Saturday 29 May 2010

A modesty slip for misogyny.

Slip away the modesty cloth of faux-feminist posturing over the veil and you'll find an ugly skin of nationalism, male intolerance and misogyny.

In his article Thinly Veiled Threat, Mehdi Hasan impressively fails to assume that the debate over the niqab and burqa - recently outlawed in Belgium, with similar laws tabled across Europe - is all about him. This sets him apart from nearly every man writing, legislating and proclaiming about this most symbolically loaded piece of clothing.

Hasan's piece is learned and thorough, but it misses perhaps the most fundamental question about the veil debate. The question is not to what extent the veil can be considered oppressive, but whether it is ever justifiable for men to mandate how women should look, dress and behave in the name of cultural preservation.

Male culture has always chosen to define itself by how it permits its women to dress and behave. Footage recorded in 2008 shows a young member of the British National Party expounding upon the right of the average working man in Leeds to "look at women wearing low-cut tops in the street". The speaker declares the practice is "part of British history - and more important than human rights", and laments that "they" - variously, Muslims, foreigners and feminists - want to "take it away from us".

Never mind the right of the women in question to wear what they want or, for that matter, to walk down that Leeds street without fear of the entitled harassment made extremely explicit in this speech. This is not about women. This is about men, and how men define themselves against other men. [read the rest at New Statesman]

Thursday 27 May 2010

New blog for New Statesman

So you guys: I've been wheedled away to write a blog for New Statesman with the promise of enough cash to keep me in gin and ribbons for a while. It's all been a bit touch and go, so I didn't want to announce until it was certain, but for the next few months Penny Red will largely be moving to New Statesman online - here. The site isn't finished yet, hence at time of writing my lovely new blogroll mysteriously contains Alastair Campbell.

I will be writing about - well, the same sort of things I write about already, feminism, youth politics, socialism, pop culture. It will all be cross-posted to here under a cut, so the discussion can continue here and at the Staggers. I'll have to run everything by the editors until such time as they're confident that I'm not going to get drunk and post pictures of my bum, so if there's ever anything that needs an immediate response - or anything a bit too heartfelt for the Staggers - that'll be appearing on here too. So, this is by no means goodbye, just a sabbatical. They want me to post 3-4 times a week, too, which is very exciting and also a little bit scary, so expect the content here to go up rather suddenly.

So there's no need to update yr feeds, but I'd rather you did, and I'd love it if people could occasionally link to or comment at the NS blog, simply because if all goes well and there's lots of traffic then I might be assured a more permanent source of income. Blackmail is such an ugly word.

This is, of course, absolutely the worst time for this nice thing to have happened, being that I'm still living out of a suitcase, recovering from a battered heart and attempting to settle into a new job at Morning Star. But I've come to understand that this is always the way of things, that hard work happens when it happens and all you can do is step up to it. I am going to be relying on those who know me in real life to remind me that cigarettes replace neither meals nor sleep. I suspect there shan't be time for many frisbee competitions this summer, but really, does this face look like the sort that enjoys the sunkissed look?

My first column is about Sex and the City and the death of shoes-and-shopping feminism. Enjoy.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

A sad day for British democracy.

(image via scepticisle)

I'm actually in tears. Boris Johnson, the Tories in Westminster Council and the centre-right coalition have managed to do what nine years of new Labour anti-civil-liberties wrangling didn't have the guts to do. They've sent in the police and they've taken away Brian Haw.

Brian Haw's anti-war protest - a tent, some placards and a whole lot of brazen peacenik courage - has been pitched directly outside the houses of parliament for almost nine years. Embarrassing the executive. Reminding them of their complicity in an illegal war. Reminding the people of the possibility of resistance. Labour tried everything they could think of to get rid of him, dragging him through the courts, even setting up a whole new law to ban protest in parliament square without prior approval specifically designed to oust him. They never could. Under the new centre-right regime, however, there's no such faffing about with legal precedent and squabbling over human rights. Today, the Mayor ordered the stormtroopers in to handcuff Brian Haw and drag him away, and now, after nine years, he's gone.

That's what the right does, in government. No lengthy, drawn-out hypocrytical bollocks about decorum and protest, no legislating you out of existence bit by heartbreaking bit. Just this. You are a nasty protestor. We do not like you, or your messy ideas about justice and freedom. You are spoiling our nice clean lawn. We are sending large men to remove you.

I am twenty-three, and have been politically active for about as long as Brian Haw's protest has been standing. Nearly all of my significant political memories involve Haw, from rainy pickets over the HFE bill in 2008 to cheering as the crowd of nearly two million marched past his tents on the big anti-war demo in 2003, back when I was sixteen and had only just begun to realise how terribly wrong the world was, and the power of personal resistance.

