On feminism… and on Labour

Feminism. What does it mean to you? To me, it’s about equality: equality of treatment, equality of respect, equality of opportunity. I don’t understand how anyone can oppose those basic tenets: all discrimination is wrong. And as the feminist movement has brilliantly highlighted over the last half century and more, the discrimination encountered by women, overt and more insidiously, covert, is particularly endemic.

It’s strange, then, how so many men – and surprising numbers of women – treat ‘feminism’ as a dirty word. Opposition to it is so often based on tropes (for example, so-called ‘Feminazis’ seeking to take over the world and/or emasculate men): in fact, many of the more basic critiques essentially owe to the same lazy prejudices still held by so many.

I want to start by setting out a premise. I think most men do not have the remotest idea of what women encounter on a daily basis. To be a woman in the public eye is, very plainly, to require the hide of a rhinoceros. The abhorrent rape and death threats which Stella Creasy, Caroline Criado-Perez and Mary Beard all encountered on Twitter two years ago seemed briefly to prick public consciousness about this: why on earth, asked Creasy, was this not treated in the same way as if someone walked up to her on the street and made the same threats?

To my mind, Creasy has been the most effective front line campaigner for feminism I’ve ever seen in politics. So often (most infamously, Margaret Thatcher), female politicians have broken the glass ceiling, then forgotten to keep publicising the cause of equality, or seek to help other women emulate or better their achievements. Creasy is quite the opposite. Her takedown of Toby Young on Newsnight during that sorry saga not only evidenced his casual, lazy sexism (no Toby, your sin wasn’t to “notice an extremely low cut dress of a particular MP sitting behind Ed Miliband”; it was to tweet about it like some leery schoolboy on heat); it was a masterclass in the vital line separating freedom of speech (or freedom to give offence) from freedom to threaten others. The former is sacrosanct in any civilised society; the latter is unacceptable and indefensible.

It’s true that public male figures have to put up with plenty of abuse too. But in their case, it’s rarely either sexualised or based on their gender. Women, on the other hand? Online, this form of abuse is rampant: as another feminist campaigner, Louise Mensch, demonstrated this week. For the crime of defending her Conservative colleague, David Cameron, in the wake of the most lurid allegations in Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s book, Mensch found herself subjected to a whole hail of hideous, vicious, revolting tweets, some of which are set out here.

Not for nothing did Yvette Cooper warn yesterday that online ‘trolling’ (actually, trolling is the harmless act of winding others up, usually via the assertion of a ridiculous opinion. This, on the other hand, is abuse) will inevitably stop some women ever going into politics, the media or business. Moreover, as Nick Cohen highlights in today’s Observer, women make up only 30% of MPs, 25% of judges and 21% of FTSE-100 company directors. To which I’d add the absurd, disgraceful disparity in pay which, 45 years after the Equal Pay Act supposedly outlawed any less favourable treatment between men and women, not only still obtains – but is actually growing.

As Cohen also notes, women are more likely than men to be in low-paid work, head a single-parent household, and live in poverty, especially in old age: a state of affairs which will only worsen under a government which attacks most those who have least. Two women, meanwhile, are murdered by their partners every week. Domestic violence accounts for between 16% and 25% of all recorded violent crime; and rape conviction rates remain appallingly low.

From an ever earlier age, girls find themselves sexualised and judged not on the content of their character, but their appearance. Access to online pornography (which all too often stigmatises and degrades women, and is based for the most part on arousing not female viewers, but male viewers) affects views on and expectations regarding sex of both boys and girls well before they reach the age of consent. And in the workplace, macho attitudes still abound. That’s why Charlotte Proudman reacted as she did when complimented on her LinkedIn profile picture: yes, her response was probably disproportionate, but the context is of a culture which still views women first and foremost through the prism of their appearance.

