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5 September 2016updated 04 Sep 2021 2:11pm

John McDonnell is a better gender equality campaigner than his MP critics

Women at the top of the party are no guarantee of representation at the bottom, six female activists argue. 

By Selma James

Kate Green MP, former shadow minister for women and equalities, now heading Owen Smith’s campaign for leadership of the Labour Party, accuses Jeremy Corbyn of not “listening” before supporting the decriminalisation of prostitution, which in her view would “reinforce rather than address the root causes of gender inequality”. 

We have been campaigning against women’s poverty – the main root cause of prostitution – and against criminalisation of sex workers – the main obstacle to getting police and other protection against violence and being able to leave prostitution if we want to – since 1975. Sadly, in over 40 years, despite huge efforts, we have found most women MPs unwilling to “listen”. Maureen Colquhoun, the first out lesbian MP who lost her seat because of it in 1979, was the exception. Sympathetic to other “sexual outlaws”, she tabled a ten minute rule bill in support of prostitute women’s right to work together from premises – the “brothel keeping” which Kate Green attacks, which is ten times safer than working on the street. 

The overwhelming majority of sex workers are women: single mothers struggling to feed and house our kids, immigrant mothers sending money home to the families we had to leave behind, asylum seekers and others made destitute by anti-immigrant and anti-welfare policies of cuts and sanctions, or unable to survive on zero hours contracts, or made vulnerable by racist violence and every day disrespect, discrimination and deprivation, or escaping rape and domestic violence, or burdened with student debt.

When in December 2013, hundreds of police raided Soho premises dragging women in their underwear in front of media cameras they had organised to be there, or “cleaned” neighbourhoods forcing women to work in more isolated and dangerous streets, there was not a peep from women MPs. Were they listening? When we presented evidence that street work all over the UK has increased hugely with benefit sanctions – not a peep. When in 2015 the ECP organised a parliamentary symposium at which sex workers from 10 countries as well as academics and other experts gave evidence that favoured decriminalisation – not a peep. When we demanded financial support for mothers and grandmothers for the caring work we do so we can refuse prostitution or zero hour contracts or sweat shops to survive – not a peep. 

John McDonnell, who in the best Labour tradition has always defended workers whatever our occupation, has been the exception among MPs, women or men. His willingness, and Corbyn’s, to not only listen but stand with those of us at the bottom is what distinguishes them. They have called forth a movement of hundreds of thousands of people who are furious at being rejected, lied to and ignored by ambitious and arrogant MPs of every sex. If Margaret Thatcher taught us anything, it’s that women at the top (of whatever party) are no guarantee that the rest of us will be represented. Tony Blair’s first cut targeted single mothers and was fronted by Harriet Harman; the abolition of Income Support, another benefit single mothers in particular relied on, was fronted by Yvette Cooper under Gordon Brown. Were they listening? Did they hear women and children cry? 

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Women are paying for 86 per cent of austerity cuts. Women of colour, whose incomes are already lower than white women, and mothers generally are worst affected as shown by recently published evidence of growing discrimination when we go on maternity leave. Yet MPs who claim to represent women are attacking the one leader who has radically changed the direction of the party to be anti-austerity – the most crucial policy for women. Owen Smith, their leader, opposes zero-hour contracts but unlike Corbyn he seems ready to replace them with one hour-contracts! To whom is he listening?

Anti-Corbyn MPs have said that their problem with Corbyn and McDonnell is that they want the Labour Party to be a movement. They have neglected to mention that this would put the membership, and potentially the population, in charge of the direction of the party in parliament. Smith and co claim that such a democratic party would be unelectable. MPs would have to not only listen but act on what all those mothers and non-mothers they have dismissed and ignored for so long propose regardless of what is good for the unregulated market and the arms trade which are now in charge. 

As 80 women wrote in The Independent on 5 August: “It is sad that women MPs, some of whom were part of the first-ever shadow cabinet with a majority of women, have not welcomed this ‘new politics’.” Especially sad given that grassroots Labour women are the most supportive of Corbyn – 67 per cent according to a recent poll.  

Are we looking for politicians who will help those few of us near the top to go higher or are we looking for leadership aimed at raising the status, income and services of the great majority of us who have suffered especially since a woman entered Downing Street in 1979?  We want women at the top but only those who are answerable to women (and men) at the bottom.

Sara Callaway, Women of Colour GWS
Selma James, Global Women’s Strike 
Nina Lopez, Legal Action for Women
Cari Mitchell, English Collective of Prostitutes
Didi Rossi, Queer Strike
Kim Sparrow, Single Mothers’ Self-Defence 

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