It's time Blair's last remaining disciples moved on. Photo: Getty
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The game is up for the Blairites: it's time to abandon the old faith

Even if Ed Miliband fails, there will be no Blairite restoration; it's time the old guard disbanded and reinvented itself.

If Ed Miliband had indeed been toppled last week, or manages to trip and fall under one of those new Routemaster buses in the near future, or even just fails to win next May, which direction will Labour go in? Will a soft-left successor raise the scarlet standard of Milibandism, or would the party look back to its election-winning recent history and opt for a Blairite to lead it?

The problem is that in today’s party, Blairite stock has reached junk status. The brief, flickering hope among some last week that Alan Johnson could be persuaded to take over if Miliband was forced to quit, came to nothing. He was the last, best hope of what remains of the party’s Blairite tribe. And he wasn’t interested. Most of its other chiefs are no longer involved in frontline politics (think David Miliband, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon, Hazel Blears, John Reid, Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke).

There will be no sequel. The circumstances that propelled Tony Blair to the Labour leadership and on to Downing Street were unique, a conjunction of the party’s desperation to win after four general election defeats in a row and Blair’s personal reputation as “the man the Tories most fear”. For Labour, for a long time, winning became all that mattered.

As a result, Blair enjoyed unprecedented latitude in shaping New Labour, fusing together the old right-wing of the party with the metropolitan leftists who had literally shaved off their beards, donned designer suits, binned most of their Eighties posturing and moved to the political centre.

Even the trade unions were on-board in those days, with the then Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (forerunner of Unite) under Sir Ken Jackson, the most loyal of the lot. Only the remnants of the Bennite left were excluded from this big tent, and even a few of them, like Tony Banks and Chris Mullin, jumped ship to serve in Blair’s government.

Fast forward to today and it’s clear just how parlous the prospects are for contemporary Blairites. They enjoy none of the old master’s advantages. There is no working class base to build on. The old Labour right of the party feels short-changed that after 13 years in power, the north and midlands still lag behind London and the south east; demanding a focus on the heartlands rather that the marginals.

The metro-leftists, who flocked to Blair’s cause, have now reached their political dotage. For the new generation of activists, well to the left of the party mainstream, it will take several more years (and election defeats) before they make a similar journey to the centre.

The trade union movement, so important in providing finance, organisational muscle and political cover for Blair, (certainly initially) will no longer accept a policy platform of privatisation, contracting out and spending cuts. They have their own battles to fight, with the centre of gravity in the main affiliated unions, again, now well to the left of Labour’s.

The late Tony Banks, in explaining his own embrace of the New Labour project, once quipped that his members would “eat shit” to see a Labour government. Today’s party grassroots are nowhere near desperate enough to switch off their critical faculties, extinguish their idealism and countenance allowing the party leadership to do absolutely anything to win.

Moreover, Blairites no longer have a figurehead to unite around. None of the assumed frontrunners to become the next Labour leader (should a vacancy present itself in the next 18 months) are what we would describe as Blairites.

Chuka Umunna, a former acolyte of the centre-left Compass movement, has been careful in his brief as shadow business secretary not to do or say anything that falls outside the rubric of Miliband’s “responsible capitalism” narrative.

Andy Burnham, seen in the 2010 leadership contest as a Blair-lite candidate (but in reality, a product of the old Labour right) has done more than any other Labour figure to broaden his appeal over the past four years, using the health portfolio to become a darling of the grassroots, with Unite’s General Secretary, Len McClusky now tipping him as the union’s favoured successor (should a vacancy occur).

Again, Yvette Cooper has deep roots in the Labour movement (her father is a former senior trade union official) and has been careful throughout her long frontbench career to avoid reductive descriptions, but has certainly never been called a Blairite. Indeed, she like the other two surely realises that being described as such is the kiss of death in the modern Labour party.

Indeed, the best thing adherents to this dead religion can now do is abandon the very label “Blairite” and regroup as “modernisers”, building new alliances with other strands of thinking within the party, as Blair and Brown and others did twenty years ago. Eventually, this will distil into a viable new centrist movement within the party.

Tony Blair once joked that he knew his project would be completed when the party learned to love Peter Mandelson. It never did. But it doesn’t love him any more either. Its time his last remaining disciples faced up to that.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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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.