Feminism is not about women, it is about power imbalances

To change Britain for the better, we must dispute the right's depiction that feminism is about "issues".

 

It used to be said a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Surely then Conservatives claiming to be feminists is like Nemo competing in the Tour de France. But before the left dismisses those on the right who call themselves sisters, we should ask what we are doing to offer women in Britain an alternative and progressive claim to their future. We also have to remind some on our own side of the rewards to all in the pursuit of a more equal society.
 
Having more Tory women MPs in parliament has changed the political landscape. When giving anonymity to those accused of rape was first mooted, we worked across the House to stop the proposals proceeding. Their enthusiasm for this debate is a welcome sign concern for gender inequality is now perceived as mainstream.
 
Yet if we welcome their interest in feminism we also query their interpretation. They actually mean simply talking about women, not equality; hence their warm words are not matched by a commitment to action to address inequality. Tory feminism at its worst is about attracting female voters and liking the Spice Girls, a twisted take on the ethos of the film Working Girl. At is most consistent it reduces feminism to a series of yes/ no questions. Are you pro-life or pro-choice, pro-tax credits or pro-marriage, pro-Top Totty beer or po-faced?
 
Making feminism a 'pick and mix' of issues however important - whether genital mutilation, access to childcare or pornography - disaggregates each of these concerns from the other and the 'big thing' which underpins them all. For progressives, feminism is not about women per se. It is about this 'big thing'; the power imbalances within society that mean 50% of our population struggle to achieve their potential - and the benefits to us all of acting to break these down.
 
These barriers appear in many different and connected ways. Whether economic - the persistent pay gap or lack of women in boardrooms, social - the provision of services to fit a stereotype of what family life should be, cultural - the proliferation of 'lad mags', personal - debates around body image, or even political - the lack of women in decision making. The thread that runs through all these issues is not who is affected, because we all are, but how the exercise of power enables exclusion and its consequences.
 
Seeing these concerns as separate allows Tory feminists to choose what is a 'women's issue' and what is a 'personal matter'. This helps square the circle of an interest in social inequality and being in thrall to free markets. So whilst they speak out about a lack of female TV presenters, they are silent when it comes to the impact of the universal credit on female incomes. It also allows them to discount the variety of women's lives, so ignoring how gender intersects with social class, ethnicity, sexuality and disability. Attempts to argue those on low incomes have different needs or are affected by cuts differently are rejected as disempowering. That the women who do manage to break through the glass ceiling are predominantly from privileged backgrounds reinforces the need for an alternative perspective that recognises we all miss out when anyone is blocked from contributing to our shared future. So whilst we all may say we want women to be free to live the lives they wish, and that sexism is wrong, Conservative feminists offer at best warm words of encouragement - and at worst pass judgment those who struggle in today's society simply aren't trying hard enough
 
Progressive feminism sees the problems and the solutions differently. We understand discrimination comes in a variety of forms and so requires a multitude of actions. That a cartoon woman in a bikini and bunny ears on a beer pump plate denote a society where a woman's appearance is given higher priority than her ability. That this is in turn part of a global culture in which a woman's reproductive capacity is used to objectify her. That 'little things' like airbrushing photographs and ignoring women sports players help make 'big things' like denial of democratic or human rights easier because they help devalue the status of women as equal citizens.
 
We also know our task isn't just to identify these links, but redistribute the power and resources required to overcome these inequalities for the benefit of all. Having started the battle for a fairer society we must continue to pursue it or risk others appropriating it to their own ends. If the right wishes to argue money doesn't matter and all anyone needs is ambition and a sharp suit, the left must fight for the greater prizes to be won when we all work together to break down inequality in its many forms. This is not just about changing a parliament when men still outnumber women 4 to 1. Societies with more equal distributions of power in all its forms are also more prosperous for all their citizens.
 
That means taking on not only those who want to turn the clock back but those who want to go no further - whether on left or right. Our challenge isn't just to promote the timeless case for equality. It is to deal with the outcomes of our '80/20' society where "some" women in a boardroom or Westminster or a narrowing pay gap is taken to be 'enough'. The stubbornness of this ratio in defining our modern gender divide is compounded by those who think they are on the losing end - whether within our party, business leaders or Tory women -- and so seek to check any further moves forward.
 
To tackle this we not only have to highlight existing achievements but also how barriers to equality have moved or mutated -- whether via the impact of the internet, Beyonce, or Arab Spring - even if the power underpinning them remain as ever doggedly defined by gender. In taking on popular culture's depiction of femininity, the growing risks to personal safety or in the resistance to change in workplaces, progressives need to engage and empower a new generation of men and women who may call themselves "feminists" but believe the gains we have made are as far as it goes -- and as good as it gets.
 
In doing so we should work with the Government where we can - and hold them to account for the things they don't want to talk about, including policies that perpetuate, exacerbate or ignore inequality or disregarding the cumulative impact of the cuts on women. Whether reducing access to legal aid for victims of domestic violence, resisting equal pay audits or moves to curb access to abortion, women are paying a heavy price under the Coalition.
 
Progressives understand the value of a society in which women from all walks of life are supported to achieve their potential because of the benefits this will bring to us all. That includes championing how the changes we secured transformed Britain for the better for both men and women and the returns to come from further advances. To secure these we must ensure feminism isn't only for women and dispute the right's depiction it is about 'issues'. As we celebrate International Women's Day we should not calm down, dears. Sisters and brothers who want a more socially just, fairer and prosperous world for all: we only have our bikinis and bunny ears to lose. Girl power indeed.

Stella Creasy is the MP for Walthamstow.

MPs elected in 2010 pose in Westminster Hall. Photograph: Getty Images
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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.