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Think Ukip helps Labour? Visit Thurrock

Anoosh Chakelian visits a seat that is a three-way race between Labour, the Conservatives and Ukip.

The village-like towns that make up Thurrock constituency are defined by a sombre industrial skyline. Reaching towards the clouds are the two imposing Tilbury docks, standing out amid a jungle of factory chimneys. But although the ferries still crawl in and the stacks of shipping containers pile high, work here has become increasingly insecure.

The mechanisation of industry and subsequent casualisation of labour have instilled in residents a sense of resentment and uncertainty about the future. John Kent, the leader of Thurrock Council, explained when I visited last year that in the past, people would leave school, go out to Tilbury and get a job for life on the docks. It’s no longer like that, he said.

Along with the decline in steady manual work, migration has transformed this old white, working-class area. Thurrock has experienced a rapid rise in the proportion of black and minority-ethnic residents, which doubled to almost 20 per cent in the decade up to the most recent census in 2011.

So, it is not surprising that Ukip’s popularity has rocketed in what was once a precarious Tory seat ripe for Labour’s taking. (Thurrock’s MP, Jackie Doyle-Price, won the seat for the Tories for the first time in 23 years, with a majority of 92 votes, in 2010.)

Tim Aker, a Ukip MEP and the only candidate among the main three who grew up here, is on track to win the seat. Constituency polling published at the end of April by Michael Ashcroft shows Ukip on 35 per cent, Labour on 31 per cent and the Tories on 30 per cent.

“Ground Zero for Labour’s Ukip crisis,” is how one hassled Thurrock Labour councillor described this shift to me when it became clear that Ukip was in the lead.

The fight is so close that you can see the politicians’ strain. Polly Billington, a former aide to Ed Miliband standing for Labour, who campaigns by knocking on doors or phone canvassing three times a day, every day of the week, broke her foot a few weeks ago after tripping on a pavement. “This really is the front line of making sure that
we maintain hope and opportunities for working-class communities in this country,” she says. “If we get it right here, we’ll get it right for the country.”

Aker is also trying to “knock on as many doors as possible, every day. Every day until sundown.” He sounds cheery but exhausted. His campaign focuses on the effect of newcomers to Thurrock. “Immigration is the first domino,” he says. “When you can’t control your borders, you cannot manage public services.”

Billington often uses the word “global­isation” when discussing immigration, emphasising Labour’s policies to abolish exploitative zero-hours contracts and employers recruiting exclusively from mainland Europe. She is also backing a campaign to make St George’s Day a bank holiday. “I’m quite straightforward with people,” she says. “Anybody who says they are going to stop immigration altogether is lying to you. And people accept that, and then you can have a much more reasonable conversation about what you can and can’t do. Practical solutions to employers undercutting and underpaying people, agencies advertising abroad. That’s just crappy behaviour. It’s a choice between hope and despair; Ukip’s language and analysis is one of despair.”

Both she and Doyle-Price decry what they call the “fear” Ukip is inculcating in Thurrock residents. Doyle-Price dismisses Ukip’s campaign as being fuelled by a “pretty nasty brand of nationalism”, and Billington is concentrating studiously on a message of hope conquering fear.

Perhaps it’s best to leave Thurrock with the thoughts of one of its residents, an Indian man who has sold tracksuits at Grays Market for ten years. When we chatted last year he explained how much the area – the people and business – had changed, and not for the better. Yet with a smile he told me that he had no plans of moving, because: “You ride it out, don’t you?”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

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Should feminists talk about “pregnant people”?

Two writers present the arguments for and against.

NO

“I’m not sure what the public health issue is that would require a focus only on those who become pregnant, as opposed to any of those involved in pregnancy, either becoming pregnant or causing someone else to become pregnant,” Dr Elizabeth Saewyc, a Canadian professor in nursing and adolescent medicine at the University of British Columbia, recently told journalist Jesse Singal when he asked her for clarification on a study she conducted into trans youth and pregnancy.

Her statement is, on the face of it, extraordinary: unlike those who “cause someone else to become pregnant” (males), those who “become pregnant” (females) actually, well, become pregnant, with everything that entails from the risk of varicose veins and pre-eclampsia, to having an abortion or being denied abortion, to miscarriage or giving birth and living with the economic strain and social discrimination that come with motherhood.

