The shadow cabinet watched Ed Miliband launch the campaign. Photo: Twitter
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What we learned from the Labour election campaign launch

The Labour party launched its campaign today: what did we find out?

Ed Miliband launched Labour’s general election campaign at the top of the Orbit tower in the Olympic Park. Following his speech, the shadow cabinet marched onto their battle bus (a safe One Nation grey this time) to the cheering of supporters.

There wasn’t a slew of unexpected announcements – the manifesto launch is in April – but the launch revealed more than expected.

 

A cap on profit-making from NHS contracts

This was the biggest new announcement of the day. After an NHS nurse called Agnes introduced Ed Miliband to the stage as “the next prime minister”, Miliband went big on the subject that he has made central to his election campaign: protecting the health service from “privatisation”.

He announced that private companies making a profit from the health service (via outsourced NHS contracts) would be capped. All contracts over the value of £500,000 will be subject to a five per cent cap.

This is more meat on Labour’s message that it will reverse the government’s NHS reforms, but for ardent party supporters who worship the health service, it does muddy the water a little even acknowledging that any private money at all will be allowed in.

 

Hope at last

In the leaders’ televised Q&As last night, one studio audience member told Miliband that he "sounds gloomy a lot of the time". And this has for a while been one of the Labour leader’s problems. His demeanour and rhetoric has often been quite pessimistic. One of the difficulties of being in opposition, of course, is that negative messages about the government are necessary, but often Miliband hasn’t conveyed enough hope for the future.

That all changed today. Perhaps it was the memories of London 2012 (I’m sure they were piping Chariots of Fire through the 455-step Orbit stairwell), but it was more likely a presentation thing, as George has written. Miliband was full of hope:

“Giving hope back to our young people and restoring the promise of Britain.”

 

Back to Blighty

One of the most-used words in Miliband’s campaign launch speech (read the whole text below) today was “Britain”. “Britain can do better than this” – a conference speech slogan from a couple of years ago that didn’t work so well when plastered as a headline above a picture of Miliband’s face – was resurrected. This could well be a response to the battle Labour is fighting against the SNP in Scotland.

 

Still “addressing” immigration

As Stephen mentioned in his reaction to Miliband’s Q&A last night, Labour’s message on immigration – not particularly fleshed out – seems to be all for rightwing press-pleasing rhetoric. Miliband did a bit more of this today:

 

Our fourth pledge is on immigration.

We need controls on immigration.

That’s why people who come here will have to wait for at least two years until they can claim benefits.

And we will call time on employers who don’t pay the minimum wage, gang-masters that exploit migrant labour, recruitment agencies that only advertise abroad.

This Labour Party will never cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, but we are a party that believes in rules which protect working people.

It’s odd to talk about “controls on immigration” when your policy (a sound one) is actually about addressing labour market skulduggery.

 

The “fight” began a while ago

Lots of classic campaign battle imagery from Miliband today – his enduring message to the supporters was: “We can win this fight”.

But it’s clear Labour’s fight began a long time ago. Almost all of Miliband’s aides and the party’s senior press officers were at the launch, and they looked exhausted.

Even journalists, not usually sympathetic to press officers chivvying them out of the way, were commenting on how knackered some of the party’s team looked. Maybe it was just in contrast to a buoyant Miliband, and purposeful-looking, fresh-faced shadow cabinet, but it’s clear the party is working to the bone to win this election.

 

Read the speech:

We are here today to launch our campaign in the tightest general election for a generation.

And what an amazing place to do it.

The site of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The place where all of the United Kingdom - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - came together and showed the world what we can do.

That incredible summer was our country at its best.

And what was at the heart of those games?

A spirit of optimism.

A belief that Britain can do better.

And that same spirit is at the heart of our election campaign.

It is that spirit that is going to drive us on in the next few weeks.

Because we know Britain can do better than this.

The worst record on living standards since the 1920s.

The Tories say: this is as good as it gets.

We say: Britain can do better than this.

Five million people paid less than the living wage.

The Tories say: this is as good as it gets.

We say: Britain can do better than this.

Tax breaks for the richest, tax rises for everyone else.

The Tories say: this is as good as it gets.

We say: Britain can do better than this.

The health service going backwards and the threat of deeper cuts still to come.

The Tories say: this as good as it gets.

We say: Britain can do better than this.

So as we go out to fight this election, just remember:

They’re the pessimists.

We’re the optimists.

Because we know Britain can do better than this.

And what did we see last night?

We saw a rattled Prime Minister, running from his record.

And we heard a Prime Minister living in a different world.

Asked about the soaring use of food banks?

He says it’s not because of the bedroom tax or falling living standards or payday lenders.

It’s because of more effective advertising by the government.

Asked about the explosion of zero hours contracts?

He says it’s not because of the growth of low-paid insecure work on his watch.

It’s really because people want zero hours contracts.

But then he says, oh no, he couldn’t live on a zero hours contract.

I say, if it’s not good enough for you, Prime Minister, it’s not good enough for the people of Britain.

And this election is not simply a choice between two different parties and two different leaders.

But two different visions of our country.

That Tory vision that says Britain succeeds when only a few at the top do well, with tax cuts for the very wealthiest and insecurity for everyone else.

Or

A Labour vision based on the idea that Britain only succeeds when working people succeed.

That’s why this election matters so much.

And this vision runs through each of our five election pledges.

Our first pledge is to build a strong economic foundation.

We will cut the deficit every year.

Balancing the books as soon as possible in the next Parliament.

That will mean common sense spending reductions, with departmental budgets falling outside protected areas.

But we will always protect key departments like education and health.

