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

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation