The real Mrs Pankhurst

Author Frances Pugh marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette

2008 marks the 90th anniversary of the grant of a parliamentary vote to women over thirty and the 80th anniversary of equal franchise in 1928 which made women 52-53 per cent of the electorate.

It is easy for us to take all this for granted. But for a measure of the mountain of prejudice suffragists faced consider the way the historian, A.J.P.Taylor, chose to mark the fortieth anniversary of the 1918 reforms in 1958.

In an article in the Sunday Mirror he said Britain would have been a better country if it had stuck to male voters and that it would not have lost the empire if women had not been given the vote!

In 1958 Taylor was still saying what many people had devoutly believed in the 1880s and 1890s. Up to 1914 anti-suffragists saw female enfranchisement as calculated to have destructive effects on society, notably in undermining marriage and motherhood and thereby weakening Britain as a great industrial and military power.

However, it is often forgotten that among politicians many of these prejudices had been overcome by 1903 when Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union. But while a majority of MPs were nominally suffragists they did not see it as a political priority, nor had they resolved the complicated question of how many women were to get the vote and on what terms; this was inevitably awkward since many men were still without a vote and the electoral fate of the parties hung on the details of the measure.

This was the log-jam that Emmeline and her daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, sought to break by adopting militant tactics. Emmeline and Christabel did this partly because they were furious with the Labour Party which they had expected to promote women’s suffrage after its breakthrough in the 1906 general election. But Labour was a party for male trade unionists and, apart from Keir Hardie and George Lansbury, remained alienated from the Pankhursts and their methods.

This antagonism is a reminder that the life and opinions of Emmeline Pankhurst are less well-known than one would suppose; she is commonly referred to as ‘Emily’ in the media. She and Christabel were brilliant orators in a period when unscripted public speaking was still a vital political weapon. They also engaged in a fascinating struggle with the politicians designed to deprive them of the moral high ground by drawing them into an embarrassing cycle of hunger strikes, forcible feeding, release and re-arrest under the Cat and Mouse Act.

But it is not usually appreciated that one of the Pankhursts’ greatest contributions to the cause was to transform it by attracting huge resources into the movement. This was not just a matter of recruiting wealthy Holland Park ladies who dropped rings and broaches into suffragette collecting boxes at Albert Hall rallies.

It involved a major commercial organisation to market suffragette china, jewellery, soap, handkerchiefs, board games and even Christmas cards. The Pankhursts also developed a remarkable relationship with the big West End stores – Debenham and Freebody, Derry and Toms, Marshall and Snellgrove, Peter Robinson, Swan and Edgar.

Many shops marketed coats, shoes and even underwear in suffragette colours – purple, white and green – and advertised generously in the suffragette journals. Even when their windows were being broken by suffragette bricks the West End shops continued to support them and, in return, the editors advised readers to patronise them.

This commercial activity enabled the W.S.P.U. to create a machine staffed by fulltime organisers in London and the provinces on a par with those of the political parties. At by-elections, which occurred frequently, they could swamp constituencies with propaganda in their efforts to rouse voters against the government of the day.

Their fraught relationship with politicians left feminists with an enduring lesson. With the enfranchisement of 8.4 million women in 1918 it was tempting to think that women should work through the parties to win further reforms. Some did so, but many concluded that they were being used by the parties who now wanted their votes but evaded major concessions to female equality. As a result many inter-war feminists followed Edwardian experience by maintaining independent pressure groups for women. Some still survive, notably the Fawcett Society.

However, despite becoming an iconic figure as a result of her suffering for the cause in the Edwardian period, Emmeline Pankhurst showed little interest in this independent women’s movement after 1918. She and Christabel drifted away to other issues and Emmeline actually declined an invitation to lead the next stage of the campaign to win equal franchise in the 1920s. Nor were militant tactics much taken up in the aftermath of 1918. Struggling against an anti-feminist reaction, many campaigners sought to distance themselves from the Edwardian suffragettes.

Despite this, the militant tradition has never entirely died. It lives, for example, among animal rights activists who are prepared to weather public and political condemnation as the suffragettes once did. Even a more mainstream pressure group such as Greenpeace can be seen as part of the militant tradition.

Ironically, the current men’s movement copies militancy. Those protesters who appear on the roof-top at Harriet Harman’s house are modern echoes of the Edwardian suffragettes who knocked on Mr Asquith’s door and chained themselves to the railings. And although these tactics rarely succeed, they do have knock-on effects in stimulating sympathisers to take up non-militant action and thereby advance the cause just as happened during the Edwardian period.

Martin Pugh’s book, The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family has been re-issued as a Vintage paperback. He was formerly Professor of Modern British History at Newcastle University. His latest book, ‘We Danced All Night’: A Social History of Britain between the Wars, is published by The Bodley Head.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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