Our leaders need to rediscover the art of statecraft

Politicians need to be institution-builders. Not just making rules and spending money.

Politicians need to be institution-builders. Not just making rules and spending money.

No one has a plan. As Vince Cable lays into his own government for lacking "coherent vision", its clear David Cameron and Nick Clegg don't have a clue about how to fix Britain's real problems. It isn't just Ed Miliband who's accused of having "no strategy, no narrative and little energy".

This listless mood isn't a sign of laziness. We're in a deep-rooted crisis about our sense of what politics can do. Politicians now believe the only way to fix things is by making laws, or by spending or cutting money. When the cash or cuts don't work and regulation fails, politics seems to run out of answers.

Political debate has been reduced to a set of arguments about who to tax and how much to spend, where to regulate and where to let the market rule. What are politicians' response to the big questions of the day? Stimulus against retrenchment, regulate the City or free small business from red tape, tax mansions or tycoons. It's all about numbers or rules - about abstract things supposedly under central state control. It's as if our polity has been taken over by middle managers, monitoring statistics but showing no real sign Cof being in charge.

What's missing are people. Money and regulation don't do anything on their own. To get things done, politicians need to tap into energy that exists outside their control, in both society and the state. Good hospitals depend on good nurses and doctors. Economic growth is about energetic business people committed to more than making money. Everywhere, creating a better society relies on people with drive and commitment, who have strong relationships to those they work with and serve.

Take our schools. It's the quality of the relationships that exist between teachers, students and parents that makes the difference. Sometimes it takes a new building or tough rule to make schools realise that. But when it comes, improvement happens for local reasons. Schools improve when a good head gets rid of poor staff, creates strong connections to the local community and motivates good teachers with a story about the kind of place the school could be.

Take industry. When other sectors are stagnating, Britain's car industry is booming, with record exports in 2011. Why? Because it's an industry run by people who have strong relationships with each other. Unions, car companies and colleges work together. As a result they've sorted out the industry's supply chain and make sure workers have good enough skills. Active politics has been key. But it's been about getting people together, lobbying and cajoling not bossing people around. It's about leadership out there in society, not making laws or writing cheques beyond the locked doors of Whitehall.

The narrow, bureaucratic mindset that dominates national politics can't explain these kind of transformations. In fact, money and law, the only levers Westminster thinks it has, are weak, blunt instruments. Power, as Hannah Arendt argued, is about organizing people to "act in concert", not just telling people what to do. It's based on the skill of inspiring and persuading, not just making rules backed by the ultimately violent power of the law.

So what needs to be done?

First, politicians must learn to speak a more realistic language about the power of politics. Politicians are leaders. Leadership is not the administration of things. It's about the quality of interaction between real people who want to do their own thing. The state is not a machine. It's network of semi-independent institutions that each has its own way of doing things. Getting things done needs something other than force. Politicians need to start by telling stories about what Richard Sennett calls the "craft of cooperation" - how, against the odds, people with different interests and instincts can work together for the common good.

Secondly, politicians need to be institution-builders. Not just making rules and spending money, but creating permanent organisations that involve and energise people to work for a common purpose. This isn't the glib PR exercise of the "Big Society" - a good idea with no substance behind it. We're talking about the kind of serious work the founders of the Labour movement started, building trade unions, co-operatives, the National Health Service.

For the next election, Labour needs to tell how it will build institutions woven into the fabric of life - not just provide services that can come and go. That might mean a national or local childcare service, which parents, workers and politicians jointly run. Or regional banks, organizing local society to invest in local economic growth. Or getting serious about institutions that provide vocational education.

The energy to create the good society doesn't emanate from Whitehall. It comes when ordinary people are motivated to get together and work together for the common good - in the private and public sector, in business, in community groups as well as the front line of public service.

But our political leaders are from professions that cultivate exactly the opposite mindset. They are policy wonks and PR executives, used to working in a narrow world of total control. If they are going to lead rather than administer, inspire not command, cultivate the democratic forces in society rather than simply try to control, they are going to have to learn to do things differently - and learn fast.

Jon Wilson teaches history at King's College London, is a Labour activist and is involved with the Blue Labour movement.

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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.