Years later, as a parliamentary intern, I passed Haw's protest every morning and evening as I crossed the street into the Houses of Parliament. And every time, I felt glad to see it, sometimes a lonely one-tent display facing down the glowering edifice of Big Ben and the commons, sometimes a larger gathering, as thousands of well-wishers and supporters travelled from all over the world to meet Brian and join his demonstration. It made me feel proud, every day, to know that whatever faff was going down in parliament, I still lived in a country where citizens had some right to protest, some right to face down the entitlement and warmongering of the state without fear of their lives and livelihoods, even if it was just one little tent and some placards against centuries of privilege and pride. It made me feel proud, every day. Johnson is using the excuse that Haw's protest detracted from the majesty of Parliament Square, but I considered Brian Haw as much a symbol of the political inheritance of my generation as the Commons. And now he's gone.

Some of us on the left were always convinced that the Tories would be worse than Labour on civil liberties. We did say. But today 'I told you so' tastes of nothing but bile. This is a tragedy, a travesty, and nothing more. Mr Haw, we salute you. The state may want to forget your protest and the grassroots resistance it symbolised. We never will.

Shiny happy rape culture

So the new government has somehow found time in its recession-busting schedule to propose a law that will grant anonymity to men accused of rape, who are of course the most pitiable and urgently unnoticed victims of woman-promoting-marriage-destroying-single-mum-supporting-violence-preventing Broken Britain. It's not as if the tabloids already paint women who allege rape as lying, heartless bitches out to destroy men and their god-given right to put their penis inside anything that gives the slightest hint of consent - by getting into their taxi, for example. Popular wisdom has it that vast numbers of rape allegations are false, when in fact false accusation is believed to account for only a tiny percentage of reported rapes - no higher than false reports for other crimes.

The Daily Fail have somehow produced both the most table-bitingly offensive assessment of the situation so far - from treacherous misogynist Melanie Phillips, who claims that "after Labour's reign of extreme man-hating feminism, common sense is reasserting itself" - and the most reasonable discussion of the issues for women, from Susanne Moore. "Do we have a Government intent on setting back women’s rights?" asks Moore. Sorry to disappoint you, Susanne, but we seem to.

Moore points out that adults who are falsely accused of child abuse run just as much, if not more risk of having their lives and reputations ruined as do men who are accused of rape - but the question of anonymity for them is not on the table. This is not a policy proposal with any real, consistent concern for the human rights of those accused of crimes. It is a rapists' charter, pure and simple, designed to protect men from lying women who, by not being properly shamed for speaking to the police when men rape, beat, assault and invade their bodies, have clearly had it all their own way for far too long.

Misogynists talk as though speaking about rape and consent is something that's easy to do, something that doesn't come with a social penalty for women, within or outside the legal system. This is not the case - particularly as most rapists prey on women who are personally known to them. When I eventually decided to speak about my experience of non-consensual sex on this blog, I was hounded by accusations of having made it all up. It was a big decision for me to come forward. At first I regretted it profoundly. Not because I was lying, but because as well as having experienced non consensual sex, during which I picked up a painful infection, I am now understood to be a manipulative lying bitch by people whose respect used to matter to me. I stayed in the house for days, not talking to anyone. And then I started getting the emails.

In the weeks after making that post I recieved no less than five emails from women who had recently experienced rape, saying that they felt happier talking to an anonymous person on the internet than going to their friends or the police. Saying that they were worried about telling people because they quite liked the guy, or their friends quite liked him, or because they thought they wouldn't be believed, or because they'd heard awful stories about how women who bring rape cases to court were publically accused of being sluts. Saying that they felt dirty and ashamed and scared and hurt and they didn't know who to contact about their internal bleeding. One of the women who emailed me was just fourteen years old.

Nobody is seriously suggesting that the number of women who remain silent about experiences of rape does not far exceed the small number of men who are falsely accused of rape - but it's clear where the government's priorities lie. It has been proven that naming rapists encourages women to come forward to report rape, just as it has been proven that a culture where women do not speak about rape and non-consensual sex allows rape to continue as an accepted part of our sexual dialectic - which is why anonymity for those accused of rape was waived in the first place. Just last year, when serial rapist John Worboys was eventually put on trial for nineteen counts of rape, no less than eighty-five women came forward claiming to have been sexually assaulted by him. Eighty five. Eighty five women who didn't know that they were part of a far broader picture. Eighty five women who didn't come forward until seeing their rapist's face in the paper convinced them that maybe it wasn't all their fault. Are eighty-five men falsely imprisoned for rape every year? Somehow I doubt it.

In this society, to accuse someone of rape is seen as a crime equal to raping someone. Men accused of rape are always given the benefit of the doubt. Women who get up the courage to speak about rape are invariably accused of lying. And now even our government is calling us liars. Rape ruins lives too - but the new regime seems to be interested only in silencing victims.

