Zak Bond
Show Hide image

A budding progressive alliance wants to take back the Brexit heartlands

Caroline Lucas, Vince Cable and Clive Lewis want to work together.

Late evening sunshine warmed the grand interior of Westminster’s Emmanuel hall on Tuesday night, where over a thousand people had gathered to discuss the need for “Post-Brexit Alliance Building”.

The building itself, inscribed with biblical quotes, could not help but set a tone of business-as-usual. But this was part of the problem the speakers wanted to address: how can the metropolitan bubble reconnect with those turned off by politics?

According to the assembled politicians – Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, the SNP’s  Tommy Sheppard, and the Liberal democrat’s Vince Cable -  there is now an urgent need to reach out to those who feel politics has failed them. And who may have voted Leave as a result.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas was first to take to the podium, where, like a fairy-godmother come to rescue listeners from disappointment, she laid out her battle-plan for a better Britain and a better democracy:

“The Tories are readying themselves now for another round of disaster capitalism using the post-Brexit turmoil to further shape the economy in their interests," she said. "I believe we need to prepare for that and lobby for an early general election.”

"[We need to] prevent the formulation of a Tory-Ukip government that would enact an ultra-right Brexit scenario, I think there should be a pre-election pact between Labour, the Greens, the Lib-Dems and Plaid together. And that the glue holding together such a pact would indeed be a commitment to Proportional Representation.”

Yet a more inclusive politics, she suggested, should also be built within the system as it currently stands - by harnessing grassroots energy, signing up individual candidates to a core set of progressive principles and pressing for more open primaries and non-aggression pacts. And, not least, in and seeking to pull opportunity from the jaws of defeat:

“The referendum was a wake-up call. Lets honour it by rejecting xenophobia, lets rise to it by pledging to share the economic benefits of migration with the many, lets respond to it by giving real power to the people with a voting system that genuinely allows their voices to be heard.”

Some may have been disappointed that a call to reject the referendum result was not part of her agenda. But Lucas’ message of conciliation was clear:

“In my heart of course, I believe Britain’s future should be in Europe [...] but friends, I believe that to seek to overrule the outcome of the referendum is bad politics and worse democracy. What better way to reinforce the belief that the metropolitan elite care nothing for the views of predominantly working-class people in disconnected communities, than to seek to ignore their views and overturn the result.”

Labour’s Shadow Minister for Defence, Clive Lucas, the Lib-Dem’s Vince Cable and SNP MP Tommy Sheppard all echoed Lucas on this position. Yet it was the speakers from outside the seats of government that drove home the point to greatest effect:

“Please let’s not think about the vast majority of people I've talked about who voted Leave as stupid, or deluded, or bigoted, and hateful”, pleaded Guardian journalist John Harris. “If you woke up on Friday morning thinking that the country you lived in was suddenly being controlled by a social tribe you didn't know much about and you suddenly felt terrified about the future, bear in mind that’s how millions of people in this country have felt for decades.”

Harris’s account of his experiences reporting outside of London, particularly in his native Wales, helped ground the talk of Westminster squabbles and Brexit bungle in the deeper, longer story of Britain’s industrial decline:

“About two years ago, in 2014, around the time of the Scottish referendum, John and I made a film set in Penegraig, in the Rhondda valley in South Wales. It's a place where my family is from, so I know it, and it's a place missing what I used to associate with it – coal mining. And nothing has come along to replace coal mining at all really in that place and it feels like it has an emptiness, really, at its heart. It’s a place we still call a ‘Labour heartland’ and it still has a lots of heart – but its affinity with the Labour party (you only need to go around and talk to people to know) has waned. ”

Most popular of all however, at least with the younger audience members I spoke to, was the appeal of singing teacher and Take Back the City organiser, Amina Gichinga:

“It would be a mistake to think that we just need to get rid of the Tories. The forms of political organisation that we have at the moment are inadequate and they’re failing to engage the vast majority of people in London and the rest of the country. Obviously we would prefer a left-leaning progressive alliance to a Tory government. But this isn’t about left-leaning political parties working together - it isn’t going to be progressive if parties don’t change the way they do politics and make it more open to young people, people of colour, women, working class people, migrants, refugees - people who lack a political voice but make our city and our country what it is.”

The obstacles to such a vision are not insignificant. Clive Lewis’ speech highlighted the internal disputes occupying Labour, as well as hinting at reservations surrounding Proportional Representation.

Comments from the floor touched on a range of further considerations. “I fully support a progressive alliance but I also oppose oppositional politics,” said a representative of Makes Votes Matter. “Our campaign certainly welcomes Ukip supporters, Tory supporters, and I really believe that we have to work together to include everybody if we want to get PR”.

But, overall, the message was one of action that starts at home. “If a change to the system [of first past the post elections] means I will have to give up my seat tomorrow, I will gladly do so”, volunteered the SNP’s Tommy Sheppard.

There are also plans afoot to repeat similar gatherings around the country. Tonight’s event in Brighton will see Neal Lawson and Davy Jones discuss the Progressive Alliance. While Compass, the left-wing pressure group responsible for organising Tuesday’s event, has plans to stage at least five bigger meetings out in Brexit heartlands. These will be accompanied by an online engagement platform and a callout for self-organised meetings that can feed back in to eachother.

