Friday 29 January 2010

It's not Torygeddon yet.

Hanging around outside the Houses of Parliament last week, angry in the way that only a British smoker can be when it's the middle of winter and they've caught the runny nose that's going around, I met two American tourists who were genuinely convinced that David Cameron was the prime minister of Britain. It was almost impossible persuade these people that Cameron hadn't been in power for at least a year, swooping in to fill the power vacuum left by the universally beloved Tony Blair.

All of this would have been pleasantly diverting if the entirety of the British left didn't seem to be labouring under the same delusion. On the eve of what's supposed to be a huge symposium of liberal thought and policy, can we please - just for one weekend - stop behaving as if the Conservatives were already the party in power?

Because the Conservatives aren't in power yet. If Torygeddon does occur, if it occurs, it won't be till after the election in May. After the election, not before. And yet both Labour and the liberal press are behaving like the ballots are already in. This week on Labour List alone, we've had Alastair Campbell's analysis of Cameron's 'grab a gay' policy [ouch] and Ed Miliband's mortifyingly concessionary open letter to Cameron on the environment.

The Guardian is the worst offender in the mainstream press, with Alan Rusbridger positively salivating over David Cameron's tantalisingly unreportable remarks at the Davos conference today. But the blogosphere is by no means exempt. How much energy have we spent over the past six months offering responses to draft Tory policy plans? How much time have we wasted taking the debate to staid conservative social re-engineering projects like the Centre for Social Justice, rather than laying out our own plans for truth, justice and the revival of the job market?

The Conservative party's ideas - sorry, their slogans - are nonsensical, but at least they have some. Broken Britain! Tax breaks for married couples! Character-building! We can't go on like this! It's service-station paperback political narrative, but it hangs together, and it's reasonably compelling. Labour, on the other hand, after six months of lukewarm, weak-willed, quasi-theoretical equivocation, have just about decided that it's okay to use the word "class". The government has come up with precisely zero policy platforms or post-election goals, almost as if it were hoping that twelve years of overseas conflict, widening inequality and educational meltdown would speak for themselves. It's a very special blend of arrogant defeatism, and it's not pleasant to watch.

It's not as if the people of this country are out of progressive political ideas. The work being done by Power2010 and 38 degrees clearly shows that there's a hunger not just for reform, but for liberal reform. Voting is open for the ideas canvassed at the public Power 2010 conference, which include an elected second house, votes at sixteen and capping political donations. In the absence of any liberal narrative at all within the party system, young people of the left have had to invent a whole new kind of politics in an attempt to force attention towards the real nature of the public's thirst for change. Meanwhile, the only strident politics coming from nominally liberal Whitehall parties over the past six months have been direct responses to Cameron's trashy, pulpy politics. As if Labour and the Lib Dems were already in opposition. As if the left had nothing more to say.

It's not pretty to observe the Sun and other such skin-flakes of the lumbering Murdoch empire drooling temporarily over the Cameroons, but it is expected. By contrast, it's bloody embarrassing to watch the left obsessively picking over what ideas Cameron might or might not have about gay rights, the economy, the environment, the poor, the welfare state, whilst at the same time brazenly declaring that Cameron has no ideas. We're discussing his PR machine, his policy platform and his hairstyle with precisely the same sullen illicit exactness with which you might spend a lonely evening examining the vital statistics and profile pictures of your recent ex's new squeeze on facebook, downing shots of cornershop vodka and wondering what she's got that you don't.

That sort of thing is perfectly acceptable behaviour for a week or two, but really, guys, it's been months. It's time for whatever part of the British liberal conference represents the Sensible Friend to turn up, take the booze and recriminations away, and force us into a long hot shower of self-analysis so we can move on and start laying out some coherent, practical ideas of our own.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Linkdumping Wednesday!

Guys, I apologise for being off-radar. This is a week in which I have two freelance deadlines on top of a house move, which I've just completed, and I'm sitting here in a pile of boxes in no mood to blog about anything. So instead, here are some links to interesting and/or important things I've been reading this week in the mainstream press - I know, I know, but they're great sometimes - and in the blogosphere.

- The Guardian's moving interview with Warren Hern, the last late-term abortion doctor in the United States, may well make your skin crawl with horror if you're a British feminist. Think it couldn't happen here? Take a look at the Tories' abortion rights policies, why dontcha.

- In other angry practical feminist news, Tanya Gold has very good reasons for hating fashion.

