Andy Burnham on the NHS, school freedom and working with Lib Dems

The new Shadow Health Secretary has spoken exclusively to the New Statesman

For this week's magazine I have interviewed Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham. We know, of course, that he opposes the government's health reforms. But I was intrigued to hear how far he would commit Labour to reversing the plans if they are enacted. The answer, it turns out, is quite far. PCT's he said, would "definitely" be reinstated.

I have been mystified by Labour's stance on public service reform since the election. Indeed, ever since Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair in Number 10 it hasn't been clear whether the party is for or against the use of market mechanisms and competition to drive change. (Ed Miliband, I gather, has not yet finalised his own thinking on this question.) But as far as the NHS is concerned Burnham made it pretty clear that the march of Blairism is halted.

The most efficient healthcare systems in the world are the ones that are planned and managed ... the argument that the market is cheaper just doesn't wash.

It was a long conversation and not all of it made it into the magazine - constraints of space rather than interest. So, for example, Burnham was revealing on the difference between his current job and his last one. He was reshuffled away from the education portfolio last month. Comparing Michael Gove's education reforms and Andrew Lansley's health plans he said:

They're both highly ideological, free market, damaging reforms and they will dismantle in both cases the infrasttructuire and state healthcare and state education. They're designed to do that, they're born of an innate distrust of planned and managed systems. Both reforms are almost identical in that.

But he noted that having shadowed both jobs:

Gove has been cleverer in both the momentum he set and the way in which he created a vision and went for it. Lansley has just created a mess. He's 18 months into the job and people are less about what he is trying to do.

I noted my impression that Labour seemed ready to accept Gove's plans as a fait accompli (they build on Blair reforms, after all). Having signalled that the health plans would be reversed, would he accept that the school reforms would not?

There is a differnece between health and education. A degree of school autonomy is a good thing the identity of the school, its independence - PISA [the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Programme for International School Assessment] backs autonomous schools within a strong system ... You wouldn't want to go completely back to the old days when the local authority replaced every window and all of that stuff ... But you need a strong system. In Education you would have to balance strong independent schools wth reassertion of the local authority role on fairer admissions.

We had a long conversation about public health. Burnham accepted that his party had sometimes crossed the line in terms of meddling in people's lives.

The tendency for Labour is sometimes to go straight to regulation, straight for the sledgehammer. I don't thnk we should do that.

But he sought to draw a distinction between interventions to protect children and the need for a lighter touch where adults are concerned:

And if people say 'nanny state' we'll just say 'Yeah, so what! We are working to give every child the healthiest possible start in life'

Naturally we talked about social care - the main theme in Burnham's campaign for the Labour leadership. He has been invited to cross-party talks on advancing the ideas contained in the Dilnot report on long-term funding. Not surprisingly, Burnham is wary. When he was Health Secretary and Lansley was his shadow equivalent talks collapsed in rancour. The Tories attacked Labour's proposals in a public campaign as a "Death Tax".

The irony of it was unbelievable. I got a letter from Lansley inviting me to take part in cross-pary talks on social care about a week into this job. Bear in mind, he initiated the talks last time, so it was about as alluring as an invitation from Liam Fox to talk about defence procurement with his friened Mr Werrity.

Burnham says he is prepared to participate but as long as certain conditions are met. They include confidentiality, guarantees on funding and access to the Department of Health Secretariat for figures and demographic modelling.

Given that Burnham has this week launched what he calls "the last push" to kill off Lansley's NHS reforms, I'd be surprised if collegiate negotiations on social care got under way any time soon.

As a parting shot I asked him he could imagine ever working with Liberal Democrats - given that they too have opposed aspects of Lansley's reform. He belittled their contribution. ("The Liberal Democrats haven't done anything to the Health Bill.") And could he ever imagine serving in a coalition with Lib Dems?

"People like Norman Lamb, I've got lots of common ground with. I'd work with people like that."

And Nick Clegg?

"Clegg's basically a Tory. It's like asking me if I could serve in a cabinet with Tories. I find it hard to imagine."

Read the rest in the magazine.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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.