Sadiq Khan hits out at Labour London mayoral "beauty parade"

The shadow London minister tells the New Statesman: "I’ve got no interest in being involved in a beauty parade" and accuses Labour's mayoral hopefuls of "playing ego politics."

Although there are no officially declared candidates (with the exception of transport expert Christian Wolmar), it often feels as if the race to be Labour's next London mayoral nominee has already begun. David Lammy, Tessa Jowell,  Andrew Adonis and Diane Abbott are all positioning themselves to stand, with a regular stream of op-eds and other interventions.

In an interview with me in tomorrow's NS, Sadiq Khan, who was appointed shadow minister for London in January, hits out at what he calls "a beauty parade" and accuses his Labour colleagues of "playing ego politics". When I asked Khan why he withdrew from a recent Progress debate on the future of capital, which featured Lammy, Jowell, Adonis and Abbott (the first hustings in all but name), he told me:

I was told it was going to be a forum to discuss ideas about London and it was quite clear to me that it was actually turned into a beauty parade. I’ve got no interest in being involved in a beauty parade, or playing ego politics. It’s about me making sure that I do the job I’ve been given as shadow minister for London with the seriousness it deserves. I’m a member of team Labour. My obsession is to make sure we do the best we can in the elections in May 2014.

As shadow minister for London, Khan enjoys the advantage of being able to prepare the ground for a future mayoral bid without being accused of "ego politics". When I pointed out that he was viewed as one of the frontrunners for the post, he notably refused to rule out a bid: "If others want to flatter me and throw me those compliments, I’m not going to reject them, but my focus is definitely on the jobs I’ve asked been by Ed Miliband to do."

Defends the mansion tax against Lammy, Jowell and Abbott

Khan also criticised Lammy, Jowell and Abbott after they denounced Labour's proposed mansion tax as a "tax on London" (at the Progress event) and warned that it would penalise the asset rich but cash poor. He said:

All I say to colleagues, in the kindest, politest way is, 'actually, you look at the bigger picture. Are you in favour of trying to help those who own the least by giving them a new rate of tax at 10p? If you are, then ask yourself how you go about doing that.' What I’d rather do is work collegiately with senior members of the Labour Party to find a policy that works, rather than going for the cheap soundbite, which doesn’t really address the issue of making sure that we’ve got a fair tax policy.

On Boris Johnson's Thatcher lecture: "simplistic snobbery"

In response to Boris Johnson's recent Margaret Thatcher lecture, in which he argued, "Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130", Khan said:

"I took the trouble of reading the speech, as well as the soundbites, and it was a frankly offensive and ill-thought through speech for the mayor of London to deliver. For a candidate to be the next Conservative Party leader, I can see why a speech talking about the importance of having more grammar schools and rewarding the top 10% can be seen as an attractive speech. But actually, in a city where you’ve got cleaners, bus drivers, hospital porters, working incredibly hard, to make a speech talking about how the lowest 16% should basically just accept it, take it or leave it, and how those top 10% should be given automatic knighthoods, showed a lack of understanding about this city."

He added:

"Let me pose this challenge; if Barack Obama’s IQ was tested at age five, 11, 16 or 18, I doubt whether it would have been very high, he wasn’t necessarily a brilliant student, but he worked hard, he had aspiration, he reached for the top and he’s now president of the United States of America. Or if Nelson Mandela’s IQ had been tested three, five, seven, eight, 12...that sort of simplistic snobbery is not what we want the mayor of this great city to be talking about.

"What he should be saying is every child deserves to fulfil their potential, every school should be a good school, we want to make sure that everyone shares in the joys of London, whether it’s the arts, the culture, the theatre, the academics, every son or daughter of a bus driver, a cleaner, a hospital worker should recognise that the reason why your mum and dad people are doing those jobs is not because they’re not bright but because they’re very important jobs that need to be done in London.

"Give them pride in the work they’re doing. We are a London where we should be one city recognising that, to win the Olympics, the work of the construction worker was just as important as the work of Sebastian Coe."

Pick up tomorrow's New Statesman to read the interview in full. You can also listen to George discussing this interview with Sadiq Khan on the NS podcast:

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is 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.