- Sam Leith takes classic horror to Prospect magazine, arguing that Vampires are creatures of the Right, and Zombies are monsters of the Left.

- At Liberal Conspiracy, Zarathustra reminds us why NHS employees are not the same thing as Nazis.

- Johann Hari, who I want to be in every single way, has a beautiful piece celebrating older women, and another extremely wise offering on the British culture of overwork.

- The Samosa has an exclusive story about the English Defence League's new tactics to persuade us that they're not a bunch of racist wingnuts, by new writer Secunder Kermani.

If you've got to the end of all that and are still thinking no, Laurie! Bugger the exciting wider world of journalism, we want your words and yours alone! - then you may be interested to read something I wrote for One In Four's last issue -

- an interview with Andy Roberts, founder member of the Mental Patients' Union in the 1970s - an astonishing gentleman who I'm very glad to have had the privilege to spend an afternoon with.

Normal service will be resumed as shortly as is feasibly possible. Keep the red flag flying in my absence, you wonders.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

ESA proves that Labour has betrayed its core values.

I spent this evening watching a black labrador slurpily lapping the shoes of a major think-tank director whilst its owner thought up ways to lie to me about his party's attitude to the poor and needy. In a speech given in conjunction with Progress, David Blunkett MP set out to demonstrate just why the Tories are so very, very different from New Labour. The former Home Secretary quoted Aneurin Bevan, who described the Conservative party's habit of using government policy to shore up the assets of the privileged as "sucking at the teats of the state".

"That sums it up pretty well", said Blunkett, who went on to describe how the evil, ghoulish Tories, are planning to reduce the size of the state by selling off central and local government functions to private companies in an effort to save money, because they, unlike Labour, care about money more than about people.

Mr Blunkett omitted to mention the small matter of the Welfare Reform Bill 2008, with its stated aim of saving cash by getting a million people off sickness benefits and back into work whether they are up to it or not.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Working mothers resist misogyny amid attacks on 'Career Women'.

New article for The Samosa; look out for a BBC documentary about the site soon!

Across the country last week, thousands of women caught the bus to work only to be informed by a prominent poster that 'Career Women Make Bad Mothers'. The slogan was selected to demonstrate the success of outdoor advertising - in this case, its success was in shaming and offending the millions of women across Britain who work for a living.

The founder of the Beta agency, which designed the advert, justified the choice of slogan on the grounds that “vocalising opinion has always been a great British pastime. We want to ... create a brand which truly democratises debate.”

Whatever its intention, the campaign certainly caught a mood. The opinion that women who choose to work outside the home are somehow betraying their 'natural' roles as housebound mothers hardly needs more vocalising; it is a theme that has recurred with alarming frequency in the popular press since the Conservative election effort began in earnest in 2009. However, the right-wing commentariat has failed to realise that the notion of a ‘traditional’ nuclear family – with the man going out to work and his wife staying at home to look after the children – has no real basis in historical fact.

Scholars of the Industrial Revolution describe how separate spheres for men and women emerged between 1780 and 1850 as the workplace became separated from the home and a private, domestic sphere was created for women. In 1737 over 98 per cent of married women in England worked outside the home, and it was only in the early 20th century that the majority began to work as housewives, partly as a result of specific legal sanctions on the part of central government, a process that some historians term ‘the enclosure of women’.

There is little historical precedent for the ‘traditional’ family. The implication that women are naturally inclined to avoid paid work and confine themselves to domestic drudgery and childcare is pure myth, but it suits the prevailing conservative agenda to play into a fantasy that women of previous centuries were exclusively tame, domestic creatures who did no work besides childcare, until the advent of that modern monster, the ‘career woman’.

The attack on ‘career women’ is doubly effective as an attack on female power itself. No cleaner, cook or dinner lady has ever been branded a 'career woman', even though she may work harder and spend fewer hours with her children than her sisters in the media, political and financial sectors. To be a 'career woman', a woman must have had the audacity to become personally powerful outside the domestic sphere – and eight decades after female suffrage, this is still a phenomenon that merits public outcry and private shame.

Amidst considerable online support, contributors to the popular parents' forum started an unofficial campaign to get the advertisements taken down. The charge of 'bad motherhood' is intimately and inevitably wounding, as one Mumsnet member, ‘notevenamousie’, described:

"[The ad] on the side of a building today felt like a kick in the stomach. I am being a decent role model and crying blood sweat and tears for my girl. I don't know what else I can do...."

