An English Collective of Prostitutes demo in 2014. Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
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Still deciding who to vote for? Consider sex workers’ rights

The English Collective of Prostitutes has created a pledge for sex worker rights – find out who supports it.

If you haven't decided who to vote for yet, consider sex worker rights. This is an election animated by the spirit of a new politics, when SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens speak, loudly and with just entitlement, for much of Britain, and progressive voters are torn between tradition, tactics and hope. Amid the optimism and confusion of a new politics, the campaign by sex workers for the full decriminalisation of our work is not a bad bellwether. Many other issues, from austerity to migration to sexuality, from race to class to gender, are bound up within the campaign.

With this in mind, the English Collective of Prostitutes launched its pledge for sex worker rights in the aftermath of last November's rout of Fiona Mactaggart MP’s attempt to criminalise the purchase of sexual services in the Modern Slavery Bill. Over the course of the election, the ECP say that they have received copies of over a thousand contacts, from emails to phone calls to quizzes on the doorstep, between supporters of sex worker rights and candidates and MPs across Britain. Today, after collating dozens of responses, the ECP released its voter recommendations, based on this crowd-sourced radar reading of the parties during Election 2015.

“Respondents ranged from former ministers to candidates standing for the first time,” ECP spokeswoman Laura Watson wrote in yesterday’s statement. “All candidates expressed concern for sex workers’ safety, some acknowledged the increase in prostitution as a result of austerity and at least half of those polled supported full decriminalisation of sex work,” she wrote.

The pledge, which can be used by politicians, organisations and individuals, is a broad document, more about hope and values than about policy prescriptions. It calls for the full decriminalisation of sex work – that is, make our work completely legal, but without rigid restrictions such as in Germany. Under decriminalisation, sex workers would have the right to work independently or together, to hire security or administrative support, and to work in a brothel – but would not be tied to one. Pimping, coercion, and underage sex work would remain illegal; sex workers would be free to organise and seek help from police when threatened, robbed or assaulted.

Women’s safety, improved health outcomes, the end of police corruption, and workers’ rights all feature in the pledge. “We wanted to do the pledge to counter the lobby to criminalise clients,” Watson said in a Tuesday interview. “We wanted there to be a pledge to bring in sex worker groups, allies and a whole set of different people. For example, there’s a point on protecting immigrant sex workers from being targeted for deportation, to bring in the groups who are concerned about rights for immigrant people and asylum seekers. There’s a point on worker’s rights to bring in the trade unions; there’s a point about health to bring in those professionals,” she said.

In the last few months, the ECP have tracked candidate responses. Watson gave me a rough breakdown. “Over a thousand people have written into their candidates – some in their own name, and many who have spoken on behalf of a friend who is a sex worker,” she said.

“I’ve collected a lot of the responses, and looked at the trends. The Liberal Democrats are generally supportive of decriminalisation. Some are confused about legalisation, but they stick to party policy. An ex-minister talks supportively about the fully decriminalised New Zealand, and that the biggest concern is safety. That’s a great place to be,” Watson said.

Watson ran down the list. “The Greens – again – very supportive; they’re actually the only ones with sex work in their manifesto,” she said. “They have a little quote which a lot of candidates have used – it says, ‘Policies around prostitution and sex work should be focused on protecting the women involved, who are often vulnerable, not criminalising them or putting them at risk of violence and other harms’,” she said.

Watson laughed ruefully when she got to the Labour Party. “It’s given us a lot more clarity on where they stand; it shows they’re definitely concerned with women’s safety, which is great,” said Watson. “Their new position is that the evidence should be considered – a big move from their former position, which was to blanket criminalise clients. The Labour candidates do not come out for decriminalisation, but they come out for the evidence. They say our evidence is strong and they want to look at the evidence. Others are saying they support measures to improve safety, and a couple of others have said they’re aware of the links between poverty and prostitution. John McDonnell MP has always been a staunch supporter and has spearheaded our work in parliament, but for the rest of Labour, this is new,” she said. According to Watson, Labour candidates had cited their new Shadow Minister for Preventing Violence against Women and Girls as a step towards finding solutions.

As for Tories, the pledge drive uncovered little new information. “Some support decriminalisation and others are not sure - they’re split on the issue, but they’re definitely against criminalising clients. They don’t come out for decriminalisation even though we know that there is informal support there,” she said. Only one candidate each from Ukip and the SNP, a few TUSC, and one candidate from a party called 30/50 responded.

For Watson, there are two big takeaways from the results: that the criminalisation of clients is widely disregarded across parties, and that there are grounds for debate and negotiation even within the Labour Party, particularly on the issue of women's safety. “I’ve only seen one response, of a Labour candidate, outright supporting the criminalisation of clients,” Watson said. “We’ve had responses from England, Wales and Scotland, and all over those places. They’re ready to look at safety, which is fantastic, and to look at decriminalisation at least. They’re being forced to consider how their policies will affect women’s poverty as well,” she said.

When I asked my local candidates their view on the decriminalisation of sex work, I got a similar response. I was lucky to find most of them at the Gender Equality Summit, a one-day feminist conference organised expertly last month by the six-month-old Feminist Society at Plymouth University, gathered for a debate on women’s role in politics. My incumbent Labour MP Alison Seabeck, Liberal Democrat candidate Graham Reed, Communist Party candidate Laura-Jean Rossington, Trade Union and Socialist Coalition candidate Louise Parker, and Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato had been engaged in discussion for ten minutes when Ukip candidate Robin Julian tumbled in – to the thin laughter of the audience; he gave his generic introduction without seeming to know the topic of the debate.

