Organisations like No More Page 3 are a fresh way of doing politics. Photo: Getty
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What mainstream politics can learn from the new wave of feminist activism

Why politics in general would benefit from riding the new wave of feminism.

This year’s party conference season was largely forgettable. We’re facing the closest general election in years - teetering on the brink of a new era of six-party politics where Ukip overshadows the safest of seats – but you wouldn’t have thought it, judging from the meagre pickings mainstream parties offered up like some sort of funereal policy buffet. A minimum wage rise here, a sprinkle of NHS nurses there – but easy on any cohesive narrative for a better future.

It’s no surprise that party politics is leaving voters feeling queasy, nor that just 41 per cent of first-time voters aged 17-21 say they plan to vote in next year's general elections. Yet there is still an appetite for change. Outside of Westminster remains a huge – as of yet untapped – amount of energy behind grass roots campaigns focused on individual issues affecting the electorate.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than among the recent wave of new feminist organisations such as UK Feminista, No More Page 3 and the Spartacus Network that have successfully managed to dominate the headlines for the past three years. Over 200,000 people have signed the petition against the objectification of women on page three of the Sun newspaper. Daughters of Eve, who campaign against FGM, are gaining global attention. And although they don’t explicitly identify as feminists, last week the Focus E15 campaigners mobilised as women and as young mothers against their imminent homelessness by drawing an explicit link between punishing cuts to women’s services and a spiralling housing crisis.

As the party of social justice, equality and tolerance, not to mention Sure Start, extended maternity and paternity provision and the Equal Pay Act, Labour politicians might have been standing proudly alongside the Focus E15 campaigners. Instead, the Labour Mayor of Newham Sir Robin Wales initially dismissed them as “despicable”. Though he later apologised, this was a missed opportunity to show that his party understands why women – who have been hit disproportionately harder by austerity measures - feel so let down by the politicians that represent them. This is the kind of issue that organisations such as Feminist Fightback have also been campaigning for.

However, there’s still time for Labour to ride the new wave of political energy and engagement it is often lacking within its own ranks. It’s time to collaborate with feminist activists but also to respect their autonomy by assisting with their campaigns on their terms. This may be difficult for a party which can be characterised as centralised and hierarchically rigid, but if Labour wants to become a grassroots movement again and capitalise on the energy of these grassroots movements, it’s the only way forward.

Zita Holbourne is co-chair of Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC UK), an anti-austerity organisation, that also support family justice campaigns such as that of Mark Duggan. Though she’s active in her community, she writes in a new Fabian and Compass report released today: “The only time I ever see local councillors is when they are canvassing for votes”. In her view, local collaboration is the answer: “For black women to be attracted to Labour party activism, the party must be willing to support our grassroots campaigns in the spaces we have created too”.  This could involve the party campaigning on the multiple discriminations faced by young black people while respecting the fact that BARAC UK’s strong anti-cuts stance does not comfortably align with Labour’s public spending policies.

Feminist organisations like No More Page 3 could also teach political parties a thing or two about the ways in which online activism is increasingly an accessible springboard into wider political participation. Lisa Clarke, one of the No More Page 3 campaigners who had no previous interest in politics, says: “I see many women like me who on the back of their campaigning experience are entering into dialogue with politicians and attending meetings at Westminster”. Labour must get better at reaching out digitally to new audiences, or finding ways to engage with those who lack the time to sit through a local meeting but might be willing to participate in an online advice surgery.

Feminism is also causing people to view the idea of political change in a new light. Like the work of Everyday Sexism, No More Page 3 challenges our society to reconfigure its understanding of gender equality and empower women to ‘call out’ sexism wherever they find it. Labour’s traditional response to page three would probably be to pass legislation and cross its fingers that this would be enough to engender a cultural shift. However, in addressing internet trolling MPs such as Stella Creasy are contributing to this particular debate about online and print sexism, knowing that although the battle starts as a personal one, it gains collective power the more individual voices join in.

Building positive change online and in local communities that everyone can claim joint credit for: that’s what politics should be all about. “What we need to do is get you people out of power, and get people like us in” says Sam Middleton of Focus E15. “It’s communities working together to get this shit done!”

Riding the New Wave: Feminism and the Labour Party, edited by Anya Pearson and Rosie Rogers, is available to read online:

Anya Pearson is assistant editor at the Fabian Society. She tweets at @AnyaRPearson

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.