Sunday 27 December 2009

The Boys Who Cried Fox

Stumbling out of my mother's house early on Boxing Day in search of coffee, I quite unintentionally ambled into the middle of the Boxing Day Hunt and supporters' drinks. The entire aristocracy of Sussex were assembled on Lewes High Street in a boozy throng of tweed, wellies and jodpuhrs to defend the right of a handful of chuntering poshos to set the dogs on woodland predators. On the morning that Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned in China, three weeks after a disastrous Copenhagen climate deal, in the teeth of a recession that has is tearing the soul out of the young, this was the pressing issue of the day for our soon-to-be lords and masters. Brilliant.

I'd seen the hunt meet before, but never in these numbers. The hunt saboteurs - as much a traditional part of the day as the hunt itself, by now - were nowhere to be seen, and the smattering of frozen placards called for a repeal of the ban on foxhunting that Labour fought so hard and so publicly to push through in 2004. The same ban that David Cameron, a former huntsman himself, has pledged to review should the Tories form the next government. And for what? To give the symbolic finger to a dying Labour administration. To demonstrate the right of the landowning rich to do what the hell they please. And really, that's about it.

I have a confession to make: I don't care about fox hunting. No, really. Couldn't give a fox's hastily-retreating arse either way. When Labour's anti-hunting campaign was in full swing in 2001-4, it was the number one issue for kids at my private school: the farmers' sons and aristocratic daughters who helped run hunts or even hunted themselves versus the humane, urbane liberal kids who went around with tiny foxes pinned to their lapels. They may not have understood about poverty and unemployment; they may not have had an opinion on the two wars that Blair's government was unleashing in the Middle East, the cluster bombs and civilian death tolls and blood on the sand, but by gosh they had an opinion on fox hunting.

Though I'm quite fond of animals, I honestly couldn't care less if rich idiots want to ride around in silly costumes ripping little woodland creatures to jolly shreds in the name of pest control. Yes, it's stupid, it's cruel, it's outdated and it's barbaric. Lots of things are barbaric. The wars that Labour took us into and that Cameron may well extend continue to be barbaric. The welfare state butchery, tax cuts and reassertion of 'hierarchy', which according to 'Red Tory' Philip Blond is what we all need a dose of, will be barbaric too. Thousands of women are abused, brutalised and murdered by their partners every year: that's barbaric. Six thousand people, most of them men, commit suicide in this country every year: that's barbaric. Right now in Britain, over a thousand immigrant children are imprisoned indefinitely without trial, most of them in Yarl's Wood: that's barbaric. Compared to the sheer weight of human cruelty unleashed in Britain every day government ministers making oh-for-shame noises over the fate of poor ickle foxes is a gutless gimmick.

It's a gimmick, and it was designed as a gimmick. The fact that the loudest noise being made by Labour over fox hunting came at the height of Iraq invasion was no coincidence; the issue is a foil, a political bauble to toss between those who nominally represent the working classes and the wealthy without ever mentioning the words 'wealth redistribution'. It's a stick to beat the Tories with, a way of evoking class sensibilities without actually raising class issues, and now, scenting blood, the Tories have turned the issue back on the government.

Labour is playing right along. Environment secretary Hilary Benn is attempting to drum up support for the hunting ban with an online petition, another fabulous bit of jimmied activist astroturfing by Labour. Benn himself is a staunch supporter of the ban, not because of cruelty to animals per se, but because of what it says about inter-party ideology. "He used to hunt foxes," Benn said of David Cameron. "He talked about fox hunting in his first ever speech to Parliament; and he has said that if he becomes prime minister he will get rid of the fox hunting ban...if you think the Tories have changed, their views on fox hunting with dogs make it absolutely clear that their priorities haven't."

Unfortunately, the way this issue has been used reveals as much of Labour's priorities as it does the Tories'. It will not be the repeal of the hunting ban that will affect the the lives of ordinary people under a Conservative government, but the brutality of Tory welfare and tax schemes and spending cuts. The open return of inherited privilege and hierarchy to the game of government will probably make some small difference too, but frankly Labour needs to grow the balls to say so rather than making knowing asides about what fox hunting means to the rich.
The hunting ban is the scented rag in the bloodsport of Whitehall politics, tossed in the faces of the opposition to get them roused and snarling for a really nasty fight. I don't want to see the hordes of drooling poshos back in power any more than Hilary Benn does, but if Labour wants to outrun the Tories it must abandon the politics of symbolism. Britain still needs a party of the people, for the people; the foxes can look after themselves.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Carnival of Feminists, 23/12/09: Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Season's greetings, and welcome to this special festive edition of the Carnival of Feminists.