Thursday 20 May 2010

Orwell, Abbott and abortion rights

So after the Orwell awards last night -I didn't win of course, but there was an AWFUL lot of wine and a fun time was had by all, including sitting next to a Tory MP who told me how awful his constituents were in graphic detail - I arrived home at witching time to turn around some emergency copy on abortion, moral imagery and the shame matrix. I'm pleased with the response to the piece, which went live on CiF just in time for a few rabid forced-birthers to spray bits of bile and sandwich at the internet in their lunchbreaks.

Am consolidating a coherent socialist-feminist paradigm with staunch pro-choice ideology at its heart, about which there will be more waffling on here when I've lined up the theory so it all matches up and there are no little stringy bits to trim off the sides. But in a week which has been about tackling a housing crisis, centering my pro-choice feminism AND despairing over the future of the parliamentary left, I was absolutely bloody overjoyed to see that Diane Abbott will be standing for leadership of the Labour Party.

Diane Abbott is a pro-choice heroine, who attempted to force her party into granting Northern Irish women the right to even a measure of reproductive self-determination in 2008, who opposed Trident replacement, ID cards, Labour's anti-terrorism laws and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is anti-war, pro-woman, pro-equality and a socialist, and she's also very funny on the telly, and the London electorate knows all too well how much that helps. I will be joining the Labour Party in order to vote for Abbott, and I will probably be volunteering for her campaign. You should too. Diane for King.

{ETA January 2011: I didn't join the Labour Party. I couldn't bring myself to. I'll never be a member, not till they change their welfare policy.}

Saturday 15 May 2010

An 'I'm Blogging This' moment.

So there I am at the gates of Downing Street, at around 3pm this afternoon, with a moderately raucous throng of people in purple demanding 'Fair Votes Now.' We're here to hand in a petition as thick as a man's thigh, demanding a referendum on proportional representation.

And it's all got a bit noisy and spontaneous, in a shufflingly British sort of way, and I've managed to end up at the front of the line, just behind all the people with the huge cameras, who are always there at protests in London but don't really count. This is the closest I've ever been to Number Ten and aha, here come the vans.

Three riot vans screech up and police in yellow jackets pour out of the hatches like predatory lymphocytes to sterilise the dissent. They stream into formation and edge us back from the gates, politely for now, but extremely firmly. One young policeperson's face is really close to mine as he shuffles us unseeingly back, and suddenly hey, I bloody know you, officer.

Last time I saw Officer X, he was wearing my underwear and a red velvet corset.

This was about three years ago, at a photoshoot for Genet studio show we were both involved in, in which I played a cross-dressing lesbian hooker in 18th-century Paris and he played, funnily enough, a career sadist. We were all set up in an empty wine bar to do the shoot for the publicity posters, and we decided it'd look great and also be kinda hot if we swapped clothes.

So we did, and then we did the play, and then we left university and went our separate ways in the way that young people do, me to urban squalor, activism and writing, him to be a state t-cell. I recognised him instantly, because he was doing the same flinty, murderous, slightly suggestive gaze into the middle distance that made his character so effective. He's clearly not going to be on the beat for long.

So I say, hey. And he says nothing. And I say, hey, name. And he says, oh- er, hi!

His flak jacket is still all up in my face. We exchange awkward pleasantries. Because he's a copper now, he asks me if there really are another thousand of us coming. Because I'm an activist, I deny any knowledge of anything.

The crowd shifts, surges forward behind me, a shifting sea of quiet human rage. We're losing each other in the swell. The moment of connection is gone, and time rushes back with the noise of the chanting and more vans turning up.

We promise to contact each other on Facebook, and I disappear into the crowd.

Friday 14 May 2010

A Tory wet dream of women in politics: for Morning Star

Column out today! For the Morning Star! Which is a great paper that everyone should read!


It's hard to decide what aspect of Britain's new centre-right government is more insulting to women. Is it the dramatic drop in the number of people with female bodies holding positions of power? Is it the Conservatives' notion that one can best support "families" by encouraging women to marry and leave the workplace? Or is it the sudden arrival of Theresa May MP as the most powerful woman in the country?

The appointment of the former Conservative chairwoman as Home Secretary was an 11th-hour decision taken by the men brokering the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, who this week promised the country a "new politics" - but there's nothing new about a Cabinet stuffed with rich, right-wing public schoolboys.

Media outlets have already been keen to stress that "shoe fan" May "is better known for wearing distinctive shoes than any pronouncements about crime," as the Telegraph put it on Wednesday.

