For the good of himself, his family and the party, it’s time for Ed Balls to fall on his sword

It’s time the shadow chancellor fell on his sword, argues Anthony Seldon. Ed Miliband would be stronger for it, Labour would lose the taint of tax and spend, Yvette would be pleased . . . and even Balls might benefit.

The co-author of “Brown at 10” writes an open letter to the shadow chancellor:

Dear Ed,

I was not your headmaster, but as somebody who has written about you for many years it falls to me to say this: the time has come for you to fall on your sword.

After 20 unbroken years at the heart of politics, you need a rest. It was another age when in 1993 Geoff Mulgan, anxious to leave Gordon Brown’s side as chief adviser to found the think tank Demos, recruited you as his successor. After leaving Oxford, you had only the briefest time to work as an academic and a journalist on the Financial Times. You need to see more of life beyond the microworld of politics. Falling on one’s sword is never easy. However, quitting in the next few months until, say, 2017 would undoubtedly benefit your leader, your party, your wife and even yourself. Let me explain.

Ed Miliband would be a much stronger leader without you. He may think he cannot live without you, which is why he promoted you in January 2011 to shadow chancellor and recently pledged to stick with you. Yet he doesn’t need you, any more than Tony Blair needed Gordon Brown after a while: he merely couldn’t find it in himself to squeeze the trigger.

Forgive me, but you stop Ed breathing fresh air. With you close to him, his breath will always be stale and smell of a toxic brand. Without a prolonged period out of the public eye, neither you nor the party will ever rid yourselves of the opportunistic, negative and bullying image of the Gordon era. Yes, we both believe he was a better prime minister than the conventional wisdom says but it will take years for his achievements to be recognised properly and the stain of his modus operandi will never be eradicated.

Economic credibility would be more readily restored with your departure. Your critique of the government’s austerity strategy may never win back public trust and your proposals for the economy will never convince. Your credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches. On Europe, despite your recent about-turn, the party will find it easier to commit to holding a referendum with you gone. Your patrician attitude not to trust the people will always make any call for a referendum from you sound hollow. Think how strong the appeal would be if Miliband offered the referendum that neither Blair nor Brown dared.

Without you, Labour could present itself as a clean party, free of the factionalism and brutalism that so tarnished it when Brown was boss and you were his consigliere. I know that you think you were really a very nice person all along, vulnerable with your own insecurities. Yet you need to redeem yourself and the atonement will never happen unless you disappear and return to public life with a fresh persona. The party would be more inclusive without you.

You say you like David Miliband, but his followers are not doing well under Ed, are they? The party would be much stronger with David back in the frame. So, too, would it with Alistair Darling returning to the front bench. In the event of a hung parliament, Labour would stand a better chance of putting together a workable coalition with the Lib Dems without you. Remember how in 2010 the Lib Dems didn’t trust Gordon or you? Nothing has changed, Ed.

What might you do during your long sabbatical? You have extraordinary intellectual and personal gifts. You could write a book (not, please, a memoir), as your mentor Gordon Brown did in 1986, about the Scottish politician and leader of the Red Clydesiders James Maxton. What about a biography of Brown? Not Gordon, nor your friend Nick, but George: you would learn much more about how factionalism damaged Labour in the 1960s. How about returning to academic life or journalism? Your experience would richly inform students and readers. What about a stint at a school? You would turn up your nose at Wellington College because we are independent, but how about our academy, Wellington in Wiltshire, founded when you were schools secretary? You could even study for an MBA and learn, unlike many others who become ministers, how to run large organisations.

I wish you’d listened when you ran education and I suggested that your two great opportunities for a legacy were to embed well-being deeply into schools and transform the relationship between the public and private sectors. You did little on either and it’s rather hard to remember much that you achieved of enduring benefit for young people. So it would be good to learn how to run an organisation. You could even run or work for a charity, as John Profumo did after his involuntary retirement from politics 50 years ago.

Yvette would not say it to you but, like many women working in the same organi­sation as their husband, she would be freer to think and act without you in her hair. You would have more time, too, for your three children. As a headmaster, I know how hard it is for children who have just one parent in the public eye. Having two is harder still and your family would only benefit with you being more present and less preoccupied.

The greatest beneficiary would be you. You may not see it this way now but I know you will in hindsight. A mentor of mine, Robert Skidelsky, suggested to your mentor Gordon that he take a sabbatical before becoming prime minister. Had he followed that advice, his premiership would have benefited. He would have had time to think through what he wanted to do with the power he had so long craved. As it was, he came to No 10 with the cupboard largely bare. If Labour loses in 2015, you will be blamed and your career will be damaged beyond repair. If it wins, you would return to the front bench in 2017 a redeemed and respected figure. You might even one day become leader, your long-held ambition. Oh, and don’t believe that guff about “skipping a generation”. The public will tire of young leaders, though it doesn’t yet realise it.

Others, including Ed Miliband, share responsibility for the Brown errors: you will earn praise for taking the hit. You are 46 this month. Your best years could lie ahead of you.

Yours ever, Anthony

 

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls delivers his keynote speech to delegates at the Labour Party Conference at Manchester Central on October 1, 2012 in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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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.