In defence of David Cameron’s speech on multiculturalism

Yesterday’s voices are increasingly becoming boring, and I for one am glad that the ground is shifti

Some reactions to the Prime Minister's speech yesterday have been the best evidence for the point he was trying to make.

Let us put aside the use of contested terms. As if bandying about the term neoconservativism – in a rather "muscular liberal" way, may I add – were any less emotionally charged than the term "multiculturalism". Let us put aside the coincidence (and the subsequent unrealistic demand arising from it) that the speech was made on the day of an EDL march in Luton. As if the machinery of an international conference of heads of state and a prime minister's agenda were that easy to move around. Let us put aside the way that media pundits have reported it, as if sensational reporting were ever controllable by anyone, let alone the government. Let us put aside the typical sidestep (regularly resorted to by people who have themselves received government grants) that Quilliam, my think tank, "receives government grants" and hence will naturally "defend" the speech. In case you missed it, Quilliam has had its public money completely cut under Cameron's coalition government. And I am rather known for challenging and debating government representatives on a range of matters, such as my opposition to banning Hizb ut-Tahrir, to censorship and to profiling – just search the web.

Indeed, let us stop clutching at straws, and for once actually focus on the content of the speech itself. And that is possible if we read it rather than automatically adopt the victimhood caricature that has embarrassingly come to be associated with so many Muslim commentators. I for one find it hard to conclude that this time the Prime Minister's speech is anything but balanced, nuanced and reasonable. Some ideologues will never be happy, and for them it is this very nuance that has now become the problem.

Here we have, finally, a speech which recognises that there are more than Islamist forms of extremism. Here we have a speech that acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between two extremes: of Islamism and anti-Muslim fascism. Here we have a speech that criticises minaret and headscarf bans, and asserts that conservative practice of the Islamic faith is not the same as extremism.

I say to my fellow Muslim commentators, seriously, what more could you want from a Conservative prime minister? Coming out wholeheartedly against this speech, in an atmosphere of increasing community polarisation, is a self-defeating form of victimhood that only serves to further the very polarisation Cameron is worried about.

The fact is that there is a serious problem of extremism with minority groups within Muslim communities. The fact is that there is a similar level of far-right fascism on the rise. The speech addresses both, and the EDL march only reinforces this point. The fact is that our communities are growing together and apart. Visit Tower Hamlets, and then visit Dagenham, preferably in the course of the same day. Aside from the socially mobile urban elite, are Britons really living together, or are we living in mutually suspicious monocultural enclaves? And yet surely that is exactly what multiculturalism was supposed to bring to an end, whatever one's interpretation of the term?

As with Egypt, we are living in a world where comfortable parameters steeped in colonial assumptions are shifting very fast. Gone are the old frames of reference, Islamism or secular dictatorship, multiculturalism or fascism. Yesterday's voices are increasingly becoming boring, and I for one am glad that the ground is shifting.

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.