My turn came, and I stood and held up the pink and white pledge, spoke with only a few stammers, and waited for the results. Cato read the strong Green policy for full decriminalisation of all sexual activity for consenting adults; though she is not standing in this election, a local Plymouth Green candidate, Libby Brown, who was in the audience, was happy to sign the pledge. Both Communist and TUSC candidates wanted to know more, and came out strongly for decriminalisation on safety grounds, but expressed concern about trafficking, and the Liberal Democrat voiced effusive support.

Myself and Green Party candidate Libby Brown with her signed pledge​

To my surprise, Robin Julian, the Ukip candidate and owner of a lorry-driving school, openly supported decriminalisation, and signed the pledge at the debate’s close. “I think if it’s legal it’s much safer for women if they want to participate, for the health and wellbeing of themselves. I do worry about the ones on the streets, that’s when you can get diseases, and it’s unregulated, and women are much more vulnerable,” said Julian.

Labour MP Alison Seabeck was familiar with the pledge and supported many of its aims, but would not yet sign. “The pledge itself covers a lot of areas – women’s safety; the fact that many women are mothers, bringing up children, and who are working from home,” she said. “There are bits in the pledge with which I have some difficulty, some bits which are actually already in place, and bits that I think require looking at how we proceed – as in the New Zealand model,” she said. She cited the Eddystone Trust, which has opposed decriminalisation; “In Plymouth...they have specific concerns actually the protection of women working in their streets and their homes. It is a very broad area – it does need looking at, and we have to guard against trafficking and the worst abuses there,” she said.

Seabeck needed to leave the debate early, and near its close she called me out into the hall. She took out an annotated copy of the pledge and with a practiced eye and a pen, took apart each line of the document, in less than two minutes. Next to lines supporting increased safety for sex workers, and the contributions of sex workers to family survivors: two ticks. Another tick by the line calling for an end to the stigma of sex work. But next to a line calling for an end to immigration raids targeting sex workers, she had written “illegal”, and had underlined it.

In a follow up email, Seabeck expanded on the issue of raids. “Yes, I do believe that raids are essential in stopping human trafficking. Raids are a part of ‘justice seen is justice done’ and it is important and in the public interest to have visible action which brings perpetrators to justice. If we don’t have a ‘visible’ approach, word will be that it is an accepted wrong in our society which enforcement authorities have chosen to ignore. We can’t do that and we also owe it to the many trafficked young girls and boys to apply the full force of the law. I accept that there will always be a danger that this will encourage some to go ‘further underground’ but for reasons explained i think we have to take noticeable action, among other measures to tackle trafficking,” she wrote.

Seabeck is interested in exploring common ground between sex worker rights advocates and abolitionists. “I do think there is room for common ground,” she wrote. “I don’t think there is an easy answer to be found but there have been interesting approaches with mixed feelings about the results. Some Scandinavian governments have taken the decision to decriminalise sex workers by making it legal to sell sex, but illegal to buy it. Pimping has also been made illegal. I did raise this with the UK government on behalf of a constituent who had approached me from the ‘abolitionist’ camp. There are no changes planned to the current laws, but I think we are now having a more open debate about it. Being able to talk without fear or embarrassment on any subject leads to greater understanding and ultimately reform,” she wrote.

Myself, somewhat more ironically, with Ukip candidate Robin Julian and his signed pledge​

What next for the pledge? “We’re sending a summary to our networks so they can consider who they might vote for. After the election, we’re doing a mass mapping exercise, to see who was supportive and got in, and use that as a basis for the next stage of lobbying,” Watson said. When I asked her if any of the sex workers who had contacted a candidate had reported receiving whorephobic abuse, she said there had not been a single report. To the majority of those who have never knowingly met a sex worker, we’re a mere sketch, a cartoon; but candidates have taken our public political presence for granted.

As I am writing about the pledge, I’ve held back from replying to Seabeck, and addressing the well-refuted notion that criminalising clients works. But clearly there are paths for dialogue that I will pursue after the election – not as a journalist but as a constituent, a sex worker and a small business owner. If Seabeck is re-elected, I will introduce her to local people whose work and lives will be made safer, healthier and stronger under full decriminalisation. I’ll work to convince her that raids and the fear of them are among the greatest threats keeping the coerced from seeking help.  And I will be doing so alongside my colleagues across the UK, as part of a coordinated effort.

It's important to remember that many sex worker voices are still absent from the political process. By the nature of their legal status, undocumented migrants are unlikely to feel safe lobbying candidates; survival sex workers and those who are multiply marginalised, such as people of colour, trans people, those with disabilities, street and brothel based sex workers, and drug users might not feel safe going to their MPs. Although the ECP brings decades of experience with the most marginalised sex workers to bear, the campaign must now bring more lawmakers face to face with those sex workers who they would rather see in the abstract, and put forward more concrete proposals on changes in the law - perhaps, with a new confidence that politicians, even some longtime opponents, are listening.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

Green Party
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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.