"What about fathers?" asked another working mother on the site. "Are they not raising their child? Are they bad parents for working? No one would ever say 'working men make bad fathers’".

After several hundred women from across the country contacted Beta, their clients and the Advertising Standards Agency to complain, the bus campaign was pulled. Mumsnet received communications from Beta’s Garry Lace and his lawyers, demanding that the firm be "compensated for the hurt, corporate loss and reputational damage that we have suffered as a result of your inability to moderate your medium properly."

Clearly, capitalising on crude, inaccurate social stereotypes that shame women out of economic self-determination is acceptable if you're trying to sell advertising space by encouraging people to 'vocalise opinion' - but if anyone vocalises the opinion that you're a gutless sexist weasel, it's time to sue.

Lace's lawyers went so far as to demand the personal contact details of individual mothers who use the forum. So much for democratising debate. Mumsnet duly apologised for "the strength of feeling expressed by Mumsnetters", saying that site users "assumed that the statement in question was intended to provoke discussion. We now understand that it was ironic casual sexism intended to draw attention to advertising space."

Whoever wrote that advert understood that sexism sells. The resourcefulness of Mumsnet members was not a reaction to one poster alone, but to a prevailing prejudice against working mothers that stems from an advancing tide of sexist political thought. As the recession bites deeper, suspicion of women with the temerity to be employed is fast becoming the misogyny of the moment. Let’s hope that the women of Britain can continue to resist these ugly attacks on our self-worth.

Saturday sisterhood

I spent yesterday at an all-day, all-women meeting of the Feminism In London planning committee, where I had been invited to make a pitch for a workshop about resisting trans misogyny and moving towards solidarity. The day was full of cake and excellent conversation. We brainstormed workshop sessions on biological essentialism, the history of women's suffrage, race, class and intersectionality, reproductive health, abortion rights. A lot of tea and wild plans were made, and wilder words were exchanged. It was my kind of day.

When I gave my presentation on trans issues, the drama that had been anticipated made an appearance. Amidst a deal of constructive criticism, one member of the committee became angry and combative, and the chair had to work very hard to keep the meeting under control. We wrapped everything up soon afterwards. I can't say I had the physical presence to storm out of there, but I certainly squalled out, or gusted out, smoked a cigarette angrily, had a little rant about derailing trans feminist arguments to the nearest bewildered marketing executive, and then we all went down the pub.

Where an activist check-in moment was had by all, as every single person in the bar turned to look at us - a gang of women between twenty and eighty with strange haircuts and loud voices.As I marched over to the bar to buy a drink for myself and a mate, a large, inebriated guy in his fifties rolled up to me. He stuck out his hand, grabbed mine, shook it, didn't let go, and without waiting for an answer, pulled me towards where he was sitting.

'Oright love?' he slurred at me. 'Come and have a drink with me, go on.' I explained that I was already having a drink with my friends. He became insistent, in that way some men have that combines what they believe to be a gentlemenly offer of company with a complete and utter lack of respect for one's wishes, human autonomy or personal space.

'No, thank you, no', I insisted, backing away towards where some of us had huddled outside. He had the four-pints look in his eyes of a person who might without warning flip from jovial-drunk to aggressive-drunk, and besides, you must always be polite in the face of a man's unwanted attentions, or else you might upset someone.

I began to feel more uncomfortable as another one of his party came past our group and singled me out. 'Not coming in for a drink?' No, thank you, no. 'So which one of them is your mum then?' I explained that none of the variously older women I was with was related to me, that we were friends. 'Thank Christ, eh?' he laughed, scanning his eyes up and down my body. The little intimacies that are taken rather than requested, the tiny ways in which men of a certain age declare their right to your sexual self; the attrition of little assaults on one's dignity and autonomy that, bit by bit, wear away the clifface of your selfhood.

And then the other feminists arrived, en masse, and it was decided that it was just too cold to sit outside. We weren't going to be intimidated; we were going to brave inside-the pub.

And we had a bloody great time. The presence of women who, twenty minutes earlier, had had me red faced and stammering angrily, made me feel strong and powerful; like we had as much right to be there as anyone else. We stayed there drinking for hours, and I wobbled back to my bedroom-full-of boxes (I'm moving house again) feeling like part of a sisterhood. Feeling like progress had been made, and will be made. I might be a strange, angry, uncomfortably political young woman, but as part of the reviving feminist movement, I'm powerful, and I'm at home.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Strike one for patriarchy: manchester gang-rapists acquitted over victim's fantasies.

