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: http://www.fabians.org.uk/publications/riding-the-new-wave/

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

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Jeremy Corbyn's fans must learn the art of compromise

On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is threatened by a post-truth world. 

Twenty years ago, as a new and enthusiastic Labour MP, I wrote an article for The Observer in praise of spin. I argued that if citizens are to be properly informed and engaged in their democracy, politicians - and in particular governments - have a duty to craft their messages carefully and communicate them cogently. It was a controversial notion then but less so now that we have entered the era of post-truth politics. In the old days, we used to "manage" the truth. Now we have abandoned it. 

We’ve probably come further than we think, for when truth is discarded, reason generally follows. Without a general acceptance of the broad "facts" of any matter, there can be little basis for rational debate nor, therefore, for either the consensus or the respectful disagreement which should emerge from it. Without a commitment to truth, we are free to choose and believe in our own facts and to despise the facts of others. We are free too to place our faith in leaders who make the impossible seem possible. 

We condemn the dictatorships which deny their citizens the right to informed and open debate. But in our own societies, unreasoned and often irrational politics are entering the mainstream. 

The politics of unreason

In the UK, the Leave campaign blithely wedded brazen falsehood to the fantasy that Brexit would cure all ills – and millions of voters enthusiastically suspended their disbelief.  “We want our country back” was a potent slogan - but no less vacuous than the pledge to “make America great again” on which Donald Trump has founded his election campaign. On both sides of the Atlantic, people want to take back control they know they never had nor ever will.

Both campaigns have deliberately bypassed rational argument. They play instead to the emotional response of angry people for whom reason no longer makes sense. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy’s critics have warned of the ease with which reason can be subverted and citizens seduced by the false oratory of charismatic leaders. Trump is just the latest in a long line of the demagogues they feared. He may not make it to the White House, but he has come a long way on unreasoning rhetoric - and where he leads, millions faithfully follow. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue without losing votes and he may well be right.

But if Trump is extreme, he is not exceptional. He is a phenomenon of a populism of both right and left which has once more begun to challenge the principles of parliamentary democracy.

Democracy in decline

All over Europe and the United States, consumer-citizens are exasperated by democracy’s failure to meet their demands as fully and as fast as they expect. If the market can guarantee next day delivery, why can’t government? The low esteem in which elected politicians are held is only partly the consequence of their failings and failures. It is also evidence of a growing disenchantment with representative democracy itself. We do not trust our politicians to reflect our priorities. Perhaps we never did. But now we’re no longer prepared to acknowledge their unenviable duty to arbitrate between competing political, social and economic imperatives, nor ours to accept the compromises they reach - at least until the next election.

We have become protesters against rather than participants in our politics and, emboldened by hearing our chosen facts and beliefs reverberating around cyber space, have become increasingly polarised and uncompromising in our protest. 

The Trumpy Corbynites

Which brings us to Labour. Despite the obvious political differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, there are striking similarities in the movements which have coalesced around them. For many of their supporters, they can simply do no wrong; each criticism provides further evidence of a corrupt establishment’s conspiracy against them; rivals, including those who share many of their beliefs, are anathematised; unbelievers are pursued across the internet; inconvenient facts are reinterpreted or ignored; rational, civil debate is shut down or drowned out. 

There are other similarities in these insurgencies: both mistake slogans for policies and mass rallies for popular support; both are overwhelming and quite possibly destroying their own parties – and both, ultimately, are movements without practical purpose.

Trump may give vivid expression to his followers’ grievances but, other than building a wall along the Mexican border, his plans for government are obscure. Similarly, while Corbyn and his supporters know what they’re against, they have not yet articulated a clear vision of what they’re for, much less how it can be achieved. For many of them, it is enough to be "anti-Blairite". 

But in disassociating themselves from a Labour prime minister’s mistakes, they are also dismissing their party’s achievements under his leadership. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for compromise may well enable them to avoid the pitfalls of government. But government’s potential to bring about at least some of the change they want does not come without pitfalls. In wanting it all, they are likely to end up with nothing.

The art of compromise

Democracy cannot be sustained simply by what passionate people oppose. And though movements such as Momentum have important roles to play in influencing political parties, they cannot replace them. Their supporters want to be right - and they often are. But they are rarely prepared to test their principles against the practical business of government. The members of political parties want, or should want, to govern and are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to compromise – with each other, with those they seek to represent, with events -  in order to do so. Parties should listen to movements. But movements, if they are to have any practical purpose, must acknowledge that, for all its limitations, the point of politics is power.

We have to trust that the majority of American voters will reject Donald Trump. But closer to home, if Labour is to have a future as a political force, Corbyn’s supporters must learn to respect the historic purpose of the Labour party at least as much as they admire the high  principles of its current leader. There isn’t long for that realisation to take hold.

In the UK as in the US and elsewhere, we need to rediscover the importance of common cause and the art of compromise in forging it. The alternative is a form of politics which is not only post-truth, post-reason and post-purpose, but also post-democratic. 

Peter Bradley is a former MP and director of Speakers' Corner Trust, a UK charity which promotes free speech, public debate and active citizenship.