A long-running 'feud'

The Tory London assembly member on what he says is one of the longest-running feuds in London politi

One of the longest running London political feuds is that between Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality and Ken Livingstone.

The row partly goes back to 2000 when Phillips ran as Frank Dobson’s deputy in his ill-fated Mayoral Campaign against Livingstone.

The following three years that Phillips spent on the London Assembly (including being its first Chairman) were probably not the most productive of Phillips’ career as Livingstone seemed to frustrate Trevor at every opportunity.

"I won’t have that Bastard Phillips on the Police Authority," was Ken’s remark to the first meeting of Tory Assembly members, and consequently Trevor had to sit through two years of endless London Fire Brigade meetings although he learnt at first hand what equalities mean in an organisation that had then barely emerged from the 1950s.

When Trevor moved on to the Commission for Racial Equality he had clearly found his niche in British Public Life and his immensely thoughtful contributions on race issues, stressing the need for integration, discussing the nature of Britishness gave the CRE credence it previously lacked.

The more sensible Phillips' speeches the more vicious Livingstone’s attacks culminating in the bizarre allegation that Phillips was pandering to the BNP.

Indeed in 2006 City Hall went to a great deal of trouble and expenditure to organise a race conference on the same day the CRE had a big event.

I was reflecting on this as I enjoyed a pleasant early evening reception at the French Ambassadors residence in Kensington Palace Gardens to mark the award of the Chevalier de Legion d’ honour to Trevor to go alongside his OBE.

A mixed crowd of the great and the good, including a couple of Conservative MPs, one Labour Assembly Member but strangely not the Mayor of London heard Trevor pay tribute to the French President Nicholas Sarkozy for taking the diversity agenda seriously in France especially in the make up of his new Government.

It has long been my view that whereas the left talk a good story on diversity and equality issues it is actually the right that drive through the agenda. On the London Fire Authority 10 years of Labour control between 1990 and 2000 saw virtually no progress yet all changed when a Tory became lead member on equality issues.

The left spend so much time arguing amongst themselves and playing one ethnic group off against another. I was flabbergasted when locally a Hindu Labour Councillor complained to me that we had invited a Muslim fellow Labour Councillor to take part in a veterans day service earlier this year. The conviction of Waltham Forest Labour Councillor Miranda Grell (a former aide to Deputy Mayor Nicky Gavron) under rarely used provisions of the Representation of the People Act for telling voters her Lib Dem opponent was a paedophile have shown how often the ethnic groups on the left are hostile to the gay rights agenda.

Trevor Phillips great achievement has been to mainstream the whole equalities agenda in the UK and it is not just the French Government that owes him a debt of gratitude.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.