This little story just makes me too sick to speak. In Preston, five men have been acquitted of rape and conspiracy to rape on the grounds that the woman they raped had kinky fantasies about multiple sex partners.

The defendant turned up at the house of Olatunji Owolabi, 28, of Bradbourne Close, who she had met online, to be greeted by six men, all expecting sex from her. When she refused, five of the men raped her in succession. But when the defence produced MSN conversations she had conducted with Owolabi where she mentioned that the idea of group sex was appealing to her, the judge ordered the jury to clear the defendants of all charges.

Prosecutor Michael Leeming refused to help the defendant any further after the chatlogs were shown, saying that'It is right to say that there is material in the chatlogs from the complainant, who is prepared to entertain ideas of group sex with strangers, where to use her words 'her morals go out of the window'... This material does paint a wholly different light as far as this case is concerned'

'Not to put too fine a point on it, her credibility was shot to pieces', said the Judge, Robert Brown

In other words, if a woman admits to having sexual fantasies, she asked for it. If she is forced to undergo elements of those sexual fantasies as part of a violent assault, her rapists and attackers committed no crime, because she had no 'credibility', no 'morals'. Apparently, it is impossible to rape a woman with no 'morals', where male recalcitrants get to be the judge of what is and is not moral. Apparently, when a woman admits to having 'entertained the notion' of being sexually experimental, that's a green light for men to rape her. And they have the gall to call feminists the cocking thought police.

Of course, it's not just the sexual fantasies of women which are policed and interpreted as indicators of criminality in this strange, pseudo-Victorian, porny-but-prudish culture- especially following the recent legislation against 'extreme' pornography. But only women have to endure having their sexual fantasies imply guilt when they are the victims of violent crime. I can't imagine what this poor woman, this woman who is the same age as me, must be feeling right now, having been told that because she dared to have a sexual fantasy about multiple partners, her 'credibility is shot to pieces' and the men who gang-raped her committed no crime.

Just in case you really do believe that a woman's fantasy implies consent and that's all that matters, consider this. Let's say, just for example, that my boyfriend is a little bit of a masochist. Let's say the idea of being smacked, spanked and hurt in a sexual context excites him; that we've discussed his fantasies and even acted some of them out in bed. Does that, then, mean that I'm entitled to beat him up in the kitchen whenever he annoys me? Can I punch him, cut him, smash his head into the cooker, and know that a jury will acquit me? Does the fact that he has kinky fantasies make it okay for me to physically abuse him in any context, with or without his consent?

No, of course it doesn't make it okay, and because he's a man and it's not a rape case, we all understand that that kind of response is never even close to okay. This anti-sex, anti-woman culture makes me fucking sick sometimes.

ETA: The excellent Pandora Blake -kinky model, actress, activist and feminist - has also responded to this story. ['Desire is not consent. Consent is consent' <3]

Saturday 9 January 2010

This is going to hurt.

With politics, as with relationships, there are certain times when you wish they'd just lie to you a little harder.

This week, for instance, with the election months away and the Tory campaign bursting onto billboards across the country in all its terrible definitely-unairbrushed glory, it'd be nice if someone in government was making some sort of noise to persuade the people of Britain that they really do have a choice in their political leadership. Amidst all the filibustering, the clumsy cloak-and-dagger backstairs plotting over a last-minute replacement for Gordon Brown, if it's too much to ask that we actually be granted a degree of democratic self-determination, then I'd like them to pretend. I'd like them to at least pretend they have anything other than contempt for ordinary voters. Unfortunately, this week's abortive coup against Gordon Brown's leadership of the Labour Party demonstrates that contempt perfectly.

It is impossible to truly know what Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon thought to accomplish with their secret ballot. Perhaps they genuinely wished to give the people of Britain the leader they deserved, the leader we have waited for for so long: someone worthy of the respect of his or her country and executive, someone who has earned the confidence of the people and the party, someone who would not, for example, demonstrate their utter scorn for the electorate and for parliament in a cheesy daytime television interview.

But whatever their intentions, they demonstrated, as so many sitting members of both the Labour and Conservative parties have in the past, the sincere conviction that it is the job of parliament to decide who should lead the people, rather than it being the right of the people to decide who should run the government.