To many men, Proudman’s response was bewildering. Why wouldn’t a woman want to be complimented on her appearance? Answer: (1) It’s no-one else’s business; (2) It had nothing whatsoever to do with Proudman’s job. Take a look, for example, at the sort of tweets often sent to Isabel Hardman. Hardman is a brilliant, rapidly emerging journalist for The Spectator and increasingly, many other publications – yet this doesn’t stop alarming numbers of comments based on her appearance.

Most of the tweets I’ve linked to here are essentially harmless: with one dreadful exception. But since when do male journalists incur similar responses? They don’t. The same old double standard continues: which, we should add, also applies in television news. Male presenters are routinely kept in the spotlight long after their female counterparts. There’s no reason for this, other than a dreadfully cliched stereotype that associates men with gravitas and authority, women with looking pretty and providing ‘eye candy’.

Sexism, then, is everywhere. It exists in just about all facets of society – and women bear the enormous brunt of it. Why should they? Because “it’s always been this way”? We used to bait badgers, drown witches and treat women as their husband’s property too; women, indeed, have always been treated as second-class citizens in a world designed according to what suits men. No-one who believes in equality can defend this – and however much progress has been made, we’re nowhere near real equality as yet.

Then, much more alarmingly, is the colossal amount of violent abuse which goes largely unreported. Sex trafficking – the modern day slave trade – across Europe: in which women (often even below the age of consent) forced into selling their bodies are described as ‘sex workers’ when the reality is one of systematic, constant rape. Child pornography is described as such when, by definition, child pornography cannot exist. The accurate term is child rape. Horrendously widespread cases of systematic abuse of children and young women in Rotherham, Derby, Oxford, Telford, Bristol, Rochdale, and many other areas besides, especially in northern England. And worse: the very real fear is that those cases are the tip of a hideous, shocking iceberg.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with a friend of mine. Quietly, painstakingly, she told me about the times men had followed her or chased her down the street; the catcalls she so often receives; the hands on her body in or out of nightclubs when this hadn’t been invited. And she also told me about when, as a teenager, stories about friends of hers being raped became more and more commonplace.

In 2015, do we have a society in which women feel able to speak out about this sort of horror? No, we don’t. In fact, women with the courage to tell their stories very often find themselves abused, smeared or blamed by a society which just does not want to know; which downplays it at every opportunity; which shamefully treats victims of rape as responsible in some way for their experiences. Rape is a life sentence; public ignorance which continues to surround it only further compounds the agony of all too many victims.

There are, then, abundant reasons why the feminist movement is so important: why it must continue to speak out and demand action across all areas. Of all Britain’s political parties, Labour has most often done so, and is becomingly increasingly feminist in its approach. I regarded its manifesto this year as by far its most feminist ever; and all the better for it.

But there’s a problem: a growing one. Difficult to articulate, especially in light of all I’ve set out above; but it does, nonetheless, need to be said. In Labour’s case, it revolves around tokenism over substance; positive discrimination which, in terms of the electorate it needs to vote for it, is increasingly counter-productive to the party’s aims. Above all, its feminist ones.

The idea behind All-Women Shortlists (AWS) is entirely laudable: to redress the continued gender imbalance in the House of Commons and, in this specific case, among Labour MPs. In terms of numbers, there’s no doubting their success: from a risible 3% of MPs when Harriet Harman first entered Parliament in 1982, women now make up a still completely unacceptable 29% of the Commons. 43% of Labour’s MPs are female; the Tories lag well behind on 21% (up from a stupefyingly awful 9% as recently as 10 years ago).

Nobody in Labour has done more for women’s rights than Harriet Harman

The argument made by Labour’s AWS proponents is, naturally, that these should continue until the 50% mark is reached among MPs. But what’s interesting is, at the same time as Labour has hugely increased its number of women MPs, it’s produced more and more robotic, machine politicians: frequently parachuted into constituencies, seen by increasing proportions of the public as looking the same, sounding the same, and having nothing of any importance to say.