The British press has long nursed a perverse fascination with the feet of Conservative women, with May's leopard-print kitten heels making headlines at the 2002 Tory conference and, this year, many column inches devoted to the perfect toes of Samantha Cameron. If this is how powerful women are supposed to look and behave it's rather galling that the £150 bribe offered by the Conservatives to "reward marriage" will barely be enough to keep any self-respecting Tory housewife in shoes for a month.

The focus on fashion rather than policy shores up an antiquated vision of a woman's place in politics.

"It's a shame that the Telegraph felt the need to comment on Theresa May's fondness for designer shoes," said feminist activist Laura M. "I suppose they felt they had to remind everyone that she was a woman.

"Female politicians' bodies and clothes are subject to pervasive scrutiny that men, who only have to decide what colour tie to wear, can barely imagine," she explained.

"Drawing attention to stereotypically 'female' personal interests - which May is perfectly entitled to pursue - works to make readers subconsciously associate her with shallowness and frivolity."

Tory MP Nadine Dorries, the expenses cheat and tub-thumping anti-choice activist of the Christian right, has made public statements about how much she loves her stilettos, dubbing herself the "Bridget Jones of Westminster." Unfortunately, Dorries - like May - is anything but an airhead. Both pursue a punishingly pro-market programme, both have actively supported motions to reduce the time limit on legal abortion and neither is a friend to the majority of women in Britain, however many lovely shoes they own.

May's new role as Minister for Women and Equality will no longer be a full-time job as it has been under Labour. This may be just as well, as May has voted against equality legislation 18 times since 1998, is an opponent of a woman's right to choose and has already been condemned by leading LGBT organisations for her shameful record on gay rights.

David Henry of OutRage! told Pink News that May was "the wrong person for the job," saying that "she's opposed almost every gay rights measure."

While May voted with the Conservative whip on civil partnerships, she absented herself for the votes that led to the Gender Recognition Act and has a worse record on votes protecting women and LGBT people from abuse than Chris Grayling, who was turned down for the post of Home Secretary after being perceived as "too homophobic."

This, then, is the underlying assumption of the Conservative approach to equality and women's rights, that tokenism will suffice, that the equalities agenda can be comprehensively shelved by handing it to a woman, any woman, no matter how bigoted, thuggish and illiberal. The mere fact of May's femaleness as relentlessly proven by her indulgence in a certain species of consumer femininity is seen to cover all bases.

This is why the role of women in politics will never be just a numbers game, shocking though it is that the Conservative party in parliament and the coalition Cabinet are both over four-fifths male. Merely putting female bodies and gorgeous shoes in places of liminal power will never automatically equate to empowering women and minorities within or beyond Westminster.

May is a tokenist Tory wet dream of women in politics, and not just because there's only one of her at the top table. Posh, spiky-heeled and stern with a staggeringly intolerant agenda, she bespeaks a type of kinky discipline that just longs to kick naughty little boys and girls into shape and make us behave. Media focus on the bad Thatcher drag and high-heel evangelism of the few women promoted by the new regime conceals a brutally intolerant moral agenda.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Hey, geeks: NO.

Can I just say, for the record, entirely untargeted at anyone I know and with deep love for the concept and praxis of slash fiction in all its forms:

I find the sudden internet squeefulness over Clegg/Cameron slash- and related fic at best banal, and at worst wilfully and dangerously resistant to the actual political analysis that's needed here.

The mainstream press has been going at it too, of course. Yesterday's Evening Standard headline, 'A Very Civil Partnership,' did not make anything about what has just happened to this country at all better, although it did make me giggle on the tube. It's as if the return of the centre-right and all their mad Tory friends to power was just a bit naughty, just a cheeky intra-elitist 'Eton fag' romance, a little bit saucy in a PG Woodhouse sort of way - rather than, say, terrifying and depressing.

I really, really hesitate to say this. But there are some times, some very rare, very sad times when constructing juicy stories about real or imagined homosexual angst between two powerful and/or fictional men IS NOT THE ANSWER. Now is one of those times. Because actually, it's the people, not each other, that these men are quite possibly about to screw.

I also suspect that the implication - at least where it concerns the popular press - is that a coalition is in someway not masculine enough, not Daddy enough for the proper thrustingly heterowonderful British way of doing things. Coalitions are unmanly, and unmanly = OMG gay.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Here's what you can do, Dave

You can ignore the howling of a country that hates you and doesn't want you in power. You can dig yourself into Westminster like a toad under a stone for four years whilst this country bleeds from a thousand cuts. But you can't run from progress, and you can't roll back the changes that thirteen years of progressive government have put in place. Labour did many terrible things, but they also helped open a pandora's box of visceral social change. You can't undo that, not ever.

You did not win, and you cannot rule absolutely. The Liberals may have turned traitor, but they're going to shackle you. They're going to neutralise the rabid dogs on your backbench and pare down the most illiberal of your schemes to shit magnificently on the poor and the disposessed, on welfare claimants and women.