And we will never, ever adopt extreme Tory spending plans that would lead to the disintegration of our public services.

And as part of that plan to reduce the deficit, and unlike this government, we will have fair tax changes.

Reversing David Cameron’s millionaires’ tax cut.

And clamping down on tax avoidance and tax evasion.

Because in a fair society there should never be one rule for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else.

There should be one rule for all.

Our second pledge is for higher living standards for working families.

Because Britain can’t succeed when working people are struggling, week after week, month after month.

That’s something the Tories just don’t understand.

That’s why we will deliver an £8 minimum wage.

25 hours free childcare for three and four year olds.

An energy price freeze so prices can only fall and cannot rise.

And a ban on those exploitative zero hours contracts.

By law under a Labour government, if you work regular hours you will get a regular contract.

Our third pledge is focused on the bedrock of security for working families, our National Health Service.

We need to rescue our NHS from this government, and we will.

Just think about how far backwards the NHS has gone in the last five years.

People waiting longer and longer to see a GP.

Ambulances lining up outside hospitals, because Accident and Emergency is full.

Even a treatment tent erected in a hospital car park.

For all the promises, for all the air-brushed posters, David Cameron has broken his solemn vow to the British people when it comes to our National Health Service.

And that is before their plan for the next few years.

Cuts even deeper than any we have seen in this last five.

Well, that’s not the future I believe in.

That’s not the future you believe in.

And that’s not the future this Labour Party will ever allow.

So we will turn around our NHS.

With a Labour government there will be a new double-lock to protect our National Health Service.

Guaranteeing proper funding.

And stopping its privatisation.

It starts with funding.

You can’t protect the NHS if you can’t show where the money will come from.

And we’re showing where the money is coming from for our plan.

We will have a Mansion Tax on properties worth over £2 million.

A levy on the tobacco companies.

And we will close those tax loopholes exploited by hedge funds.

And we will use that money for 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more doctors, 5,000 new care workers, and 3,000 more midwives.

Joining up services from home to hospital.

And, friends, we will do something else too.

We will repeal their terrible Health and Social Care Act.

And let me tell you why.

Their Act effectively forces the competitive tendering of services.

A third of all contracts have gone to private providers since it was passed.

This doesn’t fit the values of our NHS.

And it doesn’t serve the future of our NHS either.

Privatisation of the NHS is no longer simply out of step with our principles, it is out of step with the needs of the time.

If the task of health care in the future is integrating services, bringing them together, the last thing we need is to fragment and privatise.

Because it sets hospital against hospital, service against service.

Privatisation cannot meet the needs of 21st century healthcare.

We’re going to restore the right principles to our National Health Service.

With the next Labour government:

We’ll scrap David Cameron’s market framework for the NHS and stop the tide of privatisation.                                                                     

The NHS will be the preferred provider.

No company working with the NHS will be able to profit by cherry picking: rejecting patients with the more complex and expensive needs for their own advantage.

And, for the first time, we will cap the profits that private health companies can make from our National Health Service.

The standard rule will be a five per cent cap.

Because the money we pay for our health care should be invested for patient care not for excess profits for private firms.

So here is where Labour stands on the NHS:

It’s time to put patients before profits and stop the privatisation.

It’s time to invest in more doctors, nurses, midwives and care-workers, with a funded plan.

It’s time to rescue the NHS from David Cameron.

Our fourth pledge is on immigration.

We need controls on immigration.

That’s why people who come here will have to wait for at least two years until they can claim benefits.

And we will call time on employers who don’t pay the minimum wage, gang-masters that exploit migrant labour, recruitment agencies that only advertise abroad.

This Labour Party will never cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, but we are a party that believes in rules which protect working people.

Our fifth and final pledge is to our young people.

There is nothing worse about this government than the way they have made the young bear so much of the burden of hard times.

For the first time in our memory, so many young people think they’re going to have a harder life than their parents.

So at every stage of life the next Labour government will improve chances for the young.

Smaller class sizes for five, six and seven year olds.

An apprenticeship for every school leaver who gets the grades.

And tuition fees reduced to £6,000.

Investing in our future, investing in the next generation.

Giving hope back to young people and restoring the Promise of Britain.

So we offer: a strong economic foundation.

Higher living standards.

An NHS with time to care.

Controls on immigration.

And the next generation doing better than the last.

These are our pledges to the British people.

And, friends, the last few weeks have shown more than ever why it is so important that we have this better plan.

We now know what is on offer from David Cameron.

Low pay carries on because he thinks that’s the way Britain succeeds.

Insecurity at work persists because that’s the way he thinks Britain prospers.

Young people carry on being mired in debt because he thinks there’s no alternative.

And on top of all this, he plans bigger, deeper, worse cuts to public services.

That’s the wrong future for working families.

That’s the wrong future for Britain.

So that is the choice.

A Tory government that looks out only for a few.

Or a Labour government that will stand up for working families in every part of our country.

I know this election is going to be tough.

Like so many races here during the Olympics, it may come down to the wire.

Neck and neck.

I know our opponents will throw everything they have our way.

I know they’re desperate to hang on to power.

But we know we can win this fight on behalf of the British people.

We know we must stand up for working families.

We know we must change Britain.

Hard work rewarded.

Young people with hope again.

Exploitative zero hours contracts banned.

The health service rescued.

Time called on tax avoidance.

The richest paying their fair share.

The bedroom tax abolished.

That’s the difference between a Labour government and a Tory government.

Fairness.

Social justice.

Equality.

A better plan.

A better future.

Let’s go out and win it together.

Let’s go out and change our country.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at 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.