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Where did it go wrong for Ed Miliband?

Ed cannot escape responsibility for his defeat but neither can the Labour Party as a whole.

So Ed Miliband has joined the roster of Labour leaders never to have become Prime Minister, and already plenty of people have been more than happy to tell anyone who’ll listen that they always knew he was a loser. 

Many of those people have defaulted straight to the idea that Labour picked ‘the wrong Miliband’ in the first place.  This is counterfactual nonsense.  Out of a field seemingly dominated by fortysomething Oxbridge graduates who looked to most voters like they’d never done a proper day’s work outside politics in their lives, the party (surprise, surprise) elected the Miliband who’d taken the trouble to work out how best to win over those doing the picking – the Miliband who’d bothered to build good working relationships with the unions and to chat to his parliamentary colleagues regardless of their rank.  The latter, along with the fact that ‘Team Ed’ ruthlessly framed the contest as one between their ‘change-candidate’ and an opponent all-too-easily cast as a Blairite throwback, proved vital when that contest came down to a handful of MPs’ second preferences.

Ed’s critics also risk forgetting three more, equally sobering truths.  First, he took over after Labour had gone down to a defeat every bit as bad (at least outside Scotland) as the one it suffered last week: the chances of turning that around in one term were always tiny.  Second, the difficulties faced by Labour in appealing to a more fragmented electorate, much of which is as concerned by immigration as it is about the economy and public services, and important parts of which do not feel sufficiently inspired to actually vote (assuming they are registered at all), are shared by social democrats across Europe.  Third, Ed was facing political opponents who are past masters (and much better than their Labour counterparts) at using office to alter the terms of political debate and who, at least when it came to personalised attacks, were prepared to stoop lower than they have ever stooped before in order to win.

And yet, as Ed was honest enough to admit in his resignation speech on the morning after the night before, he cannot escape a large measure of responsibility for the failure of his five-year mission.

Leaving aside his failure to see Scotland coming, Ed’s biggest mistake, after winning the leadership by appealing not just to those who wanted to move on from New Labour  but to those who regarded it as some sort of neo-liberal/colonialist aberration, was failing to head immediately and noisily for the centre-ground. Inasmuch as it happened – and on immigration, on welfare, and (by the end) on tax and spend, it did happen – it came about too late, and too stealthily, to make much difference.

True, one could argue that there was some method in this madness – a superficial logic in delaying in order to lock in left-wing voters disgusted with Nick Clegg’s deal with David Cameron before turning to make a play for those who’d voted Tory.  It was also possible to believe (just) that the initial left-populist pitch might appeal to a bunch of people – mainly working people (and how many times did we hear that term during the election campaign?) – who’d become detached from Labour since 1997 and, like many younger ‘voters’, dropped out of politics altogether.  Not straying too far or too early outside the social democratic comfort-zone helped preserved party unity – no small thing in an organisation that traditionally descended into electorally suicidal civil war after a big defeat.

But the opportunity cost turned out to be massive.  Segmenting the electoral market may have seemed sensible, but it risked blotting out the basic truth that any party hoping to win elections has to win over a more nebulous, but ultimately far bigger bunch of voters –the archetypal residents of middle England who simply want to get on in life, who like a bit of leadership, and who value public services but worry about others ripping them off.

Virtually nothing Ed did during his leadership was counter-intuitive and therefore capable of cutting through to these voters in a way that might have led them to re-evaluate either him or his party.  In particular, waiting far too long before publicly committing his party to fiscal consolidation – and failing once he’d done so to adopt measures that might have made a few eyes water and therefore commanded attention and respect (cancelling HS2 and going back on his absurd early commitment to reduce tuition fees are only the most obvious examples) – meant Ed was simply unable ever to persuade people that he really meant it.  Refusing to admit either that Labour had overspent in government or else defend its record against all-comers only made things worse.

Yet just as Ed cannot escape responsibility for his defeat, neither can the Labour Party as a whole.  Ed put himself up for election but it didn’t have to choose him.  And, having chosen him, it didn’t have to stick with him when it became patently obvious that the public (rightly or wrongly) didn’t think he was up to the job – something that could all-too-easily happen this time, too, if it once again goes for a leader with a gilded glide path from Oxbridge to Labour’s frontbench via a think tank and/or a job as a special adviser.

Since it now looks likely that whoever emerges may well come from such a background, then Labour had better make damn sure that it’s the candidatet best able both to connect with the public and to tell the party what it needs (as opposed to what it wants) to hear.  And if it gets it wrong first time, it should have the courage this time to dump them if they turn out to be a dud.  If not, the party will have nobody to blame but itself if loses every bit as badly in five years’ time as it did last week.

Tim Bale teaches Politics at Queen Mary University of London and is the author of Five Year Mission: the Labour Party under Ed Miliband.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

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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.