Too often, we get stuck in the circular politics of “any choice as long as it’s this one”. Photo: Getty
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The myth of choice: some ways of giving birth aren’t “more feminist” than others

Childbirth is just one of the areas in which modern-day feminist beliefs can end up being appropriated by neoliberal and neoconservative agendas. Unless accompanied by structural change, “choice” is too often only meaningful for a small elite.

Occasionally the new feminism can feel exactly like the old sexism. Whenever this happens, the easiest thing to do is blame yourself. You are behind the times. You are immature. You haven’t caught on to the fact that what looks like sexism is now empowerment. You just can’t handle the truth because the new feminism is so counter-cultural – so totally “out there” – it would fry your tiny brain.

I find this happens to me a lot. There are so many things which seem not very feminist at all and yet it turns out they’re totally liberating. You just have to develop the correct mindset. If you’ve not yet reached this sublime state of being, then you just have to try harder.

Take childbirth, for instance. A century ago, first-wave feminists were campaigning for the use of pain relief during labour. It was, to quote Alison Phipps, “part of a broader fight to free women from the dominion of biology”. Fast-forward a hundred years, however, and it turns out that a drug-free labour is more liberating after all, as an act of resistance against “the pathologisation of women’s natural reproductive capacities”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this means we’d come full circle. Nevertheless, this time it’s different. Labour might still be painful but this time we have agency. This time we are in control of our bodies. This time we don’t need drugs. Why? Because we’re educated women making empowered choices. Because we’ve realised that the problem was all in our heads.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this modern understanding of reproductive realities. Even so, I’ve rarely had the nerve to admit it. I don’t want to seem dismissive of those who do feel empowered by childbirth. I don’t want to appear prudish and mistrustful of the female body. I don’t want to look like a pro-capitalist, materialistic sell-out and if medicalisation is now the mainstream, then surely natural childbirth really is the radical, liberating alternative. And yet it all feels rather odd. To put it bluntly, giving birth in agony or feeling a failure for having an epidural or caesarean does not seem very radical or liberating to me. On the contrary, the current insistence that it is – accompanied by flippant dismissals of those who are “too push to push” – strikes me as conservative and puritanical. I don’t think there is an easy way to give birth so why are we pretending that such a thing can, by sheer force of will, be within every woman’s grasp?

In The Politics of the Body, Phipps explores the ways in which modern-day feminist beliefs intersect with and may even be appropriated by neoliberal and neoconservative agendas. Childbirth is one of several areas of discussion, which also include breastfeeding, sex work, violence against women and the wearing of the veil. What many of these areas have in common is the way in which current feminist debate is focused not on structural support or political change, but on individual choice (albeit not without the intimation that there can be a “wrong” choice, such as having an elective caesarean or deciding to formula feed). It’s a focus which has, to my mind, allowed inequality in through the back door. As Phipps observes, “choice is to a large extent a function of privilege”. It’s all very well to tell women they are not victims of punters, male colleagues or the medical establishment, but unless you change the material conditions in which women make choices, choice will only be meaningful for a small elite. 

With childbirth and breastfeeding there is, Phipps notes, a telling disjuncture between the counter-cultural, egalitarian image promoted by middle-class campaigners and the statistics showing who benefits and who may, potentially, be harmed:

[…] although birth and breastfeeding activists have a tendency to present themselves as counter-cultural, and identify themselves with global Others in their appropriation of ‘traditional’ practices, there is little attention paid to the stigmatizing effect this might have on our own social Others, the working-class and minority ethnic women who may choose birth interventions or infant formula for a variety of structural reasons.

While the birthing practices of global Others are uncritically fetishised, promoting an image of “natural” birth as inclusive, little is being done to support women who are socially excluded and for whom birth interventions are more commonplace. Furthermore, the belief that breastfeeding uptake is purely a matter of education rather than one of enacting structural change (for instance, by encouraging workplaces to provide greater flexibility) places the responsibility on the individual woman. She is expected to think her way to her own empowerment. It is every woman for herself.

Phipps identifies a link between pro-breastfeeding rhetoric and “the neoliberal privatisation of responsibility: it is now a woman’s duty to build a better baby through breastfeeding and her fault if her child develops allergies, infections or other conditions such as obesity”. It is not that breastfeeding should not be supported, but the pressure placed on women is unjust. It becomes a means of letting all external social factors off the hook. You could have had a healthy child if you’d breastfed. You could have had an intervention-free labour if you’d educated yourself. That which at first seems empowering – it’s all in your hands! – turns out to be a burden.

I gave birth without pain relief and breastfed both of my children. I write this in the interests of full disclosure and yet it feels like a boast. Perhaps it is. I don’t want to feel proud and superior yet some small part of me does.  Without wishing to I’ve bought into circular politics of “any choice as long as it’s this one”. Even so, I don’t rationally believe one way of giving birth or feeding your child is inherently “more feminist” than another. On the contrary, I believe that as feminists we need to move beyond fetishising individual choice so that we may question the external conditions which shape our personal decisions.

