Labour must not be defined by opposition to the cuts

Miliband is right to ignore the 'stand and fight brigade' and shift his economic stance.

The clamour for a change in Labour's economic stance that began with In The Black Labour is now growing daily. Ed Miliband's speech today signalled that the change is underway. Many in and around the party will be cautiously relieved. Many others, however, will be deeply disappointed.

Commentators such as Mehdi Hasan and Polly Toynbee have demanded in recent days that Ed ignores the demands for a more clearly hawkish line. Instead, they urge, he should stand and fight for what he and they know is right and morally sound. Good economics makes good politics and, sooner or later, the electorate will realise that Labour was correct all along. They undoubtedly represent a very strong seam of belief within the party and wider movement.

But there are big problems with this 'stand and fight because we're right' position.

In the first place, it assumes parties win elections because they have a correct analysis and the soundest values. This would imply that the Conservative Party had the best policies for the eighteen years prior to 1997. A view to which Mehdi and Polly, I assume, do not subscribe.

It also overlooks the fact that every party and their supporters believes they are correct. We may caricature Tories or Lib Dems as ignorant or self-serving rather than sincere in their views but they think exactly the same about Labour. This reveals a fundamental truth about politics which is that the great majority of people just think they are right. Rational, evidence-based debate has only a limited impact, in part because it is very rarely conclusive. Assuming that the inherent rationalism and morality of our particular version of 'rightness' will win out is to flirt with a profound naiveté.

Indeed Labour's economic case is not nearly as self-evidently right as the 'stand and fight' brigade think it is. Yes, there is a good case to be made for a slower pace of deficit reduction or even a small stimulus as enshrined in Labour's five point plan. Wise men such as Martin Wolf, who hold no brief for Labour, have made the case many times. But arguing that a slower path to deficit reduction would be a wise policy is not the same as saying that our economic prayers would be answered by such a move. Inflation has been too high, productivity too low, investment too stagnant, global economic and political volatility too great for a small shift in fiscal policy to really blow away the storm clouds. In truth, Mehdi and Polly want to stand and fight, tooth and nail for something that would do some measure of good but probably not a great deal more than that.

What actually despatches governments is events not the right arguments. Most voters live their lives and ignore the detailed debates that occupy the political classes. It is usually only when something so big and bad happens that it cannot be ignored that voters think seriously about replacing the current lot with that other lot. That was the case with the Winter of Discontent before the 1979 election, the ERM crisis before the 1997 election and the banking crash before the 2010 election. A party in opposition has to rebuild its lost credibility in preparation for that moment. This is vital because, as the 1990 recession showed, a big event will not necessarily play for an opposition if they are not yet trusted to take over the reins of government. In short, a new opposition party needs honestly and painfully to understand why it lost the election and forensically address those failings not exclusively kick lumps out of the new government. Anyone who thinks this can be done without making an almighty effort to regain Labour's reputation for fiscal prudence and economic competence is buried far too snugly in their comfort zone.

Many will read this post and think it is simply arguing for Labour to roll over, adopt a Tory-lite position and hang patiently around until the voters get fed up with Cameron. That would be a misinterpretation. Opposition parties must stand and fight but they must make sure they have a chance of winning. Don't leap into the ring and start throwing punches if the referee (the media) and the ringside judges (the voters) have already decided you're a loser.

So support a slower pace of deficit reduction but don't make it the defining feature of the fight with the coalition. Instead use what few opportunities we have to persuade the ref and the judges that we're not quite as useless as they think we are. That must mean emphasising our commitment to tough-minded, fiscal practice, first and foremost.

Once that is established Labour might begin to get listened to on its wider message and where it might start landing blows on the government. Then it is time to start drawing the distinctions. Emphasise Labour's bolder policy for jobs and growth by using the power of the state to actively restore the competitiveness of British business rather than Osborne's reheated and chaotic Lawsonism. And, yes, talk about a vision for a fairer, more responsible capitalism but make it clear this is a vision for fairness within the context of austerity - a new type of social democracy for very different and difficult times.

Fortunately, this seems to be precisely the thinking behind Ed's speech this morning. There is much, much more to be done but, despite what the 'stand and fight' brigade might now say, the genuine fight-back may just have begun.

Adam Lent is co-author of In the Black Labour and formerly Head of Economics at the TUC. He can be followed on Twitter: @adamjlent.

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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.