David Cameron's new poster campaign is disgusting and fascinating, like a teenager's sock drawer, or tertiary syphilis. Once you manage to tear your eyes from the spooky, ten-foot-high head-and-shoulder-shot of the Tory hopeful that dominates the frame, an image that absolutely hasn't had its jawline articifially strengthened, its pores smoothed, its nose diminished, its hair filled in or its skintone adjusted to remove that pesky Eton flush that was so in evidence at the 2009 party conference, you start to notice the little things. Like the fact that the words 'Conservative Party' are not prominently featured anywhere in the design. Like the fact that, despite their utter ideological disinclination to factor the lives of ordinary people into their policymaking, the Tories have recognised that the people of Britain want to elect a leader, not a party.

The Tories understand that whilst the brand of their party remains tarnished, their prospective candidate for leadership is by far the strongest part of their case to make the next government - not because of who he is, but because of what he represents. He represents someone who wants the trust and respect of the people, and is prepared to put his touched-up face on a giant poster saying so.

Every opponent of the 'presidential' attitude adopted by Blair and now aped by Cameron bases their arguments on the fact that, technically speaking, no British leader has ever been elected by the British people: it's understood that the leader of the political party which gains the most votes will be invited to form a government by the queen. Unfortunately, apologism for our anti-republican state mechanisms doesn't quite cut it anymore in terms of the popular mood.

As Paul Sagar observed at Bad Conscience this week, what the British people appear to want is not just a change of leader, but a change in the type of political leadership Britain has become used to: "not any-old-leader emerging through ...back-stabbing, pole-climbing patronage structures, but a man (or perhaps woman) with charisma in whom they can believe and who is tested through the conflict of a national plebiscite."

Put simply, Shiny Dave has had himself definitely-not-airbrushed all to fuck, but at least he seems to care.

This is why we're going to start to see more dangerous smiling bastards like Boris Johnson and David Cameron getting elected to high office. In a climate in which the machinations of politics are so thoroughly debased, in a country in which the mechanisms of government are occluded and arcane, in a culture where we are no longer invested in the narrowing ideological difference between two ancient, stale political parties, charisma can count for a great deal. Charisma can replace concrete policies. Charisma can look very much like the change we so desperately need.

David Cameron is not the change that his poster promises. David Cameron is a smiling bastard in a nice shirt, which is why I will be voting against him and campaigning against his leadership bid over the coming months. But until the Labour party sit up and notice which way the political wind is blowing, until they stop filibustering and start to show the electorate something other than utter contempt, until they put strategies on the table that engage the public in at least the illusion of choice, we can point out the pixel-smears on Cameron's jawline as much as we like: the bastards are still going to win hearts and minds.

Friday 1 January 2010

Happy New Year to you too, Boris

On Monday, millions of commuters will return to work in the capital to find that their public transport fares - already the most expensive in the world - have been hit with yet another price rise. Mayor Boris Johnson has increased fares by 6-11% last year, and has committed to further above-inflation price increases this year. Most significantly, bus fares are to rise by 12.7% from the 4th of January - a move that will disproportionately and unashamedly penalise London's poorest.

Don't believe me? The average bus-riding commuter will be paying about 70p extra per day. Presuming you don't leave the house at weekends, that's an extra £3.50 per week. That's an extra £182 per year. For someone on a city worker's salary that won't make a blind bit of difference, but for someone earning barely enough to feed themselves, it will make all the difference. But then, city workers don't often take the bus.

Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy has the story
, pointing out that Boris is once again extorting money from his poorest and neediest constituents, whilst continuing to oppose tax increases for the capital's wealthier residents. "Theoretically, increasing fares should decrease income for London Transport as people are put off from travelling, and yet fares keep rising despite the recession...but when taxes are raised on the rich, [Boris argues] against them on the basis they will not raise any extra income. In other words, if a policy hits London’s poor: implement it. If it hits the richest, argue against it."

And a very merry and prosperous 2010 to you too, Boris - I'm sure you're looking forward to one. For the rest of us, this is what happens when we allow ourselves to get dazzled by cartoon politics: we elect dangerous smiling bastards who don't give a damn about poverty and inequality and who are quite willing to make life exponentially harder for the low-paid majority at the expense of a privileged few.

Like Boris, I live in the greatest city on earth. Unlike Boris, I believe that making it harder for the poor to live and thrive in London diminishes my city's greatness. And that's the key difference between the Tories and everyone else: at the core of Conservative ideology is the conviction that the few and the privileged are the only people whose lives and contributions really matter.