Right now we treat choice as an end in itself, yet the choices we have regarding our bodies will always be finite. We will get old. We will die. In the interim, our bodies will not always do what we ask of them. We can view this as “failure” or we can view it as being human. We can enact change, but only if we are brave enough to recognise the limits of our own flesh. We can do better than perform intellectual contortions, remarketing the same old sexism as bright, shiny, vacuous liberation.

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

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Owen Smith interview: “I’m pretty red”

The Labour leadership challenger is struggling to win over a left suspicious of his past. 

The south Wales valleys embody the history of the labour movement: its victories, its defeats, its heroes, its villains. It was this resonant location that Owen Smith chose for his speech on the morning of 22 August. Labour Party members had that day begun voting on whether the 46-year-old Pontypridd MP should replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

“Our history, our party was literally hewed from the hillsides around where we sit today,” Smith told a small audience at the Ely Valley Miners Welfare Club in Tonyrefail, a short distance from his home. The Welshman cited the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, which ruled that trade unions could be sued for losses caused by industrial action. It was this decision that spurred on the establishment of a Labour Party in parliament to repeal the law (as it would do in 1906 in alliance with the Liberal government).

Smith spoke later of marching with miners from the Maerdy Colliery as a 14-year-old, on the day they returned to work at the end of the 1984-85 strike. “I saw that they were utterly unbowed,” he recalled. “But they were ultimately defeated.”

Such moments, he concluded, proved the need for Labour to win power and to maintain “a powerful voice in parliament” – something he believes Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of providing. On 28 June, less than a year after Corbyn’s landslide victory, 172 MPs (81 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party) endorsed a no-confidence motion in him. Sixty-five shadow ministers, including Smith (who was then the shadow work and pensions secretary), resigned from the front bench.

Yet though Smith enjoys the overwhelming backing of the PLP, few believe he will prevail among members. He achieved only 53 constituency nominations, against the leader’s 285. On social media, where internal party contests are increasingly decided, Smith’s reach is minuscule compared to that of Corbyn (who has 795,000 Facebook fans to his 14,000).

The day before Smith spoke in south Wales, he won the endorsement of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and Labour’s most senior elected politician. He was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband have trumpeted his cause. Yet Smith-supporting MPs fear that such declarations count for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

Corbyn’s allies and foes alike are already preparing for the aftermath of the leader’s anticipated victory. The former warn that rebel MPs put themselves at risk of deselection by members. In response, some have threatened privately to form a parliamentary breakaway group and bid for the status of the official opposition.

Smith, unsurprisingly, insists that he can win. “I think the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] nominations don’t truly reflect the views in CLPs,” he told me when we spoke after his 20-minute address. The challenger, dressed in his favoured combination of dark suit and open-necked white shirt, welcomed the black coffee proffered by his aide. “They reflect the fact that some of the people who are new members and are supportive of Jeremy were very organised . . .

“Anybody who knows the Labour Party knows that selections are very often won by the sleepers: the people who don’t go to CLP meetings and don’t necessarily shout from the rooftops.” Smith’s hopes rest on those who share Oscar Wilde’s view: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many spare evenings.”

Cartoon: George Leigh

Smith first publicly revealed his leadership ambitions in an interview with me back in January. “It would be an incredible honour and privilege,” he said. I wrote then of a widespread view among Labour MPs that the next leader “will at least need to be from the party’s soft left to be acceptable to the party membership”. When the rebellion against Corbyn came, it was this consideration that proved decisive. Smith was embraced as a Miliband-esque socialist and a parliamentary “clean skin”, untainted by the New Labour years, having been elected in 2010. By contrast, his initial rival, Angela Eagle, had been an MP since 1992 and voted for the Iraq War.

However, Smith proved to have a more ambiguous past than some of his backers anticipated. Corbyn’s supporters swiftly unearthed a series of interviews from 2006 in which their opponent made a notably centrist pitch. Smith, then a by-election candidate in Blaenau Gwent, south Wales, defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq War), supported private-sector involvement in the National Health Service and praised city academies. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online.

Since then, he has struggled to reconcile these positions with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent.

“To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing’,” Smith told me. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be. My views haven’t really changed at all, I’m someone who has been on the left of the party.

“My dad [the Welsh historian Dai Smith] is someone who’s been on the left of the Labour movement all his life. I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

Yet a former shadow cabinet colleague told me that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings: “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

What Smith believes in most, some say, is himself. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described him as “one of the most ambitious career politicians I’ve met”. Others have dismissed him as a “Big Pharma lobbyist” because of his past as head of policy and government relations for Pfizer.

“I’m not ashamed that I had a life outside politics before I became an MP,” Smith told me. “Yes, I worked for Pfizer and I also worked as a BBC journalist and as an adviser to the last Labour government on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“People don’t want career politicians – they want men and women who have had experience of working in business and in the different sectors that make up our economy. Critics may use it against me, but my time in business has helped me understand what’s wrong with it and how we can make it work better.”

