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Why Clegg and Farage will both win from their debates

Farage gets to enter the political establishment, while Clegg has a chance to reconnect with those voters who warmed to him in 2010.

You could almost, almost, feel the anticipation pulsing through the Westminster bubble as the breaking news was announced on Wednesday: the BBC are to host a head-to-head debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage in April on the UK’s future in Europe. This is will be an important moment in British politics. Though it remains to be seen who, if anyone, will actually watch it, the debate will set the tone for the European parliament elections barely a month later, which will in turn influence the narrative for the general election next year.

What impact will it have? The truth is we just don’t know. The leaders' debates in 2010 saw Clegg’s personal ratings, and those of his party, rocket immediately following the first debate. By the time of the election just a few weeks later, however, the Lib Dems had only increased their vote share by 1 percentage point from 2005 and had suffered a net loss of five seats. 

While their performance was doubtless better than it would have been without the debates, the boost diminished as election day approached.  It can be argued, though, that without “Cleggmania”, Clegg would not have been in a position to negotiate for himself the job of Deputy Prime Minister. His own personal position had been elevated, he became a nationally known – and very popular – political figure. Fast forward a few months later, however, and Clegg had been hammered in the polls having gone into coalition with the Conservatives and (shortly afterwards) broken his promise on tuition fees.  The scale and speed of his fall from popularity was perhaps exacerbated by the unnaturally high position he was enjoying post-debates.

By agreeing to the debate, Clegg is risking Nigel Farage benefiting in the same way he did. He is elevating the leader of a party with no MPs, and that achieved just over 3 per cent of the vote at the general election, to a platform alongside the Deputy Prime Minister and the leader of a party that won 23 per cent of the vote four years ago. Farage is currently a popular, if unscrutinised, politician. In February, ComRes found that 24 per cent of the public have a favourable opinion of UKIP, higher than the 17 per cent that are positive about the Lib Dems. Farage, meanwhile, is more popular (20 per cent) than Clegg (13 per cent), though David Cameron is the most popular party leader with 31 per cent.

Clearly, then, Clegg has little to lose in the popularity stakes: he is the least popular leader of the least popular party. He and his team will have calculated that the Deputy Prime Minister performed well in this medium before and it may have the opportunity to restore some popularity and perhaps even credibility – his ratings could hardly get worse. Perhaps more significantly, by taking this on he is becoming the face of the pro-European movement in Britain.

Farage stands with plenty to gain but also plenty to lose by agreeing to the debate. His party stood at 11 per cent in the most recent ComRes poll, broadly in line with the Lib Dems' 10 per cent. UKIP are riding the crest of a wave, enjoying national levels of support that even the most optimistic supporter could not have imagined just a few years ago. While Farage is an accomplished public performer, he hasn’t been exposed to this sort of intense scrutiny before. This will be an hour-long primtime BBC debate against an experienced political opponent. The self-styled "maverick" of British politics is entering into the political establishment with this move.  His customary pint and cigarette will have to be put away for the hour.

Clegg believes the debate gives him the opportunity to take on the UKIP leader, undermine his arguments and expose him as a man short on ideas and substance. Farage, meanwhile, hopes to continue the momentum his party is building, increasing awareness of his party and trying to cement them in the mind of voters as a credible alternative to the status quo. If he does well in the Clegg debate, and in the European elections a few weeks later, it will put him in a powerful position to claim a place in the 2015 leadership debates.

Ultimately, though, it is likely that there will be no knock-out blow, just as there was none in 2010, and that both men will be able to claim a victory of sorts. This outcome may in fact benefit both leaders. Farage will be able to keep steam-train UKIP on track, while Clegg may re-establish his relationship with those who warmed to him in 2010. The Lib Dems may even be calculating – though it is a high risk strategy - that strong UKIP performance in 2015 benefits them by hiving off Conservative votes in Tory-Lib Dem marginals.

Whatever the outcome, it is an important moment as we head towards 2015, with yet another first for British politics adding to the intrigue and uncertainty. We wait to see if Faragemania is about to break out. 