As we're so close to the holidays, it's tempting to fill this space with cheery, unproblematic links and posts celebrating all our gains and pretending all's right with the world. This winter in particular that process seems especially hypocritical, so I've decided to just say bollocks to it. Here is a Carnival full of righteous indignation, intersectionality, rage and renewal.

As it's Christmas, let's start by remembering that the personal is political. A guest blogger at The F Word has some words of advice for fellow survivors of childhood abuse on dealing with the holiday season - which, for many victims, can involve unwanted proximity with their former abusers or with those who were complicit.

Even for those of us lucky enough not to have to face our abusers over the dinner table, Christmastime nearly always throws up a few feminist dilemmas. I've often found myself squeezed in with blithely misogynist members of my extended family, trying to explain why certain remarks are hurtful without causing an almighty row. An exciting-looking new blog, Stop Sexist Remarks, is here to help, with tips to challenge bigotry and stop sexist jibes in their tracks: Setting Boundaries in 15 Words or Less.

You might also want to take a look at a humourless festive rant I posted here at Penny Red this week, in which I get all pissy about the contemporary fetish for retro-domesticity.

Sometimes anger is important. Even at Christmas, when even more than usual women are expected to be placid, to keep the peace, to make things nice for everyone else, anger can be constructive, and it can be precious, and it's possible to stay tapped into to that vital stream of political awareness and personal rage without souring your appreciation of life's many joys. In that spirit, here are some excellent, topical posts full of incisive anger:

Radical Profeminist offers a powerful, angry and constructive response to man men's perception of their own 'suffering' at the hands of feminism, in one of the finest feminist posts I've read all year.

Guest blogger Dumi Lewis writes at Racialicious about the politics of being an ally.

Sara Ahmed at Comment Is Free reminds us that climate change is also about gender justice.

HarpyMarx reports on institutional police misogyny, brought to light once more by the case of a murdered woman failed by Greater Manchester Police

And the brilliant Womanist Musings offers a timely dose of WTF over the latest jolly commercial racist misogyny outing in celebland.

Rape, intersectionality and the language of victim-blaming -the feminist blogosphere is currently awash with powerful, courageous discussion of rape - and not only rape itself, but how we fight rape culture by working to change the language we use to describe rape, criminality and victimhood. Of particular concern this month has been the victim-blaming language used by authorities nominally responsible for rape prevention. (The following posts may be triggering for rape survivors):

On a new blog,, a brave survivor of rape at Tufts university speaks out about how her experience was dismissed by college authorities because she didn't resemble the 'perfect victim' - in part because she is a woman of colour. She describes the 'intersectionality of discrimination' that she faced with dignity and depth.

Kate Harding at Salon offers a powerful dissection of the shocking case of a 12-year-old girl being told by site supervisors at her middle school that she had 'asked for it', and that her attacker's 'hormones' were to blame. Jezebel has more.

In the UK, Dark Purple Moon tackles the graphic, distressing 'anti-rape' adverts currently being featured all over the London public transport system, reminding us that rape doesn't just 'happen'.

In slightly better news, In a Strange Land has details of a new rape prevention programme to train bar staff in reducing the risk of rape. The programme is refreshingly free of victim blaming language, in part because it was compiled in conjunction with anti-rape educators. And this week Al Franken's anti-rape amendment has been signed into law in the United States, which would 'withold defence contracts from companies like KBR if they restrict their employees from taking workplace sexual assault, battery and discrimination cases to court", after Jamie Leigh Jones was prevented from seeking justice for her charge of gang-rape by Haliburton (via Shakesville). Slowly but surely, and with tireless work from feminists of all genders, the dialectic of the rape culture we are living in is beginning to falter.

So, that about wraps it up for 2009, no pun intended. It's been a really exciting year for feminism online and in the meatspace, and next year looks set to be even more jam-packed. Watch this space for details of the next Carnival; meanwhile, on behalf of the new-and-improved Carnival of Feminists, it falls to me to wish all readers and contributors, of every faith and none, a happy holiday and a tolerable end to this crazy bloody decade. In sisterhood. x

Sunday 20 December 2009

Here, have this humourless festive rant!

