Members of Queer Strike showing their support for #pledgedecrim.
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How #pledgedecrim takes sex worker rights to the mainstream

Sex worker rights campaigners are hoping that the strategy that is working in the highest echelons of power will also work as well in the housing association meeting hall, or in the shouting grounds of Twitter.

Last week, the Safety First Coalition, a project that brings together sex worker rights campaigners, anti-rape groups, and health and legal professionals, launched a national pledge to decriminalise sex work. The pledge, which is being promoted in a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #pledgedecrim, highlights the most important and broadly accessible arguments in support of the decriminalisation of sex work - worker safety and worker rights.

“We want this demand for decriminalisation to register on the national stage,” says Niki Adams, spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes. The pledge, which has been developed over the past several months in extensive consultation with sex workers and experts, is designed to reach those who have traditionally opposed decriminalisation or may not have thought about how decriminalisation is connected to the issues that they are concerned about. The goal of the pledge is to unite feminist and anti-austerity campaigns behind decriminalisation, and to break out of circular arguments. “What we know is that the public is in favour of decriminalisation on grounds of safety - the safety issue is the vehicle by which people have been able to put aside their feelings of morality or personal apprehension and come to support decriminalisation on the strength of the arguments that sex workers should not be forced to work in isolation, sex workers should not be deterred from reporting violence to the police. The pledge incorporates issues like safety, health, workers rights and policing, the targeting of immigrant women - the issues that people come to the issue of decriminalisation of sex work through. We have our eyes on the autumn and taking our fight to Parliament,” she says.

The pledge, which has already garnered support from luminaries including Grayson Perry (below), is a broad and innovative document. Hosted on a dedicated website, the pledge offers rarely considered arguments in support of decriminalisation, and included documentation offers short, clear real - life examples in support of each point. For example, criminalisation actually can keep people stuck in sex work. Workers who are arrested or convicted of a crime face barriers in seeking other employment. On the pledge site, an anonymous sex worker explains: "As the mother of a disabled child, I know a lot about caring. But I couldn’t apply for a caring job because I had convictions for loitering and soliciting."

According to Adams, the document’s approach has helped to convince politicians, bringing them in line with a public majority that she says supports decriminalisation on safety grounds. “One of the things we noticed is that MPs have studied the pledge background document, which flags up support of key organisations and gives examples for each pledge point. They’ve said, ‘This is helpful - I am going to use this example. This has changed my point of view,’” says Adams.

For sex workers, new approaches and changed minds can result in improved policy outcomes. Last year, when Labour MP Fiona MacTaggart introduced a measure into the Modern Slavery Bill to criminalise the purchase of sexual services, actor and Labour Party member Sarah Solemani had a series of meetings with shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. Those meetings and the groundswell of opposition led to Cooper offering an alternative amendment, calling for a period of review and research - and this led, fortunately, to the failure of the MacTaggart amendment. “As soon as Cooper indicated that she would no longer support the blanket criminalisation of clients, other Labour MPs backed off from supporting the MacTaggart amendment,” says Adams.

But how mainstream are sex worker rights? As the Labour leadership race dominates the news, many sex worker rights activists are excited by Jeremy Corbyn’s frontrunner status. Corbyn has long supported decriminalisation. “We’ve been contacted by quite a lot of people asking where do the candidates stand on decriminalisation, and it’s fantastic to be able to say Jeremy Corbyn is completely on board,” says Adams. “But the fact that he stands against austerity is also a really crucial issue for sex workers. Prostitution is one of the things that women especially are going into, because more and more of us are struggling. Even those of us who have been working for years have to work harder, for lower rates, and take more risks - people feel in crisis, and to have a candidate who we feel could represent real change on austerity is a massive relief for sex workers,” says Adams. However, the progress made by campaigners over the past year means that sex workers need not pin their hopes wholly on Corbyn. “The relief that comes from that massive grassroots campaign in November and the widespread realisation that criminalisation undermines safety is that if someone like Cooper did prevail, that we would hopefully not be up against immediate legislation to criminalise clients or increase criminalisation of sex workers. You feel like the terrain has shifted - we’re in with a much better chance,” she says.

As austerity continues to bite, decriminalisation becomes ever more important. According to Adams, sex workers are reporting that benefit cuts and sanctions are increasing risks and lowering pay for existing sex workers and the many new sex workers driven by economic need. “They’re talking about cutting the support to the children of asylum seekers by thirty percent - money for mothers seeking asylum with children would go down from seven pounds a day to five pounds a day, which is a dramatic cut. Most mothers would get out there and do prostitution because there’s nothing worse than not being able to feed their kids. Women seeking asylum living in absolute poverty is likely to be behind the next big increase in prostitution. Already women who are destitute are working for tiny amounts of money and have to solicit for men in informal ways, because they can’t risk going to the established red light areas. They are in a very poor negotiating position and that makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Sex workers are increasingly describing themselves as precarious workers - in the category of people working in coffee bars, cleaning and doing care work. Prostitution has become one of those types of jobs, and people are not earning loads of money,” says Adams.

The Labour Party remains strongly divided on sex work and decriminalisation, but with its end run around traditional, polarising arguments, the pledge is making a headway that would once have been unthinkable. Apart from her conversation with Cooper, Solemani has had several successes reaching other senior politicians with the pledge. “I had a conversation with Harriet Harman, and she was very anti-decriminalisation - she is from the old school, I think she equated sex work with rape, she didn’t buy that there was any agency for sex workers. She said to me, ‘how would you feel if your daughter was a sex worker?’ That argument feels to me such a representation of the doublethink involved - the tangle of the issues. I said that the same argument, making it personal, was used before gay sex was decriminalised. One would argue, ‘would you want your father to have gay sex?’ Just because you do not like the idea of something doesn’t mean you can legislate against it. I don’t think I’ve yet persuaded her completely, but she said to me, ‘I hadn’t thought of it like that,’” said Solemani.

In today’s overheated politics, a politician changing their mind can seem rare. Sex worker rights campaigners are hoping that the strategy that is working in the highest echelons of power will also work as well in the housing association meeting hall, or in the shouting grounds of Twitter. Time will tell whether sex worker rights will continue with their momentum, or will face a backlash; with last week’s confident launch, sex workers and supporters are betting that history is on our side.

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

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General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

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