You can't 'rebuild the family'. The nuclear heterosexual family, that fragile unit of industrial capitalist economy, has been broken for a generation as people realise that they don't have to chain themselves to each other in order to survive. You can't cram that back in its box, no matter how many women you try to persuade that they'll be better off wedded to their sinks, no matter how many children you shame for having divorced parents, no matter how coldly you judge or how hard you slice at people's earnings. Times are hard already. They won't stand for it.

You can't put gay liberation back in its box, either. You can't replace the official prejudices of the Thatcher years, section 28, that's not ever coming back.

You can't stop people wanting more than this. You can't erase people's resentment at privilege and pride, especially in difficult times. People won't be patronised or wheedled into behaving. The public are not going to behave. We won't allow it. You may be prime minister today, but the country is not behind you.

You can't stop the cities. You can't stop the internet fracturing everything that was solid and safe about the priggish culture that made you. You can't stop the riot that's brewing as people in Britain realise that they have been cheated, time and time again, by a system stuffed with people who hate them and want to put them into boxes and make them do what they're told.

And you can't, as a new Tory MP just told the BBC newscaster, 'put Britain back.' You can't ever put Britain back. You can't disappear inside Number Ten and slam the door on the future; if you do, the future will go on without you. And we all know what happens then.

If you try to push back at the raw edge of modernity, it's going to cut you.

And gods, I'm scared right now, I'm scared as hell of what's going to happen to this country and city I love, but I'm going to enjoy watching you bleed.


Oh, god.

For reference, mr BBC: that wasn't cheering outside Number 10. That was howling. They were screaming 'Tory Scum'. I wasn't imagining it and neither were you.

Oh, bloody hell. Stop the country, I want to get off.

Monday 10 May 2010

The kindness of strangers.

Thank you to the anonymous person who sent me the very much needed surprise donation last night. I have done as you asked and not looked you up, but I hope you'll accept public anonymous thanks in return. When things are better and if I'm ever rich, I shall be sure to pass it on to the next young punk in trouble.

Saturday 8 May 2010


The personal is not *always* political, and try as I may there's no way I can take the abrupt demise of my long-term relationship with my partner and best friend, the fact that all my remaining close friends are leaving London this week and my related and impending imminent fucking homelessness and twist them around and turn them into a gritty urban fable that seems to say something profound, in a post-adolescent sort of way, about modern politics. It's a bugger, is what, and that's all.

I could make some sort of comment here about how my heart feels a little like the rest of the country at the moment: mightily bewildered and exhausted and facing a number of confusing new options all of which seem to offer their own special flavour of grim and crawling horror, peppered with a few small delights and the hope that, in a year or two, everything might be alright again, all overlaying a sort of hard and horrible yearning for change, any sort of change, gods.

But that would be trite, and over-simplistic. It's just a bugger.

So this is by way of an apology for what may be scatty posting here over the next few weeks, whilst I get my stuff together and attempt not to have a total meltdown. My headspace is worse at this point than it has been for years, and I really need to sort my shit out without being a bitch to anyone or making some godawful internet gaffe like, I dunno, getting piss drunk and posting naked pictures of myself weeping artsily in a bath.

I'll be fine, I always am, and with any luck by the time I'm properly back the damn country will have sorted itself out too. I'm quietly hopeful.

Friday 7 May 2010

Demonstration tomorrow

For a more representative democracy, and in protest against whatever flavour of shambles this country wakes up with. Parliament square, sane o'clock. Details here. I can't be there, because I have a family commitment. Shout extra loud for me, but not at a police horse: bad things happen.

The people have mumbled!

Nothing can take the shiteating grin off my face today.

There will be no Tory majority government. Labour kicked back. The Lib Dems held the line, although they didn't make the gains they hoped. The worst-case scenario here is a hobbled Tory minority dragging its bloated, stinking carcase around the Commons until progressives throw enough rocks at it to make it squeal out another election. Yes, they can and probably will do some damage. No, it won't be as bad as it might have been.

Other bloody brilliant things: Greens get their first MP in Brighton, with party Leader Caroline Lucas taking the seat. UKIP and BNP vote surge isn't as high as predicted, and Griffin suffers a punishing defeat in Barking. Homophobic Tory hate preacher Philippa Stroud lost to the Lib Dems, as did nepotite toerag Anuzziata Rees-Mogg (although her little brother Jacob, the one with the nanny, won his Somerset seat). UKIP and the BNP turned in almost no votes in Wales and Scotland. The one tragic loss in all of this is that heroic pro-choice, pro-science, rationalist MP Dr Evan Harris lost his seat in Oxford after a boundary change. He'll be back, though. As will the left.