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

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France’s burkini ban could not come at a worse time

Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

Since mayor of Cannes David Lisnard banned the full-body burkini from his town’s beaches, as many as 15 French resorts have followed suit. Arguments defending the bans fall into three main categories. First, it is about defending the French state’s secularism (laïcité). Second, that the costume represents a misogynistic doctrine that sees female bodies as shameful. And finally, that the burkini is cited as a threat to public order.

None of these arguments satisfactorily refute the claims of civil rights activists that the bans are fundamentally Islamophobic.

The niceties of laïcité

The Cannes decree explicitly invokes secular values. It prohibits anyone “not dressed in a fashion respectful of laïcité” from accessing public beaches. However, the French state has only banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools and for government employees as part of laïcité (the strict separation between the state and religious society). And in public spaces, laïcité claims to respect religious plurality. Indeed, the Laïcité Commission has tweeted that the ban, therefore, “cannot be based upon the principle of laïcité”.

While veils covering the entire face such as the burqa or niqab are illegal, this is not to protect laïcité; it is a security matter. The legal justification is that these clothes make it impossible to identify the person underneath – which is not the case for the burkini.

 

By falling back on laïcité to police Muslim women in this way, the Cannes authorities are fuelling the argument that “fundamentalist secularism” has become a means of excluding Muslims from French society.

Colonial attitudes

Others, such as Laurence Rossignol, the minister for women’s rights, hold that the burkini represents a “profoundly archaic view of a woman’s place in society”, disregarding Muslim women who claim to wear their burkini voluntarily.

This typifies an enduring colonial attitude among many non-Muslim French politicians, who feel entitled to dictate to Muslim women what is in their best interests. Rossignol has in the past compared women who wear headscarves through choice to American “negroes” who supported slavery.

Far from supporting women’s rights, banning the burkini will only leave the women who wear it feeling persecuted. Even those with no choice in the matter are not helped by the ban. This legal measure does nothing to challenge patriarchal authority over female bodies in the home. Instead, it further restricts the lives of veiled women by replacing it with state authority in public.

Open Islamophobia

Supporters of the ban have also claimed that, with racial tensions high after recent terrorist attacks, it is provocative to wear this form of Muslim clothing. Such an argument was made by Pierre-Ange Vivoni, mayor of Sisco in Corsica, when he banned the burkini in his commune. Early reports suggested a violent clash between local residents and non-locals of Moroccan origin was triggered when strangers photographed a burkini-wearing woman in the latter group, which angered her male companions. Vivoni claimed that banning the costume protected the security of local people, including those of North African descent.

Those reports have transpired to be false: none of the women in question were even wearing a burkini at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the ban has stood in Sisco and elsewhere.

To be “provoked” by the burkini is to be provoked by the visibility of Muslims. Banning it on this basis punishes Muslim women for other people’s prejudice. It also disregards the burkini’s potential to promote social cohesion by giving veiled women access to the same spaces as their non-Muslim compatriots.

Appeals to public order have, occasionally, been openly Islamophobic. Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, claimed that the burkini “refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements”, conveniently ignoring the Muslim victims of recent attacks. Barely a month after Muslims paying their respects to friends and family killed in Nice were racially abused, such comments are both distasteful and irresponsible.

Increased divisions

Feiza Ben Mohammed, spokesperson for the Federation of Southern Muslims, fears that stigmatising Muslims in this way will play into the hands of IS recruiters. That fear seems well-founded: researchers cite a sense of exclusion as a factor behind the radicalisation of a minority of French Muslims. Measures like this can only exacerbate that problem. Indeed, provoking repressive measures against European Muslims to cultivate such a sentiment is part of the IS strategy.

Meanwhile, the day after the incident in Sisco, riot police were needed in nearby Bastia to prevent a 200-strong crowd chanting “this is our home” from entering a neighbourhood with many residents of North African descent. Given the recent warning from France’s head of internal security of the risk of a confrontation between “the extreme right and the Muslim world”, such scenes are equally concerning.

Now more than ever, France needs unity. Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

The Conversation

Fraser McQueen, PhD Candidate, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.