Ken Livingstone and the curate's egg

Sian responds to some of the Labour Party hacks who have been posting on her blog, calling on her no

Having been selected to stand for Mayor of London last week, I hadn’t planned to blog about the subject every week from now until next May. Apart from risking boring the readers of newstatesman.com into a campaign-induced coma, it wouldn’t be much fun for anyone outside the M25.

But the people of London have surprised me. Judging by the number of comments generated by my last posting, it seems they are quite engaged in the coming election already, and up for debating some of the issues now.

One point I am keen to answer is the question of ‘isn’t the Mayor dead green already?’ Unfortunately on this issue, Mayor Livingstone is - and always has been - a curate’s egg: good in parts.

Yes, the Mayor’s Climate Change Action Plan is impressive, but it consists mainly of a compendium of measures brought in over the past three years thanks to the effective Green Party veto over his annual budget. Without the hard and skilled negotiations of the Green Assembly Members, the plan would be far less ambitious. As Livingstone himself said at the launch, he couldn’t have done it without us, and that’s exactly why he needs a strong Green challenge next year.

And he is a disappointment on many planning issues, especially the waving through of the vast Kings Cross project in the face of almost unanimous community opposition. The London Plan has reasonable targets for affordable housing and renewable energy but the Mayor has yet to enforce them properly in any development, and in Kings Cross the need for affordable family homes is acute.

The Mayor’s blind spots to the needs of ordinary Londoners seem to occur particularly when it comes to big, shiny projects, to the extent that I think he might back a big hole in the ground if it was clad in glass and came with a billion pound price tag.

Some of last week’s comments are from obvious Labour Party hacks, peddling the old “Don’t stand, you’ll let the Tories in” line. I find this kind of thing disgusting and profoundly undemocratic. Without new parties springing up out of new ideas and challenging the comfortable, ‘no alternative’ status quo, we’d be hearing now how we have to vote Tory to avoid another Whig victory.

The fact is things are constantly moving on in politics. Most notably over the past ten years Labour and Conservative policies have converged to the extent that, like leading brands of washing powder, the only real difference is in the marketing.

Which party is stealthily packaging up and privatising the services we get from the NHS and the Benefits Agency? Who came up with the idea of sponsored schools? Who wants to push council houses steadily into private hands? These are all classic Tory policies, but brought in by a Labour government.

What some of the ‘don’t stand’ brigade seem to be promoting is little better than a one-party system worthy of the old Eastern Bloc. Even the LibDems aren’t above trying this line. The phrase, “It’s a two-horse race!” will be familiar to voters in local elections throughout the country. It’s the standard headline on the template for their final-week Focus newsletters.

American presidential elections are the standard example of a two-party closed shop but other elections in the USA give me more hope. Directly elected mayors run most cities there, and independent or Green victories are not unusual. Currently, eight towns and cities have signed-up Green Party mayors - in California, New York state, Pennsylvania, Kansas and even Texas - and many independents are successful on the back of ecology-focused campaigns.

Here in the UK, where some towns and cities are taking up the same model, non-party directly elected mayors now run Bedford, Mansfield, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough.

And, let’s not forget, Londoners have also shown an appetite for a Mayor who stands outside the two (or three) party system. Ken Livingstone himself won first as a independent in 2000 before moving back under Blair’s wing. And there’s where the irony lies. At the time, compliant Labour hacks pressured Livingstone not to stand. Can you guess why? “Because you’ll let the Tories in.”

Anyway, enough of that. I’m still standing, convinced a Green Mayor would be a vast improvement, and determined to win every vote I can. No, what I really wanted to talk about this week was of course David Cameron’s haircut.

OK not really. What did catch my eye was the most disgraceful bit of greenwash I’ve seen in ages, brought to my attention twice this week. First, I spotted it in the latest Landrover brochure to come through my door (hilarious people keep signing me up to their mailing list, and I can’t seem to get off it). And then I was sent some shocking photographic evidence by Nick, our local Brighton anti-4x4 organiser.

It seems that everything’s been solved between 4x4s and the environment because now Landrover have got together with offsetting company Climate Care to purchase a basket of indulgences that ‘neutralise’ the manufacture of your new Chelsea Tractor and cover the first 45,000 miles that you drive it to the gym/supermarket/golf course etc.

No, no, no, no, no! How many times do we have to say it? The only justification for taking part in any offsetting scheme (if you can find a good one) is for residual carbon dioxide emissions – after you have done everything possible to cut down.

Climate Care themselves say on their website, “We must work towards low-carbon lifestyles,” so they should be ashamed of themselves for getting involved in this scheme. If you can persuade genuine farmers and tree surgeons to donate to climate projects to assuage the impact of their 4x4 use, then fine, if they do it quietly in the privacy of their homes.

But handing town dwellers an excuse for driving a needless, dangerous waste of resources? And giving them a pious green window sticker with your logo on? Such desperate wrongheadedness must be stopped.

Photograph by Nick Sayers

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.