The people have mumbled; faced with the prospect of Torygeddon, the people have stammered. This is not how enfranchisement looks, but it's enough to have made David Cameron very, very angry and, you know, that's fine by me.

The Tory day of glory is soured, and there will be no 1997 moment for the Conservative party whilst I'm young, although this is enough of a gotcha moment to help the left get its goddamn boots on and remember what it's for. We've got a long, hard fight ahead of us. But we knew that anyway. And the beast coming over the hill just started to look a lot sillier. Let's stay a bit cheerful.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

For fuck's sake, vote.

The sky over London is pathetically empathic, brooding and low and just about to break into a weird little squall. I've been woking 14-hour days for the past six, and I'm bleeding and I'm tired and pissed off, and Torygeddon seems to be coming, and there's nothing I can do or say to make that better. No matter how much I scream and stamp I can do nothing to stop what's coming over the hill, not on my own.

Apart from vote, of course.

Which is the only thing we can possibly do tomorrow that matters.

So here's how it goes: you. Vote. Yes, you, with your quietly freakish views and your weird opinions that no mainstream party will ever quite understand. Vote.

Yes, you, with your sulkishly correct intimation of having been betrayed time after depressing time, in small ways, with politicians taking away your faith and your fervor piece by piece. Vote. I know you think it doesn't matter, not where you are. It matters.

I don't care how much you hate them, every single one, how much you want to tear it all up and sit in your living room and throw guilty glares at the TV and not be implicated in this whole fucking mess. You are implicated already. Now go out there and take some sodding responsibility.

Not that you should vote for just anyone, of course. You should vote for whoever is going to beat the Tories in your area. Not just because they're evil, or because they're incompetent, or because (with the exceptions of a few notable people who I know read this blog) they hate you and everything you stand for. Vote for progressives because Tories are scummish and dull and boring. They are boring. Look at that sky. Taste the clammy May air, how grey and hopeless it is, spring sap run to rot. Remember when it tasted like this? That was the early 90s. Do you remember the early 90s? Vote.

Because if you don't get out there and tick whatever box you need to tick, right now if you're at home, or as soon as you can get out of work, I shall consider whatever happens tomorrow your fault. And you should too, because it will be. Turn in your internet license, you've got no more business ranting at empty cyberspace if you can't put your shoes on and engage with hard copy the one time it matters.

Which is right now.

Get your shoes on, get out of the house and vote. Put the internet away. This is it. Game on.


UK election: where are the women?

[written on the train to work in response to an emergency call from Our Kingdom, where this piece has also been posted. So, apologies if this is is a little rushed.]

The General Election of 2010 has been a fusty gentleman's club of stale argument and panicked triangulation. None of the major parties has paid much more than lip-service to 'women's issues' on the platform, with both Labour and the Tories under the impression that one can substitute talking to women - always uncomfortable - with talking about 'families', because women's needs and desires are really only important in a family context. For a feminist activist, tuning in to watch three middle-aged white men talk to each other about 'families' is enough to make one throw one's (sensible) shoes at the TV.

This rhetorical marginalisation of women as appendages to the main game of politics has also been played out in realtime, with the tabloid Battle of the Wives.

The Fawcett Society has just rounded up a lot of women to protest.They say in their letter in the Guardian: "At the current rate of change it will take a further 200 years before we reach parity in the numbers of women and men in parliament". Which is optimistic.

For, despite the fact that there are marginally more women standing as candidates this year than in any previous election (21% of candidates overall, as opposed to 20% in 2005), the role of women in UK politics is rapidly shrinking, apart from in Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon retains a powerful position as deputy leader of the SNP.

There have only been three women visible in the mainstream London media's coverage of the biggest game in Britain: the perkily pregnant Samantha Cameron, whose yummy mummy outfits and gorgeous shoes have already earned her her own glossy magazine abbreviation - SamCam!; Sarah Brown; and in the final week Gillian Duffy, the becardiganned nan from Romford whose fluffily xenophobic views nobody is now allowed to contest. Nick Clegg's wife has been rather out of the media spotlight - possibly because, on top of being Spanish, she has her own career and her own surname. The message has been clear. Women voters should look to the leaders' wives as role models - before turning out dutifully to vote for their husbands.

I'd vote for Sarah Brown if I had to choose, despite the fact that her toes, as the Daily Mail daringly revealed, are really rather freakish when compared to SamCam's posh polish. But I don't get to choose. In my constituency, no women are standing at all; and although the 21% statistic looks good on paper, that still means that four out of five candidates are - yes - men. The Tories are apparently looking to triple the proportion of their MPs who are women - from their current 18 to a staggering maximum of 60 women out of some three hundred projected Tory seats. Labour's female quotient is unlikely to fall below 85, even in the unlikely event of a Tory landslide. The Lib Dems, who are actually fielding fewer women candidates this year than last year, are however the only mainstream party to have put forward a serious and thought-through manifesto for supporting and developing women's rights in this country, the Real Women policy paper.

