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Laurie Penny on online aggression: What do you do the day after a death threat?

You carry on, writes Laurie Penny.

Last night I went for dinner with a friend, M, who is one of those women who can’t walk down a street without being hassled by men: cat-calling, making bizarre animal noises at her, professing undying love or threatening rape. This is a daily reality for many of us, but with M it’s on a whole other level of threat awareness. Just strolling home with her feels like walking through an enemy camp. We were talking, naturally, about the situation for women who have an online presence in the UK right now, and how frightening and relentless the sexist bullying is getting, and M asked me how I manage to continue to write, given that I’ve been dealing with all this bullshit for more than three years now. I asked her: how do you continue to walk down pavements in public? The answer is: M walks with her hips swaying and her head held high. Because she knows she has a right to the street.

On Monday, I received a bomb threat. This has been happening to several prominent British women journalists and politicians recently, and I suppose it’s some sort of dubious distinction, but it didn’t make it any less frightening and enraging to have to call the police and then find somewhere else to stay for the night. I’m lucky in that I live alone and have relatively little trouble grabbing my go-bag and sleeping on a strange sofa; I know that at least one of the other women who received these threats has a disabled child, and I can only imagine the hassle and stress she went through.

I have a few friends who live nearby, but for some reason, the person I called instantly was somebody I know from online dating, somebody I used to sleep with casually and don’t anymore. He was out with his new girlfriend that night, so offered me his room. I knew instantly that that was where I wanted to be, by myself; it’s a room I used to feel very safe in, where nothing was ever demanded of me except what I wanted to give. His housemate let me in, and I rushed upstairs, shut the door, and took the enormous Jedi-warrior bathrobe that I used to mock so horribly off the hook. I made tea, took off my clothes, wrapped myself in the Jedi robe and sat cross-legged on the bed. I wrote the column I had due for the next day. I felt like nothing could touch me.

Right now it’s pretty scary to be a woman who makes a public spectacle of herself in Britain. By "making a spectacle", I mean "daring to have an opinion in public"; the piece I wrote in 2011 about a woman’s opinion functioning as the mini-skirt of the internet is relevant here. Twitter is also in total meltdown as various camps of campaigners tear chunks out of each other, and it’s upsetting to see. One of the bizarrely modern headaches I’ve had lately is the ongoing, extremely public feud between my current editor and my ex-girlfriend over intersectionality issues, a fight which I’ve had to scramble to avoid because it’s a huge helping of fuck no. There is a deep well of unkindness, of recrimination and refusal to listen, bubbling up online right now in my communities. It is disturbing, and it’s exhausting.

When I’d finished my column, my eyes swimming with tiredness, I posted on Facebook: I need clear space to write. The past two years have been a litany of online attacks and British media bearpit bollocks and the energy I’ve wasted on the mental overheads has been enormous. I don’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to be a writer and a campaigner, I didn’t ask to be a scapegoat and a target, and I didn’t expect it. It’s a curious lonely place to be in and there’s nothing anyone can really do. I’m still here and still fighting but I don’t want to have to fight like this. It’s boring.

Not giving up comes at a cost. I haven’t yet flounced off Twitter or made any sort of dramatic, public exit from the spaces in which I work and receive abuse, because I don’t think that my doing so would help anyone. That doesn’t mean I haven’t seriously considered just kicking it in for the good of my mental health. Imagine that you’re a professional dancer and you have to dance down a street where men are screaming abuse at you, throwing things, leering, sending threats. Do you stop dancing, even if you know a little part of your soul will die if you do? No, fuck that. You keep on dancing; even when your bones ache and your head rings from the relentless cunt bitch stupid girl attention seeker sellout whore. You keep on dancing, but there’s a cost. Don’t ever imagine there’s not a cost

I don’t make it easy for myself. I know that. Not only have I not shut up about women’s rights over the past three years like people want me to, I’m in the middle of writing a book which talks openly about sex, including my own experiences. Part of the reason I’m doing this is that I’ve a slightly adventurous sexual history and am an active member of the queer and poly community in London and elsewhere, and I know that those who are seeking to attack me are probably going to find that out at some point; I’ve been threatened before by people who wanted to release details and/or pictures of me as a half-naked teenager, and I know it’s going to come out at some point; I want to be in control of when and how that happens. I’m not ashamed in any way, not of my life choices and not of my decision to keep on talking.

But the energy it takes to carry on is enormous, and becomes self-reflexive: you write and speak just in order to keep on writing and speaking in adversity. This is no way to be creative; it is no way to sustain a writing life. It makes me angry, and I want it to stop so I can get on with all the other work I want to do. I do not want to be known as the girl who gets a ton of flak for speaking up; I want to carry on saying things that have relevance, even if only to a handful of readers scattered across the world. I’m bored of this, and I’m angry, and I want it to stop. Also I am considering buying my own Jedi robe to wear whenever I open Twitter. That’s all.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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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.