Stella Creasy: One Billion Rising and boldy going were no woman has gone before

Dancing in the streets, a despondent David Cameron and the final frontier for women.

Paris is burning

A politician in a nightclub is usually a Private Eye anecdote-in-waiting rather than a wise move. Yet on 4 February at Café de Paris in Soho, London, I find myself onstage, following the sitar player Anoushka Shankar and a woman who can suspend herself from a wooden ring in the air.

The “London Rising” concert is the culmination of months of working with activists across the UK for One Billion Rising (OBR), a campaign started by Eve Ensler, the writer of The Vagina Monologues, which aims to make ending violence against women a priority for all governments. A billion women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime; Ensler wants the same number of people involved in raising awareness by dancing in public on 14 February.

OBR is a volunteer-led movement with minimal organisation, yet millions are signing up around the world. Videos are popping up daily on YouTube of activists practising their dancing in places as far apart as Peru, Bangladesh, San Francisco and Lebanon. You know something special is going on when people in hotbeds of radical activism as different and distinctive as Bute, Wat-ford, Peterborough and Kirklees are joining the revolution.

That evening at Café de Paris, Ensler addressed the crowd along with the actress Thandie Newton (who is impossibly beautiful, kind and clever). I’d always promised not to dance in public, knowing that the sight of a parliamentarian shuffling awkwardly can be the biggest turn-off for anyone, but by the end of the evening we were all part of one slightly sweaty and excited mass on the dance floor, determined to change the world.

Head over heels

Following the euphoria of that night, I am struck by vanity and horror the morning after. What do you wear to meet with the great and the good – the playwrights, actors, campaigners or baronesses – of the OBR campaign? Flustered from running in unsuitable shoes around Trafalgar Square, I spend ten minutes trying to break into the back of a building, only to realise I’m at the wrong address – I am two doors down from where I need to be. At the event, Eve speaks of visiting the City of Joy refuge for survivors of sexual abuse and violence in conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which her campaigning helped to build.

Suddenly, the ungainliness of wearing stupid heels is immaterial. In a beautiful, sun-strewn room along the Mall, we all stand proud, united by Eve’s enthusiasm.

Down in the lobby

Ahead of the same-sex marriage bill, the ugly underbelly of homophobia in British society comes spilling out of my in-box, complete with graphic descriptions and threats of retribution. I’m relieved that, on the whole, emails from actual constituents about the bill, whether for or against it, are polite and temperate, although one expresses equal fury about my support for gay marriage and how the writer’s recycling bin has not been collected and demands a response to both within three days. Later that night, as I walk through the lobby to vote, I pass a familiar face skulking in the corner looking despondent. I’m about to go over to ask what is wrong, when I suddenly realise it is David Cameron and know it needs no further explanation.

Divide and rule

Parliament is full of excitement and it has nothing to do with that photo of David Mili­band dozing on the Tube. Something that hasn’t happened in 20 years is apparently afoot. The whips shuffle us into the chamber where the topic is the thrills and spills of the Canterbury City Council Bill, which regulates trading on the street. It has been rumbling around parliament since 2008. Word goes round that to stop the four MPs intent on dragging out the matter further, we will have a division in the chamber where everyone stands up to vote. On days like this, the sense that parliament is Hogwarts gone wrong gets stronger with every point of order or intervention. It seems clear to me that the deputy speaker would quite like to be able to cast the Avada Kedavra spell on several MPs.

Timing is everything

With a week to go until One Billion Rising, we are delighted when Thandie Newton confirms that she will lead the London flash mob outside parliament. Delicate negotiations between dance troupes and campaigners about timings ensue. In the end, 11am wins, though the vexed question of the playlist and provision of the sound system remains. Resolution of such matters is well above my pay grade.

Strange new worlds

Although we are making progress with One Billion Rising, misogyny still seeks to ground us all. Following a television interview about the initiative, a Tory student activist tweets that I am “quite bummable for a Labour MP”. On Twitter, stories of segregation in British life – with boys getting to play football while girls are taught about their contraceptive choices – pour in through the Everyday Sexism Project.

Such views are the reason why our OBR-themed debate in parliament will demand that sex and relationship lessons are made mandatory for everyone. When 80 per cent of 11-year-olds in one study by Edinburgh University say it is OK to hit a woman if she’s late with the dinner, we know we have to ensure that every young person wants a partnership based on mutual respect.

Meanwhile, a local resident and space fanatic alerts me that Unilever is running a competition to send people into space – but it is being marketed at men only. It seems we have a new final frontier for feminism. After all, if One Billion Rising accomplishes anything, I hope it is to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civili­sations and to boldly go where no woman has gone before . . .

Stella Creasy is the MP for Walthamstow (Labour and Co-Operative). For more details on One Billion Rising visit: onebillionrising.org

Activists as far apart as Peru, Bangladesh, San Francisco and Lebanon have been practising their dancing. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

Getty
Show Hide image

How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

0800 7318496