Councillors face a vicious cycle of expectation, indignation and bitter apathy

Six months into the job, I'm trying to do things differently.

The queue for my last council surgery stretched around the hall. I sighed at the sight. Not because I mind hard work, but because I'm not sure how much the council can do to help. Since my by-election in May, I've found myself spending large amounts of time answering calls from Peckham constituents who are upset with a system that feels remote and often fails to deliver in the cuts. I do all of this on an email system that makes MS-DOS look like some kind of high-tech fantasy. I sometimes find myself writing to officers not because I believe they can make a difference, but because I want residents to know that I've tried.

But there is a deeper problem here, beyond resources. For many of the people in my constituency, the council has become the only vehicle they can see to improve their position. Ringing the council's phone, bidding for housing on inflated waiting lists, seeing through complaints that take years to resolve, has become a full time occupation. There is a vicious cycle of expectation, indignation and bitter apathy from people who have lost faith in their ability to change things for themselves. As a new councillor serving as a secretary to this bureaucracy, I suddenly realised I was in danger of feeding into that.

That's why I'm trying to do things differently. It's an experiment that starts with a new opening question. "What can the council do for you?" has become "what can we do for each other?" Don't get me wrong, I am under no illusions that many people are in need of professional support and material help, but in many cases, people are capable of more than we give them credit for.

So when a single mum entered my surgery saying she was suffering from anti-social behaviour on her estate, I didn't ask her if she'd reported it to the council's overstretched helpline. I asked if she could get her neighbours together. She can't write, but she's a born leader who will make a difference. Unlike officers, residents are there 24/7 - they can keep an eye out for each other. As a group, they also become harder for the council to ignore. This is not some fluffy version of the Big Society. Anyone who knows the Friends of Warwick Gardens or the Peckham Residents Network in my ward knows that networks achieve things. Similarly the power of the residents on the Consort estate, who gave young people a safe place to party this Halloween, was better than anything the council could have organised.

Achieving change in this way can make a bigger difference, because it stops one of the biggest problems in my ward: isolation. For many elderly, disabled and workless people, interacting with the council is one of the few chances that they get to meet another human being. When that interaction is reduced to complaining about something they feel entitled to, it can be humiliating. Meeting other people and working with them to create change builds confidence in a way that some council services don't. As Maurice Glasman says in my book, if Blue Labour had a slogan, it would be "relationships are transformational".

Of course a lot of people don't have the confidence to meet their neighbours alone, but councillors can help with that. They can introduce the youth worker to the young unemployed guy on the estate who thought about running a football club but didn't know how. They can make sure that the head of the mosque knows the mum who sits on the board of the local school. They can play a part in great initiatives like the Peckham Network, supported by the Peckham Settlement, which are already encouraging residents to knock on five doors and invite their neighbours around for tea and a conversation about how to make things better.

If people think I'm anti-state they have misunderstood. Many council services are necessary and worthwhile, and I'm well aware I need a councillor allowance to do the work I do. Nor is it to slam my fellow councillors and officers in Southwark, many of whom are doing a much better job than this newbie. I'm simply saying that when you become a councillor, it's easy to think your role is just about bureaucracy and complaints.

The best politicians know that to be a good councillor, you need to be a community organiser. Labour Values is full of positive examples and Movement for Change is starting some phenomenal work around the country. Caroline Badley's work in Edgbaston and Sam Tarry's in Barking and Dagenham is famous for a reason. These people get that government shouldn't be something that is done to you - it should be something we do together.

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.