Something about the way Christmas 2009 is being marketed sticks in the craw. It's not just the creeping sense of frustrated greed, more bitter this year because of the extra hundreds of thousands out of work - it's the fact that we're all supposed to be so cheery about it, gleefully swapping our usual extravagances for home baking, knitting and making natty little baubles out of bits of string and glitter.

Newspapers are full of editorials urging their female readers to "have a crafty Christmas" by hand-making gifts and decorations. These articles are inevitably accompanied by soft-focus photos of terrifyingly blonde grinning women in shapeless knitwear fashioning entire kitchen sets out of balsa-wood, like a cross between a nuclear strike advice handbook and the Boden catalogue.

This bizarre fashion for retro handicrafts started some years before the credit crunch with the revival of Stitch'n'Bitch knitting circles in New York.

It was initially conceived as a fun, feminist reclamation of traditional skills. The meetings were free, the skill-sharing amiable. But as the recession has taken hold the trend has been co-opted by the dark machinery of the women's lifestyle press, desperate for a new manifesto to replace "shop 'til you drop."

Despite the impact of the recession on women, who are losing their jobs faster than men in the financial, leisure and hospitality information industries and facing redundancy and discrimination at work because of pregnancy or motherhood, there's an atmosphere of celebration.

According to the Evening Standard and many, many others, we're all becoming "domestic goddesses" again. Don't fret about losing your job - for the price of a shedload of specialist ingredients you too can bake sparkly fairy cakes, stave off economic Armageddon and save Christmas.

The most brain-bleedingly pointless domestic tasks are now thoroughly fetishised - as long as it's women acting out that fetish, of course.

Cookery classes and exclusive sewing circles encourage young, trendy women to indulge in a sanctioned fantasy of glamorous drudgery that never really existed. For just £310 a session, "recessionistas" can have a training day with Cookie Girl in Notting Hill. Sales of kitchen equipment are rising faster than an organic souffle.

Now, no-one's implying that a little more domestic dexterity wouldn't do all of us some good. Certainly, decades of aggressive marketing of home improvement products, the revolt against traditional gendered labour divisions and the male backlash against that revolt have led many to abandon the basic tools of self-care.

What is being lost is not a prim model of Beetonesque housewifery but the essential human tricks of keeping ourselves clean, clothed and fed.

The current craze for sexed-up retro-domesticity does nothing to remedy this. Instead of everyone rediscovering truly useful, empowering self-care skills, women alone are being encouraged to spend vast sums on instruction and materials for pastimes that have almost no bearing on real life - pastimes that are performative rather than practical.

Who, when you get down to it, really needs to know how to knit a Christmas fairy or ice a lavender cupcake a la Nigella Lawson?

Of all the fluffily sexist trends to come out of "post-feminism," this one truly unnerves me. I know women my age and younger, educated and emancipated, who have no idea how to make a stock or take in a hem but view the baking of immaculate muffins and the embroidering of intricate scarves and mittens as exciting hobbies, pastimes which should be properly performed in high-waisted '50s skirts and silly little pinafores.

Wouldn't it be great, the subtext runs, if we could just go back to the way things were then - when women were real women, men were real shits and the mince pies were really scrummy?

Of course none of this fantasy performative retro domesticity has any basis in reality.

Such hedonistic time wastage has all the historical accuracy of the sort of sexual roleplay which involves Victorian schoolboy outfits and birch whipping canes. Like all such fetish play it is perfectly jolly fun as long as it isn't taken seriously. But if unexamined, there is always the risk that a fetish will bleed into reality.

I utterly disdain the idea of a Crafty Christmas. I refuse to be a "recessionista." I will not be spending my afternoons this December making elegant hat-pieces out of potato peelings or fashioning festive cake decorations from cat litter, or in any way fantasising about being a suburban housewife in a haze of valium in some ad-man's wet dream of early post-industrial capitalism.

Not now, not ever again.

I will be buying a few presents, taking some days off work, getting merry and singing along to the radio with relatives I haven't seen for too long, and that will do me nicely.

But what do I know? Stockists of craft supplies, baking equipment and ridiculous frilly aprons have all seen a jump in profits and in even jollier festive news Associated British Foods is reporting a 35 per cent increase in sales of bun trays. Let choirs of angels sing.

[published at Morning Star online and titled 'Crafty Christmas? Not on my watch...']