As absurd as Saewyc sounded, her position is the logical endpoint of “gender neutral” language about pregnancy. Pressure on reproductive rights groups – especially those in the US – to drop references to “women” and instead address themselves to “people” have been growing over the last few years, and the American body Planned Parenthood now regularly mentions “pregnant people” in its communications. In theory, this is supposed to help transmen and non-binary-identified females who need reproductive health services. In practice, it creates a political void into which the female body, and the way pregnancy specifically affects women, simply disappears.

The obscuring of the female body beneath obscenity and taboo has always been one of the ways patriarchal society controls women. In 2012, Michigan Democratic representative Lisa Brown was prevented from speaking in a debate about abortion after she used the word “vagina”, which Republicans decided “violated the decorum of the house”. Now, that oppressive decorum is maintained in the name of trans inclusion: in 2014, the pro-choice organisation A is For was attacked for “genital policing” and being “exclusionary and harmful” over a fundraiser named Night of a Thousand Vaginas.

Funnily enough, trans inclusion doesn’t require the elimination of the word vagina entirely – only when it’s used in reference to women. A leaflet on safe sex for trans people published by the Human Rights Campaign decrees that “vagina” refers to “the genitals of trans women who have had bottom surgery”; in contrast, unaltered female genitals are designated the “front hole”. And it’s doubtful that any of this careful negation of the female body helps to protect transmen, given the regular occurrence of stories about transmen getting “unexpectedly” pregnant through having penis-in-vagina sex. Such pregnancies are entirely unsurprising to anyone who knows that gender identity is not a contraceptive.

It does, however, protect from scrutiny the entire network of coercion that is cast over the female body: the denial of abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland, for example, affects the same class of people who were subjected to the medical violence of symphysiotomy — a brutal alternative to cesarean, which involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered — the same class of people who were brutalised by Magdalen Laundries (institutions established to house “fallen women” which operated from the late 18th to the 20th centuries), the same class of people who are subject to rape and sexual harassment. That class of people is women. If we give up the right to name ourselves in the service of “inclusion”, we permit the erosion of all our hard-won boundaries.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who focuses on feminism.

YES

No matter who you are and how straightforwardly things go, pregnancy is never an easy process. It might be a joyous one in many ways, but it’s never comfortable having to lie on your back in a brightly lit room with your legs hitched in stirrups and strangers staring at parts of your anatomy some of them hesitate to name. Then there are the blood tests, the scans, the constant scrutiny of diet and behaviour – it may be good practice for coping with a child, but the invasion of privacy that takes place at this time can have a dehumanising effect. And that’s without having your gender denied in the process.

If you’ve never experienced that denial, it might be difficult to relate to — but many women have, at one time or another, received letters addressing them as “Mr” or turned up at meetings only to discover they were expected to be men. It’s a minor irritation until it happens to you every day. Until people refuse to believe you are who you say you are; until it happens in situations where you’re already vulnerable, and you’re made to feel as if your failure to conform to expectations means you don’t really deserve the same help and respect as everyone else.

There is very little support available for non-binary people and trans men who are happily pregnant, trying to become pregnant or trying to cope with unplanned pregnancies. With everything geared around women, accessing services can be a struggle, and encountering prejudice is not uncommon. We may not even have the option of keeping our heads down and trying to “pass” as female for the duration. Sometimes our bodies are visibly different.

It’s easy for those opposed to trans inclusion to quote selectively from materials making language recommendations that are, or appear to be, extreme – but what they miss is that most trans people going through pregnancy are not asking for anything drastic. We simply want reassurance that the people who are supposed to be helping us recognise that we exist. When that’s achievable simply by using a neutral word like people, does it really hurt to do so? I was always advised that manners cost nothing.

Referring to “people” being pregnant does not mean that we can’t also talk about women’s experiences. It doesn’t require the negation of femaleness – it simply means accepting that women’s rights need not be won at the expense of other people’s. We are stronger when we stand together, whether pushing for better sex education or challenging sexual violence (to which trans men are particularly vulnerable).

When men criticise feminism and complain that it’s eroding their rights, this is usually countered with the argument that it’s better for everyone – that it’s about breaking down barriers and giving people more options. Feminism that is focused on a narrow approach to reproductive biology excludes many women who will never share the experience of pregnancy, and not necessarily through choice. When women set themselves against trans men and non-binary people, it produces a perfect divide and conquer scenario that shores up cis male privilege. There’s no need for any of that. We can respect one another, allow for difference and support the growth of a bigger feminist movement that is truly liberating.

Jennie Kermode is the chair of the charity Trans Media Watch.