That isn’t, incidentally, to blame women in any way. This is a Labour problem, not a women problem. Imagine any constituency: in which there might be 10 aspiring male candidates, 10 aspiring female ones. Instead of having 20 talented options to whittle down and choose from, Labour deliberately restricts itself. Then multiply that over the scores and scores of constituencies where it does this. By deliberately narrowing the field of talent before it’s even begun, Labour ends up with a Parliamentary Party which just isn’t as adept as it otherwise would be.

Does that mean I’m somehow arguing women are less capable than men in politics? No, not at all. In some strange parallel universe of men-only shortlists, I’d be making the exact same point. I’m highlighting the frightening paucity of talent throughout British politics, which applies equally to both men and women. In Labour’s case, this summer, three of its four candidates for leader were astonishingly unable to argue a clear, coherent, passionate case on almost anything; the sheer banality of the contest was what left the field open for Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide. Any party which ends up in such a position – all its ‘establishment’ options being so profoundly unimpressive – very obviously has a problem.

Just over a year ago, Austin Mitchell, outgoing Labour MP for Great Grimsby, attempted to make a similar point to Creasy on the BBC. Emphasis here on attempted: because for the crime of correctly describing AWS as ‘undemocratic’, he was shouted down by his colleague and barely allowed to get a word in. Have a look at the comments below the video: that sort of thing plays appallingly with the public, but Labour’s future is in that very public’s gift. And as all sorts of studies since the general election have shown, the electorate has a huge problem with the moralising self-righteousness of many on the left.

Sadly, the same self-righteousness was again on display as Corbyn announced his Shadow Cabinet. Against a backdrop of just one third of David Cameron’s Cabinet being female, that Corbyn was announcing the first majority female Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet in British history might, you would imagine, have been cause for some celebration. Quite the contrary. In fact, the focus of not only the press, but disgraceful numbers of Labour MPs, was that no woman had been handed the shadow of one of the four great offices of state (Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary).

Yesterday, Harman demanded Corbyn “sort it out so we have women’s leadership at the top of the party”. But this was nothing compared to Jess Phillips, recently elected MP for Birmingham Yardley: who complained about Corbyn’s failure to promote any women to the most senior posts, then roundly told Diane Abbott to “fuck off” when she interjected.

Phillips, in fairness to her, has since apologised. But what’s alarming here is, to be blunt, a palpable sense of entitlement. All the posts in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet were his gift to dispose; it was his job to appoint those he thought best for the job. To be sure, you can argue whether those he selected are best qualified – but it’s beside the point. “We must have women in the four great offices”? No. Only if they are deemed best for the job must they be given those roles.

As Corbyn’s appointments were leaking out, Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, noted acidly that “Jeremy Corbyn has married more women than he’s appointed to great offices of state”. Strangely, I can recall nothing from her fulminating against the lack of women writers on her publication. Nor, for that matter, anything from anyone in the media castigating the organisations they work for over the paucity of female political journalists. One self-aggrandising rule for them, another for Corbyn? It certainly seems that way.

Stephen Bush, Lewis’ colleague, went even further: comparing the huge difference between Corbyn’s vote this year and Abbott’s in 2010, and asserting on the basis of precisely nothing that “it is difficult… to argue that none of (the gap) was the result of racism and/or sexism”. Mindbogglingly, despite a piece which noted Sadiq Khan’s triumph in the Mayoral race, Bush even hinted at Labour having an ethnic minority problem too (in which case Stephen, how did Khan win?).

What Bush did was take a cosmetic, tokenistic view of an much more complex question. Corbyn, Tom Watson and Khan all won their respective contests because they were seen as the best candidates. Like Corbyn, Khan has huge support among the base of the party, while Watson has built up roots within it over a very considerable time. All three are very distinctive politicians: nobody views them as parrots or machines. And where Corbyn was concerned, the difference between now and 2010 was a profoundly different dynamic within the much enlarged party: caused primarily by the impact of austerity. A study of how many Labour members who voted for David Miliband in 2010 yet chose Corbyn this year would make very interesting reading.

