The need for 'narrative'

Labour needs to devise, and agree, a vision of the changes we wish to bring about in our country in

George Orwell's essay on Politics and the English Language many moons ago warned politicians against the overuse of clichés and dead metaphors. He argued that political discourse at the time suffered from two problems: a staleness of imagery and a lack of precision. I expect he would find the situation has worsened ten-fold if he were to read and listen to some of our discussions at the conference, and in particular, the use of the word 'narrative' to describe the lack of a guiding direction for the party.

This was made plain to me when Andrew Neil's first question as I sat trembling on the Daily Politics set yesterday was: 'so Progress has called for a new narrative', what's that when it's at home?' I had to concede that this was not a particularly audience-friendly word for sure, and suggested that a better way of expressing it to the viewers at home would be to say that the government lacked a story. Oasis after all, didn't write 'What's the narrative, morning glory' ...

So why, after accepting that Orwell would thumb his nose at the word, and its poor translation to the wider public, do I think that 'narrative' is still a good shorthand for describing what is desperately needed at the moment? The first reason is that simply coming up with a better 'story' about what the government is doing or has done, won't be enough to reconnect to the public and win a fourth term. Using the word 'story' suggests we are talking about something fictional rather than factual. The actions of Prescott et al are definitely needed to motivate the troops and to make sure we remember that elections can't be won without action on the ground. But what the troops are crying out for is a distinctive and enervating 'narrative' to be able to relate to voters on the doorstep. A bit more PR with a few touchstone words which resonate with the public won't achieve their 'go fourth' ambitions.

The second reason is that the word narrative is one of the few words which relates how future events might unfold. So it's not about simply regurgitating Labour's successes over the last 11 years, and certainly not the endless list of statistics and schemes which David Miliband criticised at Progress's Rally on Sunday. Instead Labour needs to devise, and agree, a vision of the changes we wish to bring about in our country in the next decade and how we will achieve them.

Which brings me to my third reason for sticking with this graceless word. In creative writing at school, you were told to remember the narrative - the beginning, the middle and the end. And it is precisely this progression through the process of determining what Labour is going to offer the public at the next election which is missing at the moment. How we will get from where Britain currently is, to where Labour thinks it should be in the years to come. This is something which Progress has been working hard on and last week we launched the first of a number of interventions (http://clients.squareeye.com/uploads/prog/documents/Role%20o...) which we hope will help the process of debate. I can't apologise in the future though if we're still bemoaning the lack of a narrative - it's the only word in town.

Jessica Asato is Deputy Director of Progress and a Member of the Fabian Society Executive.
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.