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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.