Women make up 23 per cent of MPs in a country where we are more than 50 per cent of the population. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty
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Stuff your revolution if it doesn’t include treating women as people

If you want radicalism in politics, it has to start with feminism.

Being a feminist is boring sometimes, and the principal bore in feminism is having to deal with the same scanty responses over and over again. These can all be contained in one of the following three categories: 1) What About The Men, 2) Ah But What If Women Choose To Be Oppressed, and 3) Some Women Are Bad So Feminism Must Be Wrong. So, for example, if you wanted to raise a discussion about the heinously unrepresentative ratio of men to women in parliament, the responses would go like this: 1) all-women shortlists discriminate against men, 2) if women wanted to go into parliament they’d already be there, and 3) well you already had Margaret Thatcher and that didn’t work out so well, did it? 

None of those rhetorical weaselings challenge the underlying injustice of the fact that women make up less than 23 per cent of MPs in a country where we are more than 50 per cent of the population. None of them are supposed to. Instead, they announce respectively that the under-representation can’t be changed, doesn’t matter, and anyway even if it did matter and could be changed, you wouldn’t like the outcome. They are counsels of conservatism, all three. However, there is a criticism to be made of the simple case for increased representation in parliament, and it’s this: simply introducing more women into a male-dominated environment isn’t very likely to make things better for woman on its own.

In her book The Myth of Venus and Mars, Deborah Cameron revisits some of the expectations pinned to the arrival of 120 women MPs in 1997 (due in part to Labour’s all-women shortlists). This doubled the House of Commons’ female population overnight. For some observers, this was an opportunity for a new style of government to develop. The seething machismo between the green benches would give way to a more gentle, collaborative way of doing business. The combative would be softened by the collegiate. A woman’s touch would come to Westminster. In actuality, none of this happened: instead, research by Sylvia Shaw showed that the female MPs simply adopted the habits and manners of their male colleagues.

The only distinction of female parliamentarians in general was that, as “interlopers”, they lacked the confidence to break the rules and interrupt other speakers. More likely to be punished for illegal interjections than a man committing the same infraction (both formally by the speaker, and informally by sexist jeering), female MPs kept their braying between the lines. And why shouldn’t they? It is not, after all, incumbent on women to play nursemaids wherever we go, not even to new forms of democracy. The women MPs were imported into situation where the conventions against them were already well established. Given the choice between playing along and being tolerated, or walking out of the game altogether, most understandably chose the first option – which was really the only option.

Interestingly, women played a much more equal part in the newly established Scottish parliament: it was turgid masculine tradition, not any inherent quality of their sex, that kept Westminster’s women down. And if 120 women couldn’t change a pre-existing culture in 1997, how much more absurd to say that one woman alone should have transformed everything in 1979. It is an achingly obvious point to make, but if Margaret Thatcher had been a women’s libber, she would never have been able to become prime minister. Her novelty as a powerful woman had to be paid for with a scrupulous obedience to the forms of feminine deference: the headscarf, the handbag, and of course, a cabinet full of men. She was a permissible exception, so long as the rules of male supremacy continued to stand.

What, then, is the point of any reform that leaves these underlying rules untouched? We don’t need different demographics in the same old institutions: we need to remake our institutions entirely. What is the good of discussing any kind of radical change at political meetings where men do the talking and women meekly, mutely fall in to do the dogwork of washing up and clipboard carrying (a scene that I suspect will be familiar to any woman who’s been involved in any kind of mixed sex activism)? How can anyone claim to be a revolutionary if their revolution is one where men retain all their power and women remain barely human? For as much of history as we can know, male power has been the default condition; female subjugation takes many local forms, but it’s been a reliable constant across time and culture. The original class division, as Shulamith Firestone pointed out, is between men and women for the purposes of breeding. There is nothing in the world so profoundly conservative as seeing women as fuck-objects and helpmeets.

Russell Brand, clown that he is, is taken seriously by an awful lot of young men who see any criticism of the cartoon messiah’s misogyny as a derail from “the real issues” (whatever they are). The fans claim they love Brand despite the fact that he talks about women as poisoned birds of paradise, sucubus-like vultures or material accoutrements of wealth (“Are you reading this on a yacht, through your Ray-Bans, with, I dunno, a pair of glistening Russian sisters,” Brand asks his implicitly male reader at the start of his atrocious Revolution). I think the fans are dishonest: the sexism is part of the sell. If you know what power feels like, even if you have ever so little of it, how many people could commit to a new order with none at all?

The men who love Brand love him because his “revolution” promises with chirpy vagueness to overturn every hierarchy – apart from the hierarchy of men over women, which Brand specifically and concretely reinforces. In Brand’s coming kingdom, a geezer can still lay claim to his bird. That is no revolution at all. Any politics that women are forced to take on their backs – whether we’re being told to shoulder the burden of tedious labour, or lie down and get screwed – is just the same politics we’ve always had. If you want radicalism, it has to start with feminism. There are still few more revolutionary statements than this one: women are not a resource to be exploited or things to be possessed. Despite millennia of being told otherwise, women are people. There’s a statement to really shake up The Man.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.