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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.