Oh, don't start. I'm only about 50% serious. Really. No, stop it, I know.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Murder is murder, whatever the victim's faith.

Today Mehmet Goren was finally found guilty of the murder of Tulay Goren, his 15-year-old daughter (pictured), in 1999. The reportage on the verdict has followed the pattern laid down in this and countless other trials: Tulay Goren became 'Honour Death Girl', because at the time of her disappearance she was in a sexual relationship with an older man who adhered to a different branch of the Muslim faith, and headlines exoticising her father's brutal crime as an 'Honour Killing' are smeared like semiotic whitewash all over the British press.

But Mehmet Goren was not found guilty of 'Honour Killing'. He was found guilty of 'murder'.

The term 'honour killing' is sexist, xenophobic and crashingly unhelpful to everyone working to end domestic violence against women everywhere. The newspapers are fascinated by honour killing in British-Asian cultures, as if excuses for violence against women sanctioned by religious and social mores were something entirely alien, something we've not seen in Britain for centuries, if at all.

Well, tell that to lawyers defending Trevor Ferguson, who last month defended a charge of murder on the grounds of 'provocation and diminished responsibility' - because his victim, Karen McGraw, 50, had ended their sexual relationship. Ferguson's response was to stab Ms McGraw to death - just the latest example of a white British 'honour killing', although the lonely death of Karen McGraw was no more 'honourable' than the death of Tulay Goren. Ferguson was one of hundreds of murderers and rapists in the past century alone who have claimed that a partner's sluttish or sexually provoking behaviour meant that they were justified in resorting to violence.

The defence of provocation to murder, colloquially known as the 'cuckold's defence', has been enshrined in British law for centuries. It was used right up until November this year in order to allow men who kill their partners out of anger following adultery or sexual strife to claim reduced responsibility. The law is now being repealed after a long legal battle, mainly by women's groups, and will be replaced by several amendments to the current sentencing guidelines on murder, allowing some leniency for men and women who kill their partners out of fear of violence or domestic abuse in order to make it easier for judges who have up until now been constrained by this frantic double-standard in handing out sentences.

That's right. Until just a few weeks ago, Britain was a country in which stabbing your girlfriend for having an affair was technically manslaughter, but killing your abuser and persecutor was definitely murder. How can we talk with honesty about the problem of 'honour killing' in Islamic cultures when up and down the country, week after bloody week, men from every background have been murdering women out of pride and jealousy and getting off lightly? How can members of the English Defence League and other anti-Islamic organisations talk about 'protecting women and children' from Islam when an estimated 12% of young girls and 8% of young boys experience sexual abuse as children, 86% of these within their own homes,at the hands of a family member or acquaintance?

The press's little fetish about violence and abuse of women in non-white families, particularly in Islamic families, is not a matter of cultural sensitivity. Bollocks to cultural sensitivity: this is about hypocrisy, and violence, and protecting women's rights. Exoticising murder in Asian families as 'honour killing' is a way of distancing everyone else from the urgent problem of domestic violence against women, children and a small proportion of men. It also serves to portray Asian men as unusually violent, or uniquely misogynist; in fact, Muslim men do not have a monopoly on violence, misogyny and murder.

Social, sexual and religious excuses for violence against women have been deployed for centuries, in every single patriarchal culture. There is nothing 'exotic' or 'honourable' about femicides that occur within Asian families: murdering and abusing women because of their sexual behaviour is not an only entirely normal occurance, it merited special defence in law just a few short weeks ago. If there ever comes a day when only Asian women, boys and girls are being murdered, raped and abused by their families, then come back and talk to me about 'Islamification' and the unique problem of 'Honour Killing'. Until then, for women as well as men, black and asian people as well as white people, murder is murder is murder.

Three cheers for the internet! (plus a small public service announcement)

Sorry that this is yet another linkdump, guys. Meds withdrawal and general winter craziness have meant I've been finding it difficult to write anything at all this week, and I've had to concentrate on the things I'm being paid to write, which are taking me me twice as long as they normally do. I'm not getting anything properly down until the small hours, and it feels like pulling a thick, heavy rope out of my forehead inch by inch. I'm stressed, and my sleeping patterns are shot, but hopefully I'll be able to return to devoting proper time to this blog before Christmas.

