Festival Leprosy

Vile diseases and avaricious banks - AL Kennedy finds that Edinburgh's festival season isn't all lol

One of the many interesting chance elements which always enters into the Edinburgh Festival mix, is disease. Not to be too graphic, you spend your semi-waking days watching, or working in various warm, moist venues full of strangers who breathe, cough, giggle, guffaw, sigh, yawn and generally spread the usually very private and intimate contents of their lungs all over the shop, you utilise extremely well-used conveniences (with much less-used hand washing facilities) and handle microphones that have probably not been boiled in bleach since they were bought in the late 1970’s – you are eventually going to get Festival Flu, Festival Tummy, Festival Leprosy, or something else genuinely unpleasant. The fact that many venues smell like oldmantrousers, or deadnun is also unnerving. And a good deal of unhygienic hugging, patting and touching takes place. This year I’ve been enjoying a range of aches, snuffles, rasping strangulations and eye throbbings – as has pretty much everyone else I’ve been meeting from a distance with gloves and mask in place.

Given that I occupy a slightly peculiar cross-media position I have been bouncing between club comedy gigs, my show, the Westport Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival and deargodknowswhat else in a nether world of high-fat and previously-fingered free food and what I can only really describe as chatting. This can seem simply pleasant, if not puerile at one level, but it’s a joy to spend a month being reminded that British people and people in general are brighter, faster, more civilised and more pleasant to be around than any of our media or politicians might suggest. There are, of course, insistently insane and peculiar exceptions (and I have no idea what bowel of hell my audience came from on the 13th) but it is truly exhilarating to get down to telling stories and being told stories with no monkeying about, or muffling/critical/literary/buzz killing interventions.

This year there have already been some genuinely grand moments – the invention of lime tea as a refreshing alternative to lemon, seeing the Tiger Lillies do their twisted and wonderful stuff, the lady who took her socks off in my gig, the chap who was “good at being submissive” and the splendid couple who came all the way from Orkney to say hello. This year I have been proud to go on after a stripper – not necessarily a good thing, then again everyone is going to be pleased if I promise not to take off my clothes, so it all balances out – and have been given a lollipop and a balloon by two different kind gentlemen – not exactly the brand affection one might hope for in the heady world of notreallyshowbiz, but it has to be said that I do love a balloon.

Meanwhile, a pal of mine has managed to run up a £30 overdraft in the midst of the festival chaos. His bank is attempting to charge him £120 for the money he didn’t arrange for them to advance him in the first place… he should have gone to a loan shark, or just sold one of his legs for sandwich meat. We set aside a little time each day to meditate on the fact that greedy and utterly mindless banks have been entirely happy to bring our economy to the brink of meltdown by shifting fake money faster and faster round the globe and taking on impossible risks for the joy of short term blood-letting and with no thought for the implications of the word impossible – and no one in government is going to do anything other than bail them out. With our money. Until it’s too late. This does not improve our combined symptoms.

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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.