What does all this mean for women in politics? It means that gender equality, as ever, isn't simply a numbers game.

Anyone can put forward a female candidate for an unwinnable seat, and the Tories have become experts at "padding out" Cameron's entourage with anonymous, prettily coiffed ladies and even the occasional non-white face. Putting women on empty display has never been hard. Actually giving them some power is another matter. Only 10% of the Tory shadow cabinet is female, and not a single women is being put forward for a top job.

Surrounding our future leaders with female faces, obsessing over their wives and sermonising about 'the family' gives the false impression that women have been graciously granted a stake in the election game. But when Tory concern for 'the family' boils down to a tax break designed to reward married women for staying in the home, that illusion begins to wear terrifyingly thin.

Political gender equality is not a numbers game for the simple reason that merely owning some nice shoes, an XX chromosome and huge tracts of land in Cheshire doesn't necessarily make one a friend to working women or those who want to claim an equal place in their own right and without the advantages of inheritance. Of the handful of women being put forward for winnable seats by the Tories, many are the direct enemies of women's rights, using grinning high-heel evangelism to disguise a cold, hard right-wing moral agenda.

What about Nadine Dorries, the self-styled 'Bridget Jones of Westminster’, who was the impetus behind the forced-birth amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill of 2008, who maintains close links to the bigoted, fundamentalist organisation Christian Concern For Our Nation, and who - Westminster sources confirm - is planning to resume her pro-life tubthumping in the event of a Tory government? What about Philippa Stroud, PPC for Sutton and Cheam, who along with formulating Tory family policy founded a church that tried to "cure" homosexuals by driving out their "demons" through prayer? What about - let's face it - Margaret Thatcher?

Just being a woman doesn't make a candidate a friend to women, and just peppering the campaign spin with women's faces hasn't meant that this election has included women's voices. Women in the UK have some way to go before we can truly say that we have seized political power; and unfortunately, we are not being offered that sort of choice on our ballots this year. Like last time, and the time before that, we get to vote for which powerful man we'd prefer to have deciding what women want and whether we should be allowed to have it.

Unless we're living in Brighton Pavilion, that is - and if you are, for goodness' sake vote for Caroline Lucas. She's the only party leader who doesn't have a wife.

Monday 3 May 2010

Feminism in crisis, a mini-manifesto.

Yesterday I attended a fascinating talk by Nina Power and Lindsey German on 'A Feminist Manifesto For The 21st Century'. Lots and lots of food for thought. As luck would have it, I've also been writing the following 'Feminism In Crisis' declaration/article for Morning Star and Red Pepper this week. And here it is in all its joyless stampy verisimilitude:

Feminism stands at a crossroads. In 2010, women face a choice between completing the social revolution that our foremothers began in the last century or bowing to the demands of the conservative right.

Over the past five years, the internet has driven an exhilarating new interest in real female empowerment, particularly among young women, many of whom grew up, as I did, suspecting that we were the only ones who believed there was more to equality than Spice Girls knapsacks and sexy dancing.

Books such as Cath Redfern and Kristin Aune's recent Reclaiming The F Word chart the rebirth of feminist activism after the perky corporate passivity of 1990s "girl power." However, arguments over issues such as the role of sex workers and trans women have fragmented the new feminist movement into specific campaigns.

While worthy in themselves, groups that campaign solely to ban lapdancing clubs do not address the basis of women's oppression today - the encoding of ancient patriarchal assumptions into the economic and social structure of imperial capitalism.
Feminists have never agreed with one another on everything, nor should they be expected to– but today more than ever, what the feminist cause needs is a broad coalition of activists, with a clear direction and long-term goals.

Redfern notes that in recent decades the notion of feminism has been somewhat "re-branded”, as “fluffy and unthreatening… more about claiming an ‘empowering’ identity than collective action or concrete changes." It is this focus on the broader structures of gender, politics and economics rather than the niceties of personal and community identity that remains fatally absent from the modern movement.

Feminism is about economics before it is about identity, and only a movement which understands this can effect positive change and defend women’s progress on a national and international level.

The truth is that feminism stands at a crossroads. In 2010, women face a choice between completing the social revolution that our foremothers began in the last century or bowing to the demands of the conservative right. Whilst worthy in themselves, groups that campaign solely to ban lapdancing clubs do not address the basis of women's oppression today - the encoding of ancient patriarchal assumptions into the economic and social structure of imperial capitalism.