Meanwhile, an article about internet politics that I've been sitting on for a while has just been published by Prospect. I'm really pleased with it, even though something odd has happened to bits of the syntax between my outbox and the Prospect homepage. I love the magazine, have been reading it since I was at school, and am dead chuffed to have my ideas featured on their website. It's like an early non-denominational Winterval gift.

Even though I'm finding it difficult to juggle everything at the moment, it's really nice to think that since I started this blog my writing has grown up to the extent that it's now my real job, rather than just a hobby. Sure, I'm not making piles of money, but I'm paying my rent, and keeping busy enough that sometimes I have to prioritise freelance article gigs over what I really want to write. I miss being able to post something original here two or three times a week, though, and I'd like to get back to that soon.

Oh - and one more thing. Penny Red will be hosting the next Carnival of Feminists on the 23rd, so if you have any recommendations for feminist blog posts I should link to, please post them in the comments! Thanks ;)

Friday 11 December 2009

World on Fire: Sinking and Swimming

[written for Progress magazine]

After 12 years of Labour governance, Britain remains a largely pleasant and prosperous place to live – but not for everyone. The Young Foundation’s latest report, ‘Sinking or Swimming’, is a damning investigation into increasing levels of social deprivation and insecurity. The report exposes how, for many people, simply maintaining their material and emotional wellbeing is a lonely, near-Herculean feat.

Self-reported cases of anxiety and depression have almost doubled in 12 years, with 10-15% of the population feeling depressed or anxious most of the time. With one in four people experiencing a mental health difficulty at some point in their lifetime, policymakers are only now beginning to seriously examine the connections between social deprivation, poverty and mental health difficulty, rather than assuming that mental health difficulty is merely a sign of ‘weakness’, occurring in isolation from social factors.

Behind this trend in policymaking – borne out by the government’s proposed mental health strategy, ‘New Horizons’ - is a profound sense of shock that rising material living standards have failed to make the people of Britain fitter, happier and more productive. In fact, as the report demonstrates, 60 years after the advent of the welfare state ‘psychological needs have become as pressing as material ones: the risk of loneliness and isolation; the risk of mental illness; the risk of being left behind.’

The Young Foundation report demonstrates that the psychological resilience of ordinary citizens, along with our ability to cope with setbacks and changes in our lives, is directly affected by our level of social, personal and financial stability, concluding that that ‘To deal with transitions, people need to have a stable home, an adequate income and supportive relationships’. Unfortunately, although Britain is a wealthy country, it is also a hugely unequal one, with a gap between rich and poor that has widened over the past decade.

Consequently, swathes of the population find it difficult to maintain this basic triumvirate of stability. Mark Brown, the editor of Britain’s mental health lifestyle magazine, One In Four, explains that ‘people need a regular income, a safe place to live and a supportive network of people to stay stable. It's like a stool: three legs, you're sitting pretty; two legs and you can keep yourself stable as long as nothing knocks you off balance; one leg and you're pretty much just holding on; no legs and you're on your arse and everyone else is looking down at you.’

Emma Mamo, policy and campaigns officer for Mind, agrees that ‘Poverty can cause and be caused by mental distress, and there are associations between lower levels of income, higher rates of unemployment and being on benefits, debt, poor housing and mental health problems. For example people with mental health problems are three times more likely to be in debt.’

Even before the extant financial crisis, various social groups were particularly at risk of experiencing mental health difficulties, or, as the report prefers to call them, ‘unmet psychological needs’: elderly people, school-leavers, the unemployed, and those making difficult life transitions such as coming out of prison or residential care, losing a loved one or starting a family. Today, with extra pressure on the Treasury to make cuts to frontline mental health services, the Young Foundation is not alone in expressing concern over the long-term future of Britain’s social and psychological wellbeing.

The Foundation’s recommendation that policymakers take a holistic approach to wellbeing and welfare provision is welcome indeed. In this period of social crisis and spending cuts, it is incumbent upon all of us to understand that investment in financial and social equality is also investment in mental health.

This government and whatever administration follows in 2010 must be made aware that investment in social justice, including a welfare state that allows claimants to live above the breadline, is essential to safeguarding the mental health of the nation. The needs of Britain’s most materially and emotionally vulnerable will not be met until investment in mental health services is enjoined with a commitment to improve the material and social stability of the poorest members of our society.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Is Brown playing the class card under the table?

Brown was right to play the class card, but he must play it with integrity - on Labour List today.

Gordon Brown has faced near-universal disapprobation this week for daring to mention that the personal wealth and privilege of members of the shadow cabinet might have the tiniest bit of bearing on their inheritance tax plans. The phrase "dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton" was particularly unsporting, something that Mr Brown would doubtless have been able to grasp had he attended Eton himself.

That's the problem with talking about class in Westminster. It’s just not classy, is it? It's not the done thing, not since Mrs Thatcher swept it all neatly out of sight for us. As Shadow minister Eric Pickles put it after Brown’s salvo last week: “frankly we aren't that type of country anymore."

More pressingly, bringing up class makes everyone look bad: commentators have been quick to point out that, whilst no Labour MP has yet billed for moat-maintenance, the party in government has always boasted its fair share of wealthy hand-wringers – blogger Dizzy Thinks rightly pointed out that seven current cabinet ministers went to fee-paying private schools.

However, amidst all this pouting about cheap shots, reverse class prejudice and the fact that, apparently, nobody cares anymore about the inevitable inheritance of power by the rich and privileged, not much has been made of the fact that Brown actually has a point.

It may not be fashionable or comfortable to talk about wealth and privilege, but wealth and privilege matter. It matters that, sixty years after the advent of the welfare state, one’s chances in life are still largely predicated by one’s birth and background. It matters that, nearly a decade into the twenty-first century, it is possible to accurately predict from several months before birth the likelihood of a particular jellied ball of cells and pre-natal fluid growing up to be a business-leader or a benefit-scrounger, as demonstrated in Louise Bamfield’s brilliant Fabian pamphlet, Born Unequal. It matters that some of those more felicitous balls of cells, several decades down the line, are now expatiating on fantastically illiberal policy proposals that aim to shaft the poor in order to protect the interests of the property-owning rich; proposals that would, if someone made Hansard into a Hollywood blockbuster, inevitably be played by Alan Rickman.

Schoolyard obloquy aside, it’s hardly the Prime Minister’s fault if the mere mention of Eton playing-fields happens to make some 5.5% of Tory parliamentarians personally squirm like snotty schoolboys caught with their hands in Matron’s biscuit tin. Unfortunately, Brown’s ideological attack on Conservative policy has since been overwhelmed by faltering personal follow-up shots, such as John Prescott’s unfortunate ribbing of Eric Pickles on last week’s Today programme. The asinine practice of attacking Tory candidates as airy ‘toffs’ has not won Labour any by-election victories to date.

This type of strategy demeans what remains of the principles of the Labour Party. Attacking people on the basis of their class alone looks like a petty, desperate strategy for the simple reason that it is a petty, desperate strategy. More to the point, the last fifty years have amply proven that a minister’s class can have little or no bearing on their loyalties or their policy decisions: the inherited titles of many members of Attlee’s cabinet did not prevent them from masterminding the NHS, whilst three decades later Margaret Thatcher, a butcher’s daughter with a grammar-school education, set about breaking the power of the unions and draining the efficacy of the welfare state. But neither this, nor the fact that George Osborne and Harriet Harman went to the same private school means, as Ken Clarke argued in the Daily Mail, that "the class war is over". The class war is merely over in the hallowed halls of Westminster, chiefly because it was never begun.

In truth, any sitting parliamentarian, whatever his or her loyalties, is practically and financially divorced from the breadline. The real question here is about how political power is wielded: whether privileged politicians are committed to ensuring that they and those whose interests they represent retain a stranglehold on the wealth and enterprise of this country, or whether they feel, as Aneurin Bevan himself put it, that "the purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away".

For politicians more than anyone else, "the price of privilege is absolute integrity". Labour is right to raise the class card, and to question policy decisions reeking with an ideology of privilege and social stagnation that remains the philosophical foundation of the Conservative Party. But the choice to push the class issue will fail as long as it is propelled by petty spin-shystering: if unearned wealth and privilege are to become election issues for the first time in over twelve years, that change in direction must run like a course of antibiotics through the sickening heartsblood of Labour thinking. If Labour wants to play the class card again, it must play it with integrity, starting with a good, hard look at its own policy history.

Sadly, Brown, Duncan and Prescott could be entirely forgiven for lashing out at the hordes of chuntering poshos waiting in the wings had they themselves been slightly more successful, over the past 12 years of government, at increasing social mobility. A Labour government which has presided over an increase in the gap between rich and poor needs to do some serious self-scrutiny before it rightly and tardily takes on the issue of unearned privilege.