In the words of John Harris: “Let’s go out of this stateless country that some people are calling ‘Remain-ia’  ... Let’s go out into the country and reinvent our politics”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton shows the fragility of women's half-won freedom

The more I understand about the way the world treats women, the more I feel the terror of it coming for me.

I’m worried about my age. I’m 36. There’s a line between my eyebrows that’s been making itself known for about the last six years. Every time I see a picture of myself, I automatically seek out the crease. One nick of Botox could probably get rid of it. Has my skin lost its smoothness and glow?

My bathroom shelf has gone from “busy” to “cluttered” lately with things designed to plump, purify and resurface. It’s all very pleasant, but there’s something desperate I know at the bottom of it: I don’t want to look my age.

You might think that being a feminist would help when it comes to doing battle with the beauty myth, but I don’t know if it has. The more I understand about the way the world treats women – and especially older women – the more I feel the terror of it coming for me. Look at the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s book. Too soon. Can’t she go quietly. Why won’t she own her mistakes.

Well Bernie Sanders put a book out the week after the presidential election – an election Clinton has said Sanders did not fully back her in –  and no one said “too soon” about that. (Side note: when it comes to not owning mistakes, Sanders’s Our Revolution deserves a category all to itself, being as how the entire thing was written under the erroneous impression that Clinton, not Trump, would be president.) Al Gore parlayed his loss into a ceaseless tour of activism with An Inconvenient Truth, and everyone seems fine with that. John McCain – Christ, everyone loves John McCain now.

But Hillary? Something about Hillary just makes people want to tell her to STFU. As Mrs Merton might have asked: “What is it that repulses you so much about the first female candidate for US president?” Too emotional, too robotic, too radical, too conservative, too feminist, too patriarchal – Hillary has been called all these things, and all it really means is she’s too female.

How many women can dance on the head of pin? None, that’s the point: give them a millimetre of space to stand in and shake your head sadly as one by one they fall off. Oh dear. Not this woman. Maybe the next one.

It’s in that last bit that that confidence racket being worked on women really tells: maybe the next one. And maybe the next one could be you! If you do everything right, condemn all the mistakes of the women before you (and condemn the women themselves too), then maybe you’ll be the one standing tippy-toe on the miniscule territory that women are permitted. I’m angry with the men who engage in Clinton-bashing. With the women, it’s something else. Sadness. Pity, maybe. You think they’ll let it be you. You think you’ve found the Right Kind of Feminism. But you haven’t and you never will, because it doesn’t exist.

Still, who wouldn’t want to be the Right Kind of Feminist when there are so many ready lessons on what happens to the Wrong Kind of Feminist. The wrong kind of feminist, now, is the kind of feminist who thinks men have no right to lease women by the fuck (the “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist”, or SWERF) or the kind of feminist who thinks gender is a repressive social construct (rechristened the “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, or TERF).

Hillary Clinton, who has said that prostitution is “demeaning to women” – because it absolutely is demeaning to treat sexual access to women as a tradeable commodity – got attacked from the left as a SWERF. Her pre-election promises suggest that she would probably have continued the Obama administration’s sloppy reinterpretation of sex discrimination protections as gender identity protections, so not a TERF. Even so, one of the charges against her from those who considered her not radical enough was that she was a “rich, white, cis lady.” Linger over that. Savour its absurdity. Because what it means is: I won’t be excited about a woman presidential candidate who was born female.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and of the Abortion Act. One of these was met with seasons of celebratory programming; one, barely mentioned at all. (I took part in a radio documentary about “men’s emotional experiences of abortion”, where I made the apparently radical point that abortion is actually something that principally affects women.) No surprise that the landmark benefiting women was the one that got ignored. Because women don’t get to have history.

That urge to shuffle women off the stage – troublesome women, complicated women, brilliant women – means that female achievements are wiped of all significance as soon as they’re made. The second wave was “problematic”, so better not to expose yourself to Dworkin, Raymond, Lorde, Millett, the Combahee River Collective, Firestone or de Beauvoir (except for that one line that everyone misquotes as if it means that sex is of no significance). Call them SWERFs and TERFs and leave the books unread. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t perfect”, so don’t listen to anything she has to say based on her vast and unique experience of government and politics: just deride, deride, deride.

Maybe, if you’re a woman, you’ll be able to deride her hard enough to show you deserve what she didn’t. But you’ll still have feminine obsolescence yawning in your future. Even if you can’t admit it – because, as Katrine Marçal has pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, our entire economy is predicated on discounting women’s work – you’ll need the politics of women who analysed and understood their situation as women. You’ll still be a woman, like the women who came before us, to whom we owe the impossible debt of our half-won freedom.

In the summer of 2016, a radio interviewer asked me whether women should be grateful to Clinton. At the time, I said no: we should be respectful, but what I wanted was a future where women could take their place in the world for granted. What nonsense. We should be laying down armfuls of flowers for our foremothers every day.

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