David Miliband on what Labour needs to do to win, Blue Labour and his future

"It does feel as if I have been going around attending various versions of my own funeral". Some highlights from a recent evening with the former foreign secretary at the Danish embassy.

Ahead of his departure to the US to lead the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband hosted an evening at the UK Danish Embassy last week, taking questions from an audience of Fabian Society members.

Miliband talked candidly about what Labour needs to do to win in 2015, his regret at not taking up the post of EU foreign policy chief and the significance of ‘Blue Labour’. Here are some highlights from the evening’s Q&A.

What is your take on the current state of play in British politics today?

“Today is an incredible exciting time in British politics for two reasons. Firstly, it is a really open time in politics because the traditional politics of the left, which was about the state providing answers, and the traditional politics of the right of the market finding answers, neither of those are going to meet the challenges of the present. Essentially, what is going on in politics is the centre-right and-centre left are trying to break out of the confines of their own inherited 20th century thinking – without losing the values which are the oxygen of these 20th century movements.

In this time of openness, when your elders are no longer necessarily your betters, the ideas that drive us forward are as likely to come from the young as from others.

What we do know is that successful left-of-centre parties are able to reinvent themselves and think in a way that holds on to the important anchors that brought them into politics in the first place, while at the same time really thinking about the new ways we can put our values into practice.”

Given you’ve got so much to say on the future of British politics, why are you leaving it?

“I’ve got a great opportunity to put my values into practice. The International Rescue Committee is an organisation founded by Albert Einstein in 1933 when he left Germany to flee the Nazis; it has 12,000 staff in 40 countries around the world who are literally doing life saving work, often in places governments can’t go.

For example, in parts of Syria today, there are IRC staff doing life saving work. I’ve got an opportunity within this role to make a real different to people who need help, a voice and representation. Moving to this role is an episode, not an emigration to the US.”

You describe your departure as an episode. What is the duration of that episode?

“Well I haven’t gone yet. When doing a bit of teaching in my old school, one of the kids said ‘I’m doing my A-levels, I’m 17 and I don’t really know what I’m going to do with my life’ and I said, look, I still don’t know what I’m going to do with my life either.”

How have the last few weeks been prior to you leaving for the US?

“It does feel as if I have been going around attending various versions of my own funeral, the difference being the corpse in the coffin is still speaking.”

Why did you choose not to take up the post of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs? And do you regret that decision now?

“Well, with hindsight it did turn out to be a shame. The job came up in November 2011 and basically I didn’t want to be a rat leaving a sinking ship. We were five months away from a British general election, I’d spent 20 years trying to build the Labour Party up and having left at that point would have been wrong. I actually remember saying to my wife Louise, I don’t want to be sat in Brussels watching the Labour Party go to hell and so that’s the reason.”

During your time in Westminster, how do you think opportunities for women in politics have changed?

“On the one hand there has been a dramatic numerical break through, achieved through things like all women shortlists, which broke the back of the self-selecting oligarchic practices that we used to see of appointing candidates  because they were perhaps the son of so and so.

Culturally a lot of what passed as acceptable comment in the past doesn’t and isn’t acceptable now. Equally, the demands of politics now are massive and this isn’t conducive with the role of primary career. Things are tough, especially if you are trying to juggle a marginal seat, demands of the constituency and bringing up children.”

How can Labour secure victory in 2015?

“The Labour Party has only ever won elections when it’s been the party of production as well as the party of distribution. If left-wing parties are only about how you distribute the cake, and not how you grow the cake, that’s fine for a theoretical economy model but not for governing the country. So you’ve got to get into the guts of how to link production and distribution.”

What is your view on Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour?

“Your could summarise Blue Labour by saying that by standing for change you mustn’t forget the social ties that bind people together and I think that’s right.

The criticism that New Labour lost a sense of community is a fair argument but, equally, I don’t think you want to flip into a position where you lose the modernising side. What I think marked out the successful elections of ‘97, 2001 and 2005 was that we weren’t just for social democratic virtues, we also had a progressive sense of national modernisation. Those words aren’t quite right, they are too technocratic, but they do sum up a sense of national purpose and progress. For both major parties, I think they are the keys to electoral success.

What I would say is the New Labour critique has force but beware of ending up looking back, rather than looking forward, because politics is always about the future. And the future can never be about remaking old things it’s got to be about retaining or rebuilding old virtues in new ways.

That’s the danger; you can’t do your politics through the rear view mirror.”

Marcus Hobley (@marcushobley) is a freelance commentator specialising in economic and public policy 

David Miliband will shortly become the new president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee in New York. Photograph: Getty Images.

Marcus Hobley is a freelance commentator specialising in economic and public policy

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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.