Miliband's sheet is still blank on public service reform

The Labour leader appears determined to avoid the challenge of fixing state services without spending more money on them.

Even people who are obsessed with politics often find their eyes glazing over when the conversation turns to the detail of public sector reform. That is understandable given the technical complexity of some of the systems under discussion and the tendency for reformers to speak in think tank patois. But I’m sure Ed Miliband has a firm grasp of that rarefied idiom, so he must have other reasons for avoiding the subject.

And avoid it he does. I have seen for myself the glazing-over of the opposition leader’s eyes and averting of the gaze into the middle distance when he is asked how Labour would meet the challenge of fixing state services without spending more money on them. Shadow cabinet ministers who want to have that conversation find it hard to get access to Miliband. Frontbenchers who have tried to push reform onto the agenda were notably overlooked or sidelined in October’s shadow cabinet reshuffle. Labour MPs understood the message clearly enough – the Labour leader will say something about public services when he is good and ready; there are no rewards for trying to accelerate the timetable.

There are a various interpretations of this caution. Miliband’s aides are quick to point out that public sector reform is not a paramount concern among voters. It is a reasonable point. Labour should concentrate on winning support where it is available, not where policy wonks wish it would be. The counter-argument, with which I have now bored even myself through repetition in blogs, columns and private conversations, is that having an imaginative story to tell about public service reform is the way Labour can transmit a message about getting more for less with taxpayers’ money. That is a route to fiscal credibility, which is a paramount concern among many voters. Presenting creative solutions to the challenge of governing in austerity is likely to be a whole lot more persuasive than paper pledges to keep purse-strings tight, which the public discounts as just the kind of thing politicians feel they have to say.

There are senior Labour figures who take that view, including Miliband advisors, but they seem to have difficulty getting the boss to focus on the matter for long. There are various explanations for this is the case.

One view I have heard from the shadow cabinet is that Miliband doesn’t have any experience of working in or shadowing a big spending department. His time in government was spent as a Treasury advisor, a Cabinet Office minister and, finally, as Energy Secretary. In that latter role, he was often focused on climate change, working with people who believed in a cause in which he also believed. He hasn’t experienced first hand the frustration of the minister who has a plan for improving services – or tightening their budgets – and finds that the sector itself and that civil service are blocking change. He has never, for example, been forced to take sides when the interests of patients and doctors collide, or teaching unions and parents.

A parallel factor is Miliband’s reluctance to get into policy debates that risk opening up old factional wounds from the Blair-Brown era. The Labour leader’s allies are fond of dismissing calls for a clear public sector reform agenda as part of "an old 90s frame" – which is code for saying that it is something Blairite ultras obsess about while everyone else on the left has moved on. That is partly fair. The idea that services can be improved by outsourcing key functions to the likes of Serco, Capita and G4S has been pretty well discredited. Likewise, there is mixed evidence at best when it comes to the belief that public sector efficiency and quality are raised when service users (parents and patients) choose between competing providers (schools and hospitals) in quasi-markets.

But there aren’t that many people on the Labour side who seriously advocate an unalloyed choice-and-markets approach to reform. The conversation has, as Miliband’s friends declare, moved on. The problem is that any attempt to question the traditional model of state delivery or to criticise existing services risks being interpreted in some Labour circles as stealthy Blairism, which for its fiercest critics is hardly better than Conservatism.

The fear among some Labour MPs is that they can’t even discuss ways to make the NHS more responsive to patients’ needs or ways to make sure standards in schools keep rising without being accused of back-door privatisation and pandering to a Tory agenda.

The would-be reformers are currently pinning some hope on Jon Cruddas, who is leading Labour’s policy review for Miliband. No-one in the Labour party is ever going to accuse Cruddas of being a slavish devotee of the Cult of Tony, which gives him rare authority in the leader’s office to raise the matter of state reform. Indeed, the one time I have heard Miliband acknowledge the need for the party to have a public sector reform message he referred to the need to match people’s resentment of greedy, self-serving corporations with a need to address their frustrations at the hands of an "unresponsive state". That’s a Cruddas phrase.

The essential division now seems to be between those, like Cruddas, who think the party needs a radical shift in the way Labour talks about the state and between those – chiefly, but not exclusively, allies of Ed Balls – who prefer to contain the debate in the more conventional parameters of how much is being spent in Whitehall and on what.

This isn’t an argument about fiscal responsibility – the shadow Chancellor is more alert than anyone to the need to show that Labour can be prudent. At issue is a conceptual point about whether the future of public services lies in devolution of power and control over budgets to local level and even, ultimately, to service users themselves. The key Cruddasite ambition (outlined in this lecture from last December) is between services that work at the level of sustaining relationships between provider and citizen and those that deal in impersonal transactions.

The reformers think Labour has an opportunity to launch a consumer-led revolution in public services, thereby renewing the social contract that serves as the left’s mandate to spend public money. The sceptics think that is all abstract wonk-speak that would amount, in practice, to chaos and loss of central control. Time spent at the Treasury teaches politicians to fear devolution of budgeting authority to anyone for fear that they mess it all up and leave the Chancellor to pick up the pieces.

So where does Miliband sit in all of this? As with so many issues, no-one seems entirely sure where his instincts lie. It is clear enough that he doesn’t want to make this stuff the centre-piece of his offer in a general election. The question is whether he will support a reformist agenda enough for it to make its way into a Labour manifesto. One close observer of the opposition leader’s office says that when Miliband has one-on-one meetings with Cruddas he gets very enthusiastic about his ideas and the policy review – that the two men find much in common. But then the fire in Miliband’s eyes is quickly extinguished on contact with the cold reality of managing the different views around the shadow cabinet table and factional prejudices in the party.

It isn’t even clear what the process is for debating ideas that come out of the policy review or turning them into a manifesto. There is a labyrinth of committees and sub-committees but none of these seems to have sufficient authority to say what will make it onto the party’s agenda for government. The shadow cabinet doesn’t make policy. Shadow cabinet ministers don’t always know whom to lobby in Miliband’s office to get their views heard. Reserves of trust between various senior figures in the leader’s office, the shadow treasury team, the election strategy team and the shadow cabinet all seem perilously low. There were hopes in the parliamentary party that, after the reshuffle, the Labour leader would feel more confident in his position – having stamped his personal authority on the front bench – and would allow a culture of open debate to flourish. At least where imagining the future of public services is concerned, there isn't much evidence of that happening.

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.