Imperial capitalism is built on the docile bodies of women - as unpaid carers and low-status labourers performing 66 per cent of the world's work, as consumers, making over 75 per cent of spending decisions while controlling only a small proportion of global wealth, as victims of sexual violence and aggression at individual, local and international levels, and as reproductive labourers whose physical and sexual autonomy is relentlessly policed.

Since feminism demanded that women be freed from the economic obligation to marry, be paid equally for all of their labour, be protected from individual and state abuse and be in control of the means of reproduction, patriarchal resistance to feminist revolution is riveted into the mechanisms of late capitalism.

The "backlash" that Susan Faludi identified in her 1991 book of the same name is ongoing, and whilst it may be couched in vengeful moral terms, its basis is wholly economic.

Recent years have seen a strikeback from the markets-and-morals brigade on both sides of the Atlantic, cracking down on the most fundamental victories won by second-wave feminists.

Women's reclamation of the means of reproduction is under particular threat - in 2008, Christian and Conservative lobby groups in Britain attempted to outlaw termination of pregnancy at 20 to 24 weeks, and in the US, state governments compete to think up ever more cruel and unusual ways to punish women for sexual self-determination.

Utah recently ratifed a law whereby a woman who behaves "recklessly" while a fetus is gestating inside her can be charged with homicide.

The British Conservative Party has made it clear that it believes traditionally repressive gender roles are best for society.

In his recent book The Pinch, Tory shadow minister David Willetts makes a sweeping case for how feminism - by encouraging women to enter the workplace and divorce their husbands - has upset the balance of a society based on private property and small, atomised economic family units.

Feminists have taken all the jobs and destroyed social security, says Willetts, declaring that "a welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men."

Willletts advocates a return to marriage, like the rest of his party, which plans to reward married women for staying at home.

In one respect, Willetts and his ilk are right - the partial emancipation of women really has broken society.

That was the point. That was what it was designed to do.

Feminism was not supposed to be about the occasional drive to get prostitutes off the streets combined with as much chocolate, shopping and low-paid public-sector work as we could stomach.

Feminism was meant to be about a total overhaul of society's rules about work, family, sex, money and power.

That's what 10 generations of women marched, sacrificed, protested, eulogised, fought and died for. It wasn't because they'd heard there was a really excellent shoe sale on. They wanted to break society, and that's what they set out to do.

Somewhere in the last 25 years, that revolutionary energy was compromised. We forgot that gender equality was never supposed to mean the right to be oppressed on equal terms, and the old feminist demands of equal work at home, equal pay at work, dignity in the streets, reproductive freedom and protection from abuse began to be hedged as early as the 1980s.

Faced with overwhelming resistance, the fight for the emancipation of women of all races and classes was downgraded to a politer request for middle-class, white women to be allowed to enter the workplace - as long as we continue to smile, look pretty and accept lower pay - to have sex outside marriage as long as we bow to ruthless corporate objectification, and to divorce our husbands, as long as we continue to do all the gruntwork of domestic cleaning and caring for children and the elderly, entirely for free.

Even in the West, women’s liberation is an incomplete revolution. As today's feminist activists argue over whose ideology and identity is the purest, the global right stands poised to roll back the advances women have made. Conservatives speak of "fixing society" when what they are really anxious to shore up is the bruised superstructure of patriarchal capitalist control. Feminists must unite to stop the right rolling back the clock on women’s rights and to continue the revolution begun nearly a century ago.

Eighty years after women won suffrage in Britain, young women are waking up to the continuing realities of sexism, misogyny and institutional gender oppression. We have truly begun to ‘reclaim the F word’ – but reclamation is only the beginning. 21st-century feminists have no time for a collective identity crisis. We have a huge fight on our hands.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Change we've got to believe in?

I've spent the past twenty-four hours, because I am a glamorous and DANGEROUS young activist sort, drinking tea very quietly and having anxiety jags and talking to the television in the manner in which, in my babysitting days, I used to address the terrifying children of strangers. No, don't do that. No, please, don't. Nick, pick that up right now.

Before Wednesday, I was genuinely enthused by politics in this country for the first time in several years. The Sun/Times hegemony was being challenged; the two-party system was being undermined; there was hope. Now, thanks to some planted Murdochian journalists, a shiny-faced man in a tight blue necktie learning how to talk to a camera and a bigot in a cardigan, it's suddenly okay to blame all the country's problems on immigrants, and the ugly shadow of a Tory majority is ghosting across any liberal vision for the next five years.

And I've listened to smiling, scared-looking people repeat the word 'change' to the point at which the word has lost practically all meaning.

The problem with promising 'change' is that it's the one thing that absolutely every politician can absolutely, 100% guarantee. The only thing that you and I know about the next five years, or indeed the next five minutes, is that some sort of change will occur. The economy will improve, or not. Social unrest will escalate, or not. You might decide you don't like safeway instant shepherