This year’s party conference season was largely forgettable. We’re facing the closest general election in years – teetering on the brink of a new era of six-party politics where Ukip overshadows the safest of seats – but you wouldn’t have thought it, judging from the meagre pickings mainstream parties offered up like some sort of funereal policy buffet. A minimum wage rise here, a sprinkle of NHS nurses there – but easy on any cohesive narrative for a better future.
It’s no surprise that party politics is leaving voters feeling queasy, nor that just 41 per cent of first-time voters aged 17-21 say they plan to vote in next year’s general elections. Yet there is still an appetite for change. Outside of Westminster remains a huge – as of yet untapped – amount of energy behind grass roots campaigns focused on individual issues affecting the electorate.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than among the recent wave of new feminist organisations such as UK Feminista, No More Page 3 and the Spartacus Network that have successfully managed to dominate the headlines for the past three years. Over 200,000 people have signed the petition against the objectification of women on page three of the Sun newspaper. Daughters of Eve, who campaign against FGM, are gaining global attention. And although they don’t explicitly identify as feminists, last week the Focus E15 campaigners mobilised as women and as young mothers against their imminent homelessness by drawing an explicit link between punishing cuts to women’s services and a spiralling housing crisis.
As the party of social justice, equality and tolerance, not to mention Sure Start, extended maternity and paternity provision and the Equal Pay Act, Labour politicians might have been standing proudly alongside the Focus E15 campaigners. Instead, the Labour Mayor of Newham Sir Robin Wales initially dismissed them as “despicable”. Though he later apologised, this was a missed opportunity to show that his party understands why women – who have been hit disproportionately harder by austerity measures – feel so let down by the politicians that represent them. This is the kind of issue that organisations such as Feminist Fightback have also been campaigning for.
However, there’s still time for Labour to ride the new wave of political energy and engagement it is often lacking within its own ranks. It’s time to collaborate with feminist activists but also to respect their autonomy by assisting with their campaigns on their terms. This may be difficult for a party which can be characterised as centralised and hierarchically rigid, but if Labour wants to become a grassroots movement again and capitalise on the energy of these grassroots movements, it’s the only way forward.
Zita Holbourne is co-chair of Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC UK), an anti-austerity organisation, that also support family justice campaigns such as that of Mark Duggan. Though she’s active in her community, she writes in a new Fabian and Compass report released today: “The only time I ever see local councillors is when they are canvassing for votes”. In her view, local collaboration is the answer: “For black women to be attracted to Labour party activism, the party must be willing to support our grassroots campaigns in the spaces we have created too”. This could involve the party campaigning on the multiple discriminations faced by young black people while respecting the fact that BARAC UK’s strong anti-cuts stance does not comfortably align with Labour’s public spending policies.
Feminist organisations like No More Page 3 could also teach political parties a thing or two about the ways in which online activism is increasingly an accessible springboard into wider political participation. Lisa Clarke, one of the No More Page 3 campaigners who had no previous interest in politics, says: “I see many women like me who on the back of their campaigning experience are entering into dialogue with politicians and attending meetings at Westminster”. Labour must get better at reaching out digitally to new audiences, or finding ways to engage with those who lack the time to sit through a local meeting but might be willing to participate in an online advice surgery.
Feminism is also causing people to view the idea of political change in a new light. Like the work of Everyday Sexism, No More Page 3 challenges our society to reconfigure its understanding of gender equality and empower women to ‘call out’ sexism wherever they find it. Labour’s traditional response to page three would probably be to pass legislation and cross its fingers that this would be enough to engender a cultural shift. However, in addressing internet trolling MPs such as Stella Creasy are contributing to this particular debate about online and print sexism, knowing that although the battle starts as a personal one, it gains collective power the more individual voices join in.
Building positive change online and in local communities that everyone can claim joint credit for: that’s what politics should be all about. “What we need to do is get you people out of power, and get people like us in” says Sam Middleton of Focus E15. “It’s communities working together to get this shit done!”
Riding the New Wave: Feminism and the Labour Party, edited by Anya Pearson and Rosie Rogers, is available to read online: http://www.fabians.org.uk/publications/riding-the-new-wave/