In the case of Bush, Lewis, Phillips, Harman and many others, it simply won’t do to say “a woman didn’t win or didn’t get one of the biggest jobs; ergo we have a woman problem”. It treats an issue of profound importance – feminism and equality – in a completely shallow way. And in the case of the Shadow Cabinet, it’s not actually that far removed from Ashcroft’s extraordinary conduct in 2010. He tried to buy his way into the government and is furious this failed. Labour’s women have demanded particular patronage but not based this demand on merit either.

Just as Ashcroft seems divorced from reality in his complaints, those Labour MPs who criticised Corbyn seem to believe they are more important than those they represent; the people they are supposed to serve. On AWS, the appearance to much of the public must surely be similar. Yet that very same public increasingly decides general elections based almost entirely on the quality and credibility of the party leaders. Nowadays, they must almost always be photogenic, televisually effective, slick (despite the public so often complaining about that sort of politics, it repeatedly returns Cameron or Tony Blair, while rejecting Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown or William Hague) – and have some sort of indefinable X-factor.

On the basis of who the party leaders happen to be stands the entire future of the country and destiny of millions; thousands live or die depending on who the government of the day is. Yet in Labour’s case, by deliberately reducing the talent available to it in winnable constituencies, it thereby also reduces its field of potential leaders… and hence, makes it more difficult for itself to win elections. An incredible state of affairs: which with the Tories overseeing draconian cuts which are disproportionately harmful to women, often has tragic, even lethal consequences.

“Women’s leadership at the top of the party”, Harriet? Sure – as soon as a woman is considered the best choice for leader by its members. Anything else is to treat politics as some self-indulgent game, and ignore the consequences of not choosing a leader, Shadow Cabinet members or candidates for Parliament based purely and solely on merit. Harman, indeed, is simultaneously the individual in the Labour Party who’s done more to advance women’s rights and equality than anyone else (for which she was deservedly acclaimed yesterday); and a twice atrocious caretaker leader, who first allowed the Tories to take over the economic narrative and blame Labour for the crash, then blundered horrendously over welfare reform: while remaining the weak, ineffectual Commons performer she always was. Equality of treatment demands she be assessed on her periods as leader; she failed, miserably.

Similarly, as Cooper bemoans the extent of online misogyny and reminds us of her role with Sure Start, she neglects to mention that as Work and Pensions Secretary, she made the work capability assessment – one of the most disgusting, profoundly anti-women initiatives launched by any government in decades – much, much harsher. The warnings regarding this were set out at the time. Cooper also failed to oppose the horrendously anti-women Welfare Reform Bill in July. Is that what you call ‘feminism’, Yvette?

Yvette Cooper: often talks a better game than she practices

In the end, given the profound inequality and injustice which women continue to experience throughout society, feminism in politics can’t be about the cherry on top. It has to be about the cake beneath: about everything Labour does being geared towards winning. If Labour does not win, it cannot implement a feminist agenda; but by obsessing over gender politics in appearance, not substance, it unwittingly makes it harder to help women in the first place. Instead, they’re left to the mercy of a Tory government, with appalling consequences.

Of course, I write all this as a man. Perhaps no man can ever truly understand feminism 100%; perhaps no man can ever be a true feminist. But let me be very clear: I’m a man who is desperate for a Labour government, appalled at the lives being destroyed by austerity, and acutely aware of its iniquitous impact on women. It disgusts me. The injustice which women face on a daily basis has always disgusted me. In such a context, that Labour makes it harder for itself to win by continuing all-women shortlists and systematically reducing the talent available to it across the country right when it’s so up against it (if you don’t believe me, read this; then if it hasn’t sunk in, read it again until it does) and needs to reach out to everyone, male and female alike, isn’t only absurd. It’s a complete abdication of responsibility.

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