we built up a new network of community activists and social entrepreneurs -- two of whom are now standing in council seats for Labour in Hodge Hill in May.

That's why we should all want to transform the mission and purpose of the Labour Party, from being a force that mobilises communities for political ends, to mobilising politics for community ends. You might call it a return to our oldest traditions.

So, in this next election, Labour not only has to show it has a plan for global growth, we have to prove we're the party that will bring home the bacon for ordinary working families. Giving them control over their public services; building stronger communities; and reforming politics on every street, not just at Westminster. It's an ambitious agenda for the next five years -- and one that is Labour to its core.

Liam Byrne is Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

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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.