Brown’s attack on Tory tax policies that rob the poor to feed the rich was both morally sound and in keeping with the interests of Labour’s core voters: let’s hope that it represents a Damascene conversion.

Saturday 5 December 2009

World on Fire (1): blue waves and black dogs.

Please be advised that this post is brought to you from the depths of the nastiest and most tenacious bout of clinical depression I've had to fight off for some time. Churchill's 'black dog' is classically imagined as a huge, loping creature, stalking and howling like some great gothic beast; my personal black dog is actually more like one of those horrendous little yappy creatures with the ridiculous hairdos that old ladies and filmstars like to carry around - snarling and worrying at my feet in that weird little hissy way, demanding food, grooming, attention, never quite happy unless I pick it up and take it with me wherever I go. Right now, I'm sat at home chickening out of 'The Wave' climate march, not because I don't care (I do) and not because I'm poorly (I am, but that's never stopped me before) - but because I'm genuinely worried I might start sobbing in the middle of the demo for no reason at all.

I mention this because I want to start using this blog to talk more about climate change, military interventionism, economic armageddon - all those big, depressing things that I've been failing to pay attention to over the last few weeks as small but important feminist stories have been breaking. Don't get me wrong: feminism is the heart of my politics, but only and always when it can be considered in the context of wider, global struggles for justice. Feminism only makes sense to me as a strategic and ideological arm of the global left: this is why intra-movement squabbles make me want to kick things. As a feminist, as a young person, as a liberal and a thinker, there are things I've been putting aside for too long that won't wait, because they are the context for every smaller instance of liberal dissent.

I am not a climate activist, but whenever I talk about equality, women's rights, social justice, I do so with a pressing sense of urgency. For as long as I can remember, I've had the impression that we don't have much time left to put the world to rights before it gets hotter, harder and meaner down here. We don't have time to let gender justice, sexual justice, racial and class equality happen naturally, over the course of several civilising decades; we don't have time to wait for our grandparents' generation of racists and recalcitrants to grow frail and give up the reins of power. Change has to happen soon; it has to happen now, before the planet actually properly catches fire.

I had the good fortune to go drinking with ravishing climate valkyrie Tamsin Omond last night, and on being asked why she had given up a promising career in marketing to become a political activist, she told me quite simply that she 'would have gone crazy otherwise'.

That's a pretty accurate verdict on the state of my generation right now. Whatever our background, nearly all of us are under an immense amount of pressure, struggling to find and keep work or benefits, trying to establish our independence in a world that does not seem to have any room for us. My generation, overwhelmingly, faces a choice between becoming politically active or becoming massively despondent, 'going crazy' with frustration at a world that has turned out so much harder and crueler than we thought it would be even when we'd grown up enough to realise that politicians and business leaders would repeatedly and inevitably let us down.

For once, when I say 'my generation', I'm talking about a very specific group of young people: those who were between nine and sixteen when the World Trade Centre was destroyed in 2001 (for reference, I was three weeks away from turning fifteen at the time), and who are now 18-25 years old, bearing the brunt of the recession, coming to political awareness in a time of immense apathy, the so-called 'lost generation'. How have we got so lost?

In the course of my work for One In Four magazine (the new issue of which is out this week and available to buy online) I read a lot of mental health policy documents. There is a tendency, particularly when politicians talk about mental health, to discuss mental ill health as located in the individual, often in the body, rather than in wider society. If people become depressed, it is because they have a chemical imbalance, or because they were born that way, or because of intimate family imbalances during their childhood, rather than in response to, for example, social disadvantage or economic breakdown.

Of course, mental health difficulty and such attendant problems as addiction, physical ill health, worklessness, poverty and family breakdown can strike anyone, from any social background - just look at lovely Stephen Fry, so bravely and so loquaciously outspoken about his struggle with bipolar disorder. But social and local factors are just as important as predictors of mental health difficulty as genetic factors or childhood distress - and often more immediately relevant, as people with a natural or inherited tendency to mental health difficulty can be more likely to develop problems if they also have to deal with - for example - worklessness, poverty, local deprivation or social chaos. Fortunately, the government's new ten-year mental health strategy, New Horizons, is finally starting to take these facts into account, after years of being told repeatedly and occasionally at volume by mental health charities, think tanks and social researchers that the inequality and political turpitude actually have some bearing on the wellbeing of the population.

It is my firm belief that the current generation of 18-25 year olds have an unique perspective on politics and culture, filtered through a childhood of war, encroaching natural disaster, frantic consumerism and sudden betrayal. We are less employed, more addicted, more mentally unwell and more politically active than any group of young people for many years - although we are moving, on the whole, away from party politics. Exploring why is going to take me more than one post.

I've been engaged to write a chapter for Soundings Magazine and for A Radical Future, a forthcoming ebook written and devised by British activists and academics under 30 years old, on the subject of mental health, young people and politics. I'm going to thrash out some ideas on this blog over the coming weeks, during the Winterval lull.

The series will be titled 'World on Fire', after a discussion I had with my boyfriend last night, during which he ventriloquised rather aptly for our parents' generation:"here, have this planet! It's only slightly on fire!"

Tuesday 1 December 2009

ACPO advises women: stay sober to avoid rape

Thinking of getting merry this Christmas? Think again, if you're a girl. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), women who don't want to be raped have a responsibility not to get drunk. A new campaign, launched on Monday, aims to deter "potential victims" from drinking too much - implying once again that women are to blame for rape.

Dave Whatton, ACPO lead on rape, explained that “A large proportion of reported rape cases feature alcohol as a factor. Ultimately we want to prevent rape from occurring in the first place, by arming potential victims with key advice on how to keep themselves safe."

The campaign, which also contains advice aimed at potential rapists, encourages women to "let your hair down, not your guard down". News associations across the country, including Reuters, Associated Newspapers and the BBC, have predictably honed in on the message that women have a responsibility to protect themselves from rape by staying sober. This may be news to potential rapists, but most women do not need to be told how to protect themselves from rape.

The 'safety work' that women do to avoid male violence is ingrained in young girls from an early age. We learn to choose clothes which will not 'provoke' men, to be sexually timid, to avoid walking home in the dark without an escort. We learn to mistrust men we do not know: better safe than sorry. Anti-rape activist Hilary McCollum explains that "Many women curtail their freedom because of their fear of violence, especially rape. Fear of rape limits women's lives, as do stereotypes about who gets raped and when."

I am all too familiar with how damaging these stereotypes can be. Three years ago, after drinking an unhealthy amount of white rum at a party, I was raped by an acquaintance of mine. What I found most distressing about the incident wasn't the non-consensual sex, nor even the STD that I contracted as a result. In fact, what really left me traumatised were the subsequent years of guilt, silence and shame, fuelled by a deep belief that because I had been drinking, what happened to me was my fault.

For years, I didn't mention that night to anyone, because I had internalised the message that girls who drink and flirt with men deserve to be raped. That message did not come from my parents, nor even from the man involved, who was appalled and apologetic when he realised what he'd drunkenly done. The message came directly from social propaganda, some of it as horrifically well-meaning as the current ACPO campaign.

The still-current idea that women who drink are wantonly putting themselves at risk of rape does untold damage, both to women and to men. Men watching the ACPO campaign will internalise the sexist notion that men cannot control their carnal impulses. Worse still, the violent, misogynist minority of men will once more be informed–by the police, no less - that women who have been drinking are fair game for their unwanted attentions.

Alcohol is the short skirt of the 21st century – an excuse designed to limit male culpability for sexual violence. Victim-blaming messages like the current ACPO campaign have been around for centuries, disguised as advice to help women ‘protect’ themselves - but with tens of thousands of rapes occurring each year in Britain alone, the strategy has hardly worked so far. Although alcohol is involved in many instances of sexual violence, staying sober is no protection against rape. In Afghanistan, a country where the majority of women do not drink or attend parties, rape is “a human rights problem of profound proportions”, according to the UN.

The ACPO campaign takes a step in the right direction by partnering these messages with adverts and posters reminding men that sex without consent is rape. But telling men that if they rape, they can expect to be jailed is of little use if, in the same breath, you also tell women that if they drink, they can expect to be raped. It is never a woman's fault if she is raped: not if she's drunk, not if she's sober, not if she's standing on a table wearing a thong and baby oil. The responsibility for rape lies, always and only, with the minority of men who rape.

I’ve learned the hard way not to get drunk around men I don’t know well. But even if every woman and girl in Britain stays entirely sober all winter, hundreds of us will be raped this Christmas – and every Christmas, until we live in a world where men, rather than women, learn to take responsibility for ending sexual violence.