Could the broadcasters empty-chair David Cameron? Photo: Flickr/kris krüg
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What will happen if the broadcasters try to empty-chair Cameron in the TV debates?

The Prime Minister has refused to participate in the televised leaders' debates unless the Greens are included. Could he be empty-chaired, and what would happen if so?

Politicking and point-scoring around the prospects of televised leaders’ debates have gone into overdrive. It’s safe to assume plenty is happening behind closed doors, but much of the process is played out in public. Cameron has hardened his stance that the Greens be included, while the other parties have threatened to empty-chair him.

Whether or not you think the Greens should be involved, the politics of the negotiations are fascinating. But why does it matter so much if this small party is invited or not?

Political space

Cameron claims including the Greens is an issue of “fairness”, but his real calculation is simple. The Greens are more of a threat to take votes from Labour (and some Lib Dems), while Ukip are most damaging to the Conservatives (at least when compared to how people voted in 2010).

With Ukip’s rise, the right could be more divided than the left for the first election in decades. This is based on an old-fashioned spatial theory of voting behaviour, but regardless of whether voters still think in terms of left and right, it remains true that Labour are most under threat from a Green surge.

To increase his chances, Cameron needs the Greens (both in the debates and in the election coverage more widely) to ensure Miliband is dragged to the left as much as he is dragged to the right by Farage. In the jargon, Cameron needs to pull Miliband away from the “median voter”.

There is a chance this is all moot: Bennett is an inexperienced speaker, and may fail to take full advantage even if included. However, both parties should remember “Cleggmania”, and be wary of minor parties successfully casting themselves as the outsider to an unpopular political establishment.

Poker face

Refusing to take part in any of the debates is an almighty gamble. Cameron risks being blamed by the public and the media if they don’t happen.

It also allows every other party leader to put pressure on him, as Miliband attempted to do in this week’s PMQs. Any time he, Clegg, or Farage are put on the spot in an interview they can simply bridge to the debates: “If the Prime Minister thinks this is such a good idea, why won’t he come on and defend them in a debate?”

Cameron also runs the risk of being empty-chaired. The BBC, often accused of left-wing bias, would probably bottle it, but I wouldn’t be so sure about ITV and Sky. It’s unlikely we’ll see an empty-chair on our screens, but Cameron’s error may have been to underestimate the broadcasters’ eagerness for these debates to happen. Their willingness to proceed regardless may force him into a U-turn. Either way, the chance of the debates being called off altogether seems very slim.

Chicken

Cameron is a shrewd politician. If the debates go ahead a U-turn is might not actually be such a bad thing. He could say that although he believes it is a totally unfair outcome, he has listened to the people, and has decided that the most important thing is for the debates to happen. The word “chicken” has been bandied around by both sides, and that’s what this negotiation is: a game of chicken. The leaders are speeding towards the election, but Cameron has an advantage: he knows he can survive the crash.

Alternatively, Cameron might get his way if broadcasters’ enthusiasm translates into negotiation. Having Cameron there is more important than the Green Party issue, so they may accommodate his demands. One compromise could be allowing Farage into the BBC’s currently three-way debate to reflect their new Major Party status, and inviting the Greens onto the ITV debate.

Thus, Cameron holds a strong hand. While it’s unlikely he can stop the debates happening at all, he might get the Greens in. If not, he can leave it until the last minute and U-turn if he needs to.

The PM is also banking on most of this passing the public by. Few people who follow these party political stories are swing voters. Most who notice it will see Cameron’s as a cynical move, but the key swing voters he needs to reach are those who will end up watching the debates, or reading the reaction the next day. The means to his preferred ends matter less, because most people don’t care about the process leading up to the debates.

Just like the election outcome itself, the final format of the debates is impossible to predict, but it seems very likely that they will happen in some form, and that Cameron will play some part. It’s Cameron’s gamble, but one that could easily pay off.

Charlie Cadywould is a researcher at the think tank Demos

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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.