Corbyn’s supporters, however, allege that Smith’s left-wing pledges would not withstand contact with centrist colleagues. The degree to which the challenger has rebutted this charge shows that he recognises its potency.

He has offered to make Corbyn party president or chair if he wins, to allow Corbyn to act as “a guardian of Labour’s values”. In his speech, Smith vowed to increase member influence by making conference votes binding on the leadership.

Throughout the 1980s, another soft-left Welshman, Neil Kinnock, struggled to assert authority as the hard left retained control of vital bodies. Smith’s proposals risk replicating this conflict. But he told me that he would respect Labour’s conference even if it endorsed stances such as Trident abolition (Smith joined CND as a teenager but later renounced unilateralism). “I do think in order to reassure members that, under my leadership, we would listen hard to them and act in accordance with their views, conference does need to become sovereign once more,” he said.

Tony Benn’s dream of internal democracy appeared to be within reach. I asked Smith whether he would support other reforms such as a reduced MP nomination threshold for leadership candidates (Corbyn allies have proposed a cut from 15 per cent to 5 per cent). “All of these things can be debated,” he told me. “I’m not sure it should be 5 per cent: I need to look at it when we get closer to it. But I am convinced that the left needs to be able to put up candidates in this contest, I’ve always felt that.”

Smith’s assertion is contradicted by a colleague who described him as having been “furious”, “apoplectic” when Corbyn made the ballot last year (he supported Andy Burnham’s campaign).

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Smith is less equiovcal over the mandatory reselection of MPs. “That would be a really retrograde step for the party,” he told me. “It would be an uncomradely way for us to do business.” He is critical of the Corbyn-aligned group Momentum, some of whose members are spearheading deselection efforts. “I fear an attitude within Momentum that they are a separate organisation and they shouldn’t be,” he told me. “It’s hard to argue that they’re loyal and supportive if they’re organising a bloomin’ great really in the same town at the same time in competition to the Labour Party” (the group will hold its own four-day conference alongside Labour’s in Liverpool).

Some of those close to Corbyn, such as John McDonnell, have unhesitatingly described themselves as Marxists (in 2006, the shadow chancellor named Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his “most significant” intellectual influences). I asked Smith whether he believed Labour could encompass such views. “Yes, I think we’ve always been a broad church and there have always been people who’ve come from that tradition,” he replied. “There are two broad traditions: the extra-parliamentary tradition, that has always seen parliament as a compromise and parliamentary socialism as a compromise, from [the trade unionist and theorist] Noah Ablett here in south Wales with The Miners’ Next Step through to Ed Miliband’s dad [Ralph, a Marxist historian] ... and the mainstream social democratic tradition that I came from.”

He added: “We’ve had this battle in the Labour Party over the ages, haven’t we? Except now I think it’s more serious because there is a very real danger, with Labour at such a low ebb and politics fragmented more broadly, and so many more parties and so many options for people and such a lesser tribal attachment to the Labour Party, that we can’t afford those fractures.

"If we splinter, there’s lot of other places for people to put their vote.”

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Though they will not say so publicly, some of Smith’s supporters believe Labour would remain unelectable under his leadership. A former shadow cabinet minister told me that he was offering a “warmed-up Ed Milibandism, which was rejected by the voters”. Smith naturally contests this analysis. “I don’t think that we lost the last election because we were too left-wing,” he said. “The proof is that the Tories have engaged in all sorts of these policies ... Theresa May’s opening speech upon becoming leader was to talk about social injustice, economic insecurity, lack of security in the workplace. Labour values, Labour words in a Tory mouth, evidence that the broad story we’re telling about Britain is right.”

Smith said that, unlike Corbyn, he would resign if he became leader and lost a confidence vote by MPs. “Yes - I would [resign]. We are a party that believes in parliamentary democracy and, as such, it is only right that the leader commands the support of his or her colleagues in the Commons.”

Should Corbyn win the contest, as expected, Smith will not return to the shadow cabinet but act as “a loyal backbencher”.  He pledges to resist any breakaway: “I'm Labour, I've always been Labour and I will never stop being Labour," he said. 

Speaking of his fear that Corbyn would seek to remain leader even if the party lost the next general election, he said: “I’m deeply worried about it. I think he’s determined to hang on come hell or high water. And what does that say about him? ... I think he is more concerned with his version of the Labour Party being sustained and being victorious than he is with the Labour Party being victorious in elections. I think he is actually prepared to sacrifice unity and victory - two great words that have traditionally been emblazoned on Labour banners through the ages - in order to secure control of the party.”

The trouble for Owen Smith is that, for all his combative talk and appeal to the left, he is trapped between his past pragmatism and his present radicalism. 

Tony Benn, Corbyn’s late mentor, divided politicians into “signposts” and “weathercocks”: those who shape opinion and those who are shaped by it. He would have branded Smith a “weathercock”. Even if he wins, Smith risks being remembered not as a politician who resolved his party’s contradictions, but as one who embodied them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser