Saturday 29 November 2008

I'm an anarcho-socialist: get me out of here

Last night, an extraordinary thing happened. I watched open-mouthed as the United States of America elected its first non-white president. The country erupted with longing for democratic change, the world partied, and a million teenage fangirls squealed at the sexual tension between Rob Lowe and Brandley Whitford.

Oh, stoppit. Yes, I'm talking about The West Wing. Last night, I finally finished the series, and I find myself bereft like a late-night sugar junkie, suddenly coming to with sticky crumbs of the last of the biscuits smeared on my chin and down my pyjamas, subsumed by a creeping sense of shame; you know it's not real food, you feel a bit sick, but you still want some more.

Throughout this turpitudinous year, my housemates and I have purged our sorrows and self-doubt with liberal applications of all seven series of The West Wing, shock tea, narcotics and a metric buggerload of digestives. And now it's all over, three weeks after we stayed up to spoiler ourselves by watching the climax of season seven played out in real life on November the 4th, the biggest, best reality TV show politics ever paid for. That series is over, now, too, but never mind - we still have reams of fanvids, mashups and screaming teen slashfiction (Joebama, guys!) to see us through to Epilogue: Inauguration Day in January.

Is it me, or have we all been watching a bit too much TV?

In a speech written for the Fabians (well worth reading in full), David 'I was mates with Obama in college' Lammy certainly seems to think so -

What happens in the United States affects us all and there is a great deal that we can learn from it. But we need to make sure we don’t let politics become a mere spectator sport. We can’t adopt US politics as a new political soap opera to replace The West Wing. I know that the election campaign seemed to have hired the same scriptwriters, so that the plot of the final season happening for real. But this will remain fantasy politics for us if we engage – from the outside – in American politics as an alternative to taking responsibility for bringing about change for ourselves here.

I'm sick and tired of fantasy politics. I'm sick and tired of watching overseas politicians slug it out to exciting super-wrestling soundtracks on TV from a cold, crowded house in North London where our seventh flatmate, rattus africanus*, has recently returned to plaguify us all. I'm sick and tired of waiting for change and being delivered empty soundbites and endless, endless bloody fanvids.

When not writing this blog and searching vainly for paid work, I've spent this year doing endless internships for national newspapers, magazines and political thinktanks, and, as of last week, in parliament itself, hoiking my unemployed, overeducated little arse out of bed to be every editor and politico's least favourite helpmonkey. And all this time I've spent scuttling around various corridors of power I've been secretly looking for someone, anyone, who wants real change, someone even trying to angle the system to publish innovative articles, to get real groundbreaking work done, to interest themselves in something more socially affective than the latest dead celebrity. But to no avail. Because, and let's not pull any punches here, they've all spent the past eight years watching the sodding West Wing.

Seriously. The Fabian Society? West Wing fans. The Indie? The Graun? Parliamentary researchers? West Wing fans. When I say kill your damn tv I'm not talking to some fantasy socio-political underclass, I'm talking to everyone from the cabinet down: your next fix of social justice isn't bloody coming from Fox Networks.

We've got to accept that the fact that another country, a bigger, more powerful, more culturally significant country than this tiny clutch of islands just elected what looks like a genuinely liberal adminitration does not mean that we can now all clock off and head to the pub (and come to think of it, 36 of them are closing per week). It still smells unnervingly like we might elect a Tory government in 2010, and for no better reason than it might make us feel a bit less responsible for the state of our own lives for a while. If we truly want change, it won't come from the telly, it won't come from the tories, and it won't come from another administration in the New Labour idiom, either - so we'd better decide what flavour of change we want right bloody now.

Bring up the theme tune; let the credits roll. Time to get up off the sofa. Time to shiver at the static humming from the darkening screen, stretch, put the kettle on, and start planning a better world. Because it won't happen any other way. This revolution will be brought to you live.

But the backdrops peel and the sets give way and the cast get eaten by the play
There's a murderer at the matinee, there are dead men in the aisles
And the patrons and the actors too are uncertain if the play is through
And with sidelong looks await their cue
But the frozen mask just smiles

- Alan Moore, V For Vendetta, 1988

*The biscuit-stealing bastard is the size of a small dog, and my Ghanaian housemate assures me he ain't from round here. After a month of fruitless saucepan-flapping and definitely no resident camp artists squealing and standing on chairs, we eventually found it passed out halfway down a bag of caster sugar and threw it in the garden, where it rolled under a bush. I blame Boris.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

LeftNewMedia: let a thousand flowers bloom...

Last night: the first meeting of what, after a little bit of squabbling, has been titled the LeftNewMedia forum. In attendance: some techie types, several folks who have the esteem of being Famous On The Internet, John MacDonnell MP, who is famous in real life, and my rather bewildered housemate, who actually has a life. StroppyBird was there, as was Dave Osler, a representative of thoughcowardsflinch, and several other quasi-hacks with a laptop, time on their hands and a sense of public justice. The topic under discussion: how do we use the netroots to achieve objectives within the British Left?

The Obama campaign, it was proposed, has put the British Left to shame in terms of its use of the internet to harness liberal energy. And at first that seems to be incontestibly the case. The way that the campaign tapped into local energy, targeted resources and raised a rustling shitload of cash for the cause can only be seen as an unprecedented triumph for the international Left as it adjusts to the new technological order. For more technical details of just how this was done, go read Crashing The Gate, visit the MoveOn site, and be inspired.

This meeting, convened by John MacDonnell's babyfaced flunky Owen Jones, took the Obama campaign as its yardstick and key ideal. Our objective was no less than to use the internet to unite the progressive left.


Have you met the progressive left? Its representatives at the initial meeting took ten solid minutes of recrimination just to decide when and where we were meeting next. The British left are good at many things, but we can't find absolute ideological common ground with both hands and a torch. Just look at the abortion rights movement: indubitably a progressive campaign, and also ostensibly a single-issue campaign, but put two pro-choice activists in a room and I guarantee you'll find points of contention as well as articles of common ground. You will never get the British progressive left to agree. Let me repeat that: there is not, now, and never will be any such thing as a British progressive left consensus. And nor should there be.

The semiotic nature of the left is very different from that of the right. By definition, we are about a multiplicity of ideals and platforms. We can think in subtle and progressive tones, we can consider different causes and outcomes simultaneously, we are contentious, and we are clever. And that's why the world wide websphere is a natural home for our efforts:

Look again at the abortion rights movement. A myriad of different positions, one for every activist and thinker and ally involved, but let an *objective* come up upon which we can roughly agree - stopping Mad Nads' initiative to lower the time limit, for example - and look how we mobilise. The hundreds-strong protest outside parliament when the Bill hit the table in May, and the energy that accompanied it, was garnered online; thousands of internet activists wrote to their MPs using E-letters, we blogged, we talked, we organised. All we needed - all the left ever need - was a practical objective. And look at us mobilise.

And that's what the Obama campaign had. It had a very practical, comprehensible and time-specific goal: to get Barack Hussein Obama elected president on the 4th of November this year.

Now look, in a different way, at the trans-allied protest outside the Stonewall awards this month. That protest, the largest trans demo in UK history, was organised entirely online. The internet allows minority groups, like transpeople and their allies, to find each other, to share ideas and to raise debate. The point of the Global Village isn't to create one big ideological blanket for everyone to scurry under (a Global Longhouse, if you will) - the point is to let a thousand flowers bloom. To allow a multiplicity of tiny groups to coagulate and enable them to link up and unite behing causes when they need to.

At the meeting there was much talk of how the BNP website is the most-visited party political website in the country. With predictable disgust at the message, the medium of the BNP's online avatar was praised for its comprehensiveness, its soundbites, its clarity of message, its simplicity. Can we make left-leaning sites as effective in the same way?

No, we bloody well can't. The reason that the BNP website is simple is because the BNP is a simple idea. They're not about taking a considered ideological position. They have a few soundbites, and that's it - their soundbites are forcible because soundbites are all they have. Their message and objectives - hating immigrants, being proud to be British, feeling angry at the Damn Liberals - are fairly clear-cut, and either you swallow them or you don't. The BNP have been successful at organising online, but we do not want to emulate the BNP's online scheme, and even if we did there's no way we could apply it to the British left. We are better than that. We are cleverer than that. We can think in shades of grey. The strength of the right is that its message is simplistic and requires little actual thought. The strength of the left is that ours isn't. Our strength is in our numbers and our diversity.

And that is why the internet might have designed as a special playground just for us. All we need to do is abandon the notion of creating any kind of 'consensus'. Why the hell do we need consensus? We're the British left. We're never going to agree. You may as well go herding cats. When we have practical objectives to organise and gather behind - keeping out the Tories, fighting the far right, holding our own parties to account, supporting or opposing government bills, setting up community projects, organising protests - we are formidable, and we are very, very fast. And this week, we proved it.

The instant that the BNP membership list got out online this week, there was no stopping the anti-fascist hacktivists. Whine and stamp though Griffin might, within minutes the list was all over the world in millions of inboxes. Within hours Wikileaks had it, and some clever techies in their bedrooms had set up a tool to search the list by name and postcode and another tool mashing the list with GoogleMaps.

Without the online left, that list would never have become news, would never have reopened the debate around the far right in this country. We are powerful. We have at our disposal a great deal of talented people: techies, geeks, bedroom pyjama nerds, writers, bloggers, graphic designers, political canvassers and campaigners, directors, humorists. Obama's campaign remains an inspiration, but we're not doing too badly over here, and we'll only do better as the stakes are raised and we learn to own our syncretic differences. The future of radical politics is a geek in zir bedroom with a cup of coffee, a pile of manifestos and and internet connection.

LeftNewMedia aims to build a dynamic coalition of left-wing techies, computer geeks, writers, internet users, bloggers, activists and other interested parties with the aim of forging specific online campaigns. I encourage you all to come to the next meeting, at which we will set down details of our first campaign, and which will be in Central London on the 15th of December at 8pm, further details TBA. For those who can't make it, I'll be writing it up here.

Sunday 23 November 2008

Tales from Turnpike Lane Station 2: the trouble with Reclaim the Night

Last night, on the platform at Camden Town, I gave the friend I'd been out with a big hug and saw her onto her train before settling down to wait for the last tube home to Wood Green. Just then, I heard a voice behind me.

'Do I get a hug too?'

Two lads, about my age, maybe a little older, looking like something out of Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere', and grinning. I stiffened, smiled and said, 'no, you don't', not wanting to seem what I was. Which was scared, and angry.

Suddenly, I was a small, skinny young woman in London on her own, and here were some blokes who might or might not be about to give me some trouble. Defence mechanism one: Blunt and Rude hadn't worked, because they were now laughing and looking mock-hurt. So I opted for Defence Mechanism Two: bore them away.

I shook hands, introduced myself, started asking interminable questions about where they were born, what jobs they did, giving monosyllabic answers. The train rolled in and I still couldn't shake them off: we were apparently going to the same stop. And not for the first time, I found myself thinking: if I'd gone to Reclaim The Night like a good little feminist, this wouldn't be happening.

If I hadn't refused to march through another biting November night, shouting
'Men Off The Streets!', I'd be surrounded by sisters with placards and bovver boots rather than having to negotiate the potential danger posed by two men decidedly *on* the streets.

As we rattled past Caledonian road, one of the lads went quiet. And then he started telling me how, about a month ago, he and his father were attacked by a group of guys at Cally Road station. He came out with a few scratches. His father was still in hospital, having suffered potentially catastrophic brain damage. The other man was his cousin, who had come down from Liverpool to help the family out.

I listened. And then I explained how, about a year ago, I was nearly raped outside the same tube station. I explained about the calculations women make when faced with a lone man, or a group of men - and they nodded, and talked about very similar calculations that men make when they're out after dark. We talked about male violence against women, and male violence against men. I told them about Reclaim The Night, and why I wasn't there.

Because violence in the streets is something that affects all genders. Because as much as I want to support my sisters in their anger and their defiance, I have too many brothers who have been mentally and spiritually broken by beatings, who have had legs, fingers and self-confidence shattered by laughing strangers, who have not yet recovered - who may never recover - from living saturated in a sick culture of masculised violence.

Brutality is bred in the bone in this country, in playgrounds, in the streets, and at home. It runs even deeper than a simple insult to women perpetrated by patriarchy. We are not as civilised as we like to think. Sooner or later, we all learn to fight, or we learn to run, or we learn to lie down and take the kicks and learn to hate. Sooner or later, we all learn to be afraid to walk the streets after dark.

Would I like to live in a world where all women felt safe at night? Damn straight. And all men, too. And all boys, all girls, all transpeople, bankers and shopkeepers and streetwalkers: none of us should have to steel ourselves for a beating when we pop to the shops for milk. This is something that needs to be addressed urgently in our culture. It's not just a feminist problem; it's a gendered crisis that makes new demands of feminism, and I will not be Reclaiming any Night until the men and transpeople whom I love are allowed to march beside me.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Say you want a revolution

'Revolutions are the locomotives of history.' Marx, Class Struggle In France

'I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.” Brave New World

For three days I've been racking my brains for a witty and incisive new angle on current affairs to post on this blog that I love so much. Three days huddling on top of a tiny merciful space heater, drinking endless sugary tea in a cold North-London commune ringing with the hacking petrarchan coughs of smokers with chest infections: it's winter, we can't afford 5-a-day or red meat, we're precariously employed or unemployed, we're battling winter depression, viz: we are all sick. Here is the arena of the unwell: we have reached it. Nothing to do but scramble for dog-ends in the bottom of beercans, eat plain pasta and play thrash guitar late into the night whilst hallucinating Grant Morrison in between frantically applying for every job we can find. Dicking around with each other's hearts and groins because there's nothing else to do in the baby-killing socialist utopia of Haringey.

We didn't think it would be this hard.

The reason I can't quite summon a sparkly opinion about the US president-elect, or the various ways in which George Osborne is a disgrace to right-wing social economists everywhere, or what the car-crash spectacle of I'm A Celeb 2008 really signifies, is a lingering sense of betrayal. We're good kids. We did everything we were told to do: we went to the schools our parents picked for us and then to university because that's what everyone does these days, because everyone knows you need a degree or two to get yourself employed even if it lands you in crushing debt. Somehow, we made it through three years of higher education only to find that our parents' generation finally broke the economy for us and no degree in the world is going to make us any more employable, or fit us out with the training we need to make decent lives for ourselves. They told us that if we worked hard and did as we were told and stayed off the crack and didn't get pregnant, then the shiny new neo-liberal free-market world would be our playpen. They told us that if we behaved, we'd all get jobs in advertising and end up partying at Bungalow 8 with Peaches Geldof and Jaime Winstone. They lied.

And you know what? I'm sick of being lied to. I'm sick of accepting a shitty deal for myself and my loved ones because I'm told that it can't be any different. I'm sick of swallowing nonsense from a nominally liberal government that refuses to tax the wealthy to fund decent healthcare and welfare for people on the ground and yet comes up with untold billions when a real banking crisis hits. I'm sick of being told that nothing can change. I just don't believe it any more.

What the neo-liberal consensus has been achingly effective at doing is persuading the generation that has grown up knowing nothing else that there can be nothing else. We hear of different political paradigms like fairy stories, with international communism as the wicked old witch who gets cooked in her own oven at the end of chapter three. But in real life, the story goes on. The kids grow up, and the honey walls of the gingerbread cottage begin to crack and crumble.

And now the sheen has worn away, we can see with older eyes that although we are living in one of the richest countries in the world, with more than enough credit to its name for every citizen to live a comfortable and free life, millions of us still live in poverty, misery and personal and economic servitude. The amount that our government has spent on trident, the Iraq war and the maintenance of a massive standing army over the past three years could have eradicated child poverty in Britain. There is a choice here, and it's a choice that our elected leaders are making for us every single day.

The way the right and left wing corps in the press have used the tiny body of Baby 'P' as a bargaining chip is vile. But the point stands that there remains a vanguard of British citizens who continue to believe that, in a pinch, the state is there to protect their children. The state is there to enact justice and social decency. Our expectations of the state are justly high, and if the state fails in its duty, it deserves to be raked over the coals. There remains a social democratic consensus beating just below the surface of the British psyche, and the nation's response to the horrific case of Baby P bears that consensus out.

There is a hunger in this country for social democracy, for socialist ideals if not for socialism itself, and that hunger will only rumble the louder as this recession bites. Change needs to happen, and fast. As Saint Toynbee pointed out in a recent Guardian article, the last recession created a lost generation of young people entering the workforce unable to find jobs. I fear that the slow creak of social stagnation has already begun for my peer group, and that this time our leaders' failure to adapt to the transition between the information age and the industrial age will take a cruel chunk out of our futures. Whilst ministers squabble about how and whether and when to fund skills training, a generation of 16-to-27- year olds slides slowly into unemployment. We are not asking for the earth. We are asking for the chance to earn our keep.

When I say I want a revolution, I don't mean blood in the streets. Since 1688, this country has had a proud tradition of sweeping social change effected without the death of millions. When I say I'd like to see revolution in my lifetime, what I mean is that I'd like a government with the balls to give us what we need. Welfare that is positive, not punitive. A commitment to on-the-job training, along with more pressure on businesses to fill the gap in skills training that the state cannot fill on its own. A commitment to instituting a living wage, so that anyone can support themselves in a job of work and so that a life on benefits isn't truly the easiest option. A commitment to flexible working and to European working-time directives, making it easier for women and those unable to work full-time to really contribute to the economy and to their own lives. A commitment to taxing high-end financial transactions and to increasing the income tax payable by the wealthiest 10%. A commitment to chasing state money held in offshore accounts and channelling it back into the larders and school lunchboxes of the needy. Would I like to see David Miliband dressed in green and challenging the Sheriff of Nottingham to an archery contest? It'd be good for a giggle, but give me the rest and I'll go home happy.

Ask most of our generation if they think we'll ever see a socialist revolution in this country and they'll laugh at you. The Poppy Project laughed at me when I told them the sort of systemic change I believed was needed to end prostitution - but when I suggested that campaigning for a living wage would do a great deal to reduce the numbers of poor women choosing prostitution, they nodded in agreement, before suggesting that we get 'back to the real world'. But this IS the real world. Exploitation, suffering, class, race and gender discrimination happen, and part of the reason that they happen is that my generation has accepted the neoliberal paradigm that allows them to happen.
Today, Jacqui Smith's prostitution proposals have been made public: another moralising legal solution to a problem that can only be solved by a commitment to systemic social change. How we get there isn't the immediate problem: first, we need to say that this is not good enough. We need to say we want a revolution. Even quietly, in empty rooms, in the privacy of our heads, we need to reject the lie that this is the best of all possible worlds. Say you want a revolution, because - sometimes - even just wanting it is enough.

Thursday 13 November 2008

The Poppy Project: the showdown...

On a grizzly, awful day in Brixton, I went to visit the organisers of The Poppy Project to see if we couldn’t resolve our differences. I’d love to be able to tell you that I stormed in there and showed them the error of their ways with copious intellectual shouting before setting the desk on fire, singing the red flag and lighting a cigarette off the debris, but I felt that it would be more helpful to listen and, at any rate, our common ground turned out to be more considerable than either of us believed. So much so, in fact, that most of the discussion time was taken up with sisterly bitching about the state of the world. Here's what was resolved, and here's what wasn't:

Conditional help
‘Every time someone tells me that I don’t really care about prostituted women, I see red. They have no idea.’ Denise Marshall, Poppy's chief executive, was keen to set the record straight, not least on the fact that she and her organisation support both the decriminalisation of 'the women' (by which I here assume she was inferring all prostitutes) and the offer of non-conditional support to all trafficked women. One thing that I hadn't realised when I wrote the original piece is that the conditions that the Poppy Project imposes on the women who receive its care, whilst very much a reality, are a government intervention in the scheme. Indeed, the original conditions of the funding included such gems as a mandate that women who received the Project's help would not then be allowed to apply for asylum, and a condition that they had to have sold sex on the day that they came to the Project. Poppy organisers fought these conditions and managed to get some of them reduced or even removed altogether - but some conditions do remain. Women are not obliged to appear in court, thanks to pressure from the organisers, but they are still obliged to give evidence to the police as a condition of Poppy's assistance. The situation remains unideal, and the marriage between even this most on-message of women's groups and the government which funds it is not an easy one.

Why did the government impose these conditions? 'That's a very interesting question,' said Denise. 'Partly, I think, it's an immigration issue.' The government, not fully understanding what the Project was trying to achieve with trafficked women, was keen that the Poppy Project did not become a vehicle for hundreds of terrible asylum seekers, simply desperate to work in the oh-so-fluffy British sex industry, to scamper into the country. Because protecting women is important, but so is securing the votes of Daily Mail readers.

Conceptual disagreements
Although the reasons behind the Poppy Project’s conditional help and their real attitude towards decriminalisation were quickly established, the research conducted by the Project - research recommending ‘The Swedish Model’ of prostitution reform along with other sanctions adopted by the government for its own ends - remained a bone of contention. The organisers did not persuade me that the research done for the Big Brothel report was in any way systematic or their conclusions sound, and the fact that they did not really attempt to convince a vocal critic otherwise is telling. Anna, Poppy's press officer, told me that part of the reason they push for the criminalisation of the purchase of sex is 'conceptual': 'we don't believe that men should feel that they can just buy women's bodies'. It is true, then, that a significant part of what the Project's research is trying to achieve is a shift in social morality through targeted legal change. The problem is that this rarely ever works, even if it were the job of the law to police people’s sexual morality. Legal prohibition often creates more problems than it solves, and certainly in Sweden, where criminalisation of the purchase of sex has been implemented, life has become riskier for the women who choose to stay in the sex trade.

We live in an amoral, free-market capitalist society where, like it or not, most bodies are up for sale for a given fee. Even were the buying of sex to become illegal, as the buying of some chemicals is now, there would still be outlets where sex could be bought, if in a much more underground fashion which poses greater risks for sex workers in the industry. Interestingly, even the Poppy representatives seemed to disagree on this one: whilst Denise was adamant that prostitution is not 'a fact of life', Hannah*, a former sex worker from the USA and a Poppy volunteer, claimed that she could not imagine a time when it would not exist. I cannot reconcile myself to the Poppy mantra that 'prostitution is not a valid career choice', because the fact stands that men and women who choose to go into sex work do have agency - agency predicated on poverty, desperation and, often, a misconception of what the job involves, but agency nonetheless. Prostitution may be a sad and disempowering choice, but it is a choice, and it has to be recognised as a valid one free from arbitrary moral stigma. The problem isn't prostitution itself, but the fact that in a society underpinned by class and gender inequalities people go into prostitution for all the wrong reasons, and are likely to face abuse within the industry – abuse which is all but sanctioned by the British justice system.

We also live in a society where prostitution, particularly female prostitution, has a negative moral loading which makes it far more difficult for sex workers to pursue justice when they are victims of crime such as rape and assault. And this is a fact that no legal move is going to alter until protections are in place to ensure that all women can bring their sexual abusers to justice. Without that sort of systemic change, without real commitment on the part of the police, of parliament and of society in general to valuing the personhood of all women, particularly the young, the poor and immigrants who are most likely to go into sex work, no legal change is going to make a significant difference to the experience of women who work as prostitutes.

The Poppy organisers and I are in agreement that prostitution is a dangerous and unpleasant industry to work in, and that the attitude of this society towards sex work is repulsively hypocritical. But I remain convinced that all that criminalising the purchase of sex would achieve would be to make some women feel a bit better for a short time and drive prostitution further underground in the long run, especially when combined (unlike in Sweden) with moves that further outlaw the selling of sex, which is what the Home Office is moving towards. The point isn’t that buying sex is wrong. The point is that it’s not okay to treat all women like whores, and all prostitutes like pieces of meat that you can punch with impunity. The ‘Swedish Model’ confuses the issue, compromising personal freedoms instead of addressing the real issue. The real issue is not the moral value or otherwise of a woman’s choice to work in the sex industry. It’s the state of the sex industry within a society that fundamentally does not value women, and that’s a complex distinction to make, but a vital one if we are to make progress for women without alienating our allies.

Prostitution is not a crime committed by men against women. The state of the sex industry is a crime committed by society against its poorest and most vulnerable. It is a crime committed by patriarchal capitalism against the poor women and young men that it values least. I believe that in looking to ‘criminalise men’ (their words), the Poppy Project are lashing out at the wrong enemy.

The fact stands, though, that if I spend much more time picking perfectly valid holes in the work of the Project on this blog, then so am I.

We have different ideological conceptions of what feminism means. But there is much that radically abolitionist, women-only groups such as Poppy and socialist feminists like myself can do together. Whether we believe the problem to be men in general or the entire structure of capitalist patriarchy, we all believe that desperate women working in prostitution need support, protection and rights. The practical work done by the Poppy Project is almost identical in motive to the work of socialist-feminist aligned Xtalk, a project established to help immigrant prostitutes improve their circumstances.

Even former employees agree that the academic rigour of the Poppy Project’s research leaves much to be desired, and the actions of government based on their recommendations more still. Our ideological differences are considerable, and we will come to those differences if and when there is a real chance of the most misplaced aspects of that research becoming law. Right now, though, we are more alike than we are unalike. And we have work to do.

Saturday 8 November 2008

Freak Power!

Thursday's event was the largest trans demonstration in British history. One hundred and fifty transsexual, transgender, transvestite, intersex, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queerfolk and allies gathered in front of the Stonewall awards, yelling 'Stonewall: hyp-o-crites!' as wonks in spangly dinner jackets made their way up the steps. A fantastic evening, although I did feel a little sorry for the tiny 'Julie Bindel fanclub' that gathered on the other side of the steps, a thunderous twelve chilly people at maximum who left early (although we did try to invite them along to the pub). Early press reports seem to be firmly on the side of the protest, with even Stonewall award-winners lamenting the exclusion of the trans community. We did good.

We screamed, we shouted, we complimented each other's dress sense, we stamped our feet in the glowing London winter air, we had fun, we were fabulous, and we made our point in song format: We are the trans nation, and we won't take crap no more! Summerskill can hear us shout outside his door!.

Bindel was not, in the end, named 'Journalist of the Year' by Stonewall - the honour went to Dr Miriam Stoppard of the Mirror. But will someone please take Julie's pen away before she pokes her eye out with it? Today, in the Guardian, in a piece which contains not one scrap of research but a great deal of bile, she's having a little tantrum, telling the whole queer spectrum to go 'way and just leave normal people like her alone:

'It is all a bit of an unholy alliance. We have been put in a room together and told to play nicely. But I for one do not wish to be lumped in with an ever-increasing list of folk defined by "odd" sexual habits or characteristics. Shall we just start with A and work our way through the alphabet? A, androgynous, b, bisexual, c, cat-fancying d, devil worshipping. Where will it ever end?'

Spouting such paranoid filth in a national newspaper and then demanding not to be held accountable for 'hate-speech' would be funny if it didn't make me want to eviscerate the nearest Guardian editor. It is clear that Ms Bindel does not want to be associated with anyone apart from other lesbians, literally or figuratively. If this hadn't been made plain already, her prudish, achingly unfunny little 'alphabet', where she links 'androgynous' and 'bisexual' people to 'devil-worshippers', spells it out. She resents the expansion of the Queer nation beyond the tidy little enclaves of 'gay'and 'lesbian', and seems to pine for 'the 1970s and 80s' when 'lesbians were left to our own devices, and mainly organised and socialised separately from gay men.'

And that's alright. That sort of rampant bigotry is what we have come to expect from Bindel and Rod Liddle's ilk of biscuit-eating armchair prudes, sneering at the young, the freakish and the brave. What's not okay is that organisations like Stonewall and the Guardian newspaper continue to give people like Bindel a platform for her horribly right-wing views. Please believe me: the only difference, now between Bindel and any fun-hating Daily Mail hack is that Julie likes cunt. But being gay, by itself, does not make you a liberal or excuse gender fascism.

Sarah, a young transperson and organiser of Thursday's demo, commented: 'I do genuinely feel sorry for her. I think she so wanted to be a big crusading journalist, who uncovered some great big medical plot to turn gay and lesbian people straight through surgery. But all she's succeeded in doing is managing to unite most of the trans community in annoyance at the organisations who are so keen on ignoring their own communities in order to cosy up to her, and make herself look increasingly stupid in print.
To the people behind her nomination for "Journalist of the Year", I think you should be ashamed of yourselves for the way you've treated trans people by proxy, and you should also be ashamed of yourself for nominating someone who produces articles like today's, because lots of people can recognise quality journalism, and that's not it.'

Bindel and her supporters have abandoned any notion of solidarity within the women's rights movement or within the queer rights movement. It's up to us to stand up for our generation of freaks and rule-breakers and say: we will not permit you to pull up the ladder of progress behind you. We are not ashamed. We're coming to rattle your complacent little cages: sexual deviants, transfolk and gender magicians, bisexuals, pansexuals, pagans and atheists, angels and demons, black, white, Asian, mixed-race, boys and girls, men and women and everyone in between. We will not ghetto ourselves any longer. We will not be denied again. In fact, you know what? We're here. And we're queer.

Get used to it.

Thursday 6 November 2008

More news on Bindelgate...


You are to be admired for your chutzpah! No, I will not talk to you on the record. I don' t mind so much your hate mongering re the trans issue, but I am greatly offended by the piece you sent to National Newspaper re my 'unethical and unreliable' research (she's talking about this one). The lies and distortions you both repeated and reinforced are nothing short of irresponsible and nasty. Prostituted women are the ones to lose out if you lot are ever listened to.

If I see you on the demo, and are able to get to you to say hello without being lynched, I will of course talk to you. But do not expect anything else after the duplicitous way you have behaved.

Best, Julie


Hi Julie,

That's one of the issues I wanted to talk to you about. I'm aware that we have very different stances on the prostitutes' rights issue. I respect that you disagree with my views, but I don't understand how 'irresponsible' and 'duplicitous' is a fair description of an article based on several discussions with academics, sex workers and feminist activist groups up and down the country. I spent three days researching the article for a major newspaper, and would not have done so if I thought I were spreading lies. My intentions on that score were not to attack you personally but to question a piece of research from a government-funded body that seems to have led directly to government policy - I'm sure you see the necessity for ethical journalism on that score.

If there are distortions in the academics' response to the Poppy Project report, I'd be delighted to hear them. I've also been invited by the Project to go down and see for myself; I'm going to do so next week, with an open mind.

What worries me is your blase use of 'you lot'. The feminist movement desperately needs to move beyond this partisan politics; I'm the first to admit that we need to stop attacking each other and attack patriarchy instead. That's why I'm so keen that we talk to each other and see what we can share.

If you like, I don't mind doing it the other way round - I.e, I could talk to *you* on the record and you could write a report of it for, I don't know, wherever you want to, really.

We come from near-opposite sides of the feminist spectrum; we are from different generations and have different experiences of what sexism means, what sexuality means and what it means to be a woman in 21st-century Britain. But I think that's even more reason for us to talk.

By the way - I've posted a transcript of my original letter to you on my blog, ( although if you object I won't post your reply, merely a precis of it. Just so we're clear!

In real sisterhood,


ETA for blog: [I did monger a small amount of hate in the past. I did monger it, I admit to that mongering. I am now a year past 21 and willing to, you know, get to the issues. Are the leading lights of the radfem movement, more than twice my age, willing to do the same?]


PR, yes there were lies in the piece by the academics, and willfully misleading statements. You will hear about this when you visit POPPY. I will see you there.

I also hope to achieve a 'real' sisterhood.

All best, Julie

So! Result, sort of. I'll be reporting back from the demo tonight; hope to see some of you there.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

This could get interesting...

And now for something completely different: tomorrow, the demonstration against Stonewall's nomination of Julie Bindel for a prestigious journalism award will take place from 6.30-8.30pm outside the Victoria and Albert Museum in central London. I'll be there.

Julie, for her own part, has now read and expressed distaste at the content of this blog. In fact, I'm quoted twice as an anti-Bindelite (which apparently equates to lesphobia) in this statement that Ms Bindel has put out prior to the demonstration.

So, because someone's got to be the grown-up here, I've just sent her this message:

Dear Julie, I'm (firstname) (surname), the blogger who's been leading a bit of a charge against you, not without opposition. I stand by my opinions; I'm sure you stand by yours. However, I'd like to meet you, and if you can persuade me that I'm wrong, I'm willing to concede that in as public a forum as I can manage. Would you like to meet up at some point to talk about our differences and see if we can't resolve some things in sisterhood? I think there are things both of us wish we hadn't said, and I'd like to be able to articulate in person what I feel about your platform; I'm sure we'd both learn a lot from each other. If you'd like to come and talk to me tomorrow, not that you'll probably be able to do so, I'll be at the demo - small, caucasian, hair a bit like yours, wearing big boots, all black and a sparkly scarf. If not, I'd really like to meet with you at some point soon - it can be on or off the record (although obviously I'd prefer to be able to write about it). Please let me know when you're free - I can come to any London location and am fairly flexible as I work freelance at the moment. My telephone number is (myphonnenumber), and my email address is my@email.blah. In a spirit of hatchet-burying, and with respect for a media career that I can only hope to emulate, I hope the demo tomorrow isn't painful for you and your family. IMHO, if Stonewall are going to stand by their nomination of you, then they should damn well come right out and give you the award . So....good luck, I suppose. With respect, and hoping to hear from you soon, etc.

I hope she replies, really, I do. I hope we get to meet, and I hope she proves me wrong - I hope the feminists of my generation can work with the 'radical' label, and with the old guard. I hope we can stop distrusting each other. And I hope she allows me space to explain to her what elements of cissexism, misandry and partisanism we now have to abandon within the movement if we're going to adapt to the challenges of this generation. Because yes, alright, I watched those speeches too, and it made me realise somewhere amongst the just-hayfever-really sniffles that what we should be working together for goes beyond partisan squabbling. We're working for women, and men, and everyone else who's worked over by patriarchy every day. And that needs to be the bottom line.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Webcomic for Election Night


After New Labour: report on Guardian/Soundings event last night

So, last night I found my tiny self at a debate organised by Soundings and Comment Is Free, provocatively titled 'After New Labour'. I was starving, having been writing all day when I should have been eating lunch, and had just about enough time to pick up the world's largest blueberry muffin on my way to King's Place. As I was due to write a piece for the Graun (Pennyred articles commissioned and turned down by Guardian currently stand at 6), I was ushered into a little room containing The Rt Hon Harriet Harman Rt Hon, Madeleine Bunting and someone else who knew them both so was obviously famous, and - me, and my muffin. Dilemma! I have an annoying tendency to shake and fall over when I haven't eaten. But Harriet Harman was right there! I couldn't just scoff down a muffin in front of her without even introducing myself - could I? Or could I? In the end I made my excuses and sprinted outside for sugar, cigarettes and other vices, before heading back in to ask cheeky questions and generally have a great deal of fun. A report/thinkpiece follows. Enjoy.


After New Labour, we have been delivered a shrill and remote language of progressive politics. Every speaker at last night’s Soundings/Comment Is Free debate agreed on the urgency of abandoning old rhetoric and working towards what John Cruddas called ‘a new sense of economic and social solidarity’, but such high-mindedness will be scuppered if Labour continues to define itself against the Conservative party.

My generation does not remember an ideology of Old Labour. Some young people who were born after the fall of the Berlin wall have already cast their first votes. Our parents may have voted for Blair in 1997, and we may even remember the excitement and pounding pop anthems that signalled the fall of the Major government, but we do not relate to that excitement. We do not play well with big, simple political ideas for one very good reason: big, simple ideas no longer seem relevant.

The global credit crunch has delivered the final blow: we have come to the end of ideology as a significant rallying factor in party politics. The New Labour generation, raised with the syncretic paradigms of internet technology, is bright and informed enough to understand that answers that look too easy usually are too easy. Radical socialism no longer quite suits; neither does the sacred cow of free market capitalism, currently flailing its hooves in bovine panic.

In the midst of this crisis, the same Labour party which not ten years ago declared an end to ideology is now casting about like a teenager anxiously trying to define itself. The party needs to move on from its adolescent wavering and realise, like every growing kid, that nobody cares how it defines itself anymore: it will be judged on its actions. At last night’s event, Harriet Harman lauded New Labour as ‘a delivery mechanism for Labour values’ – but the 18-26 year old cohort no longer has a clear idea of what those values are.

The party is still, as Harman noted, ‘driven by our experience of what it was like to live under a Tory government whose values we abhorred,’ but with what Chuka Umunna identified as Labour’s failure to ‘deal a blow to the Thatcherite consensus’, my generation can only point to New Labour when the cruelties of neo-liberalism begin to bite.

What will win votes is not ‘a return to Labour values’, but principles and practical planning, two noted absences from the current Conservative platform. If we are not offered practical principles, my generation will vote for personality, as we already have in London this year (not that anyone's grateful).

Umunna, by far the most engaging speaker of the evening, was the only one explicitly to agree that Labour must offer something more than a platform of ‘not the Tories’. He noted that the notion that the individual prospers in the context of a strong and active state has always been at the heart of Labour’s mission – ‘it’s not that hard to say, so why don’t we say it?’,

Labour must stop defining itself by what it is not, and instead step forward with real principles to win back the 4.3 million voters who have abandoned the party since 1997. One of these core principles must be the potential of the state as an engine of wealth redistribution. The collapse of the derivatives market provides a perfect opportunity for this government to raise the pitifully low tax thresholds for the wealthiest 10 percent, who own 71 percent of this country's wealth - so long sticking place for a British progressive consensus attempting to reconcile itself with New Labour values.

In the wake of this financial crisis, Brown's government will enjoy a unique window in which to tax the wealthy, in response to a real public hunger for tax justice. My generation is crying out for socio-economic fairness, and the forcible lowering of petrol prices at the pumps this month is a baby step towards the platform of real social solidarity which Cruddas and Umunna echoed the call for last night. ‘After New Labour’, the Labour party’s first question must not be what it now stands for, nor what its values are, but what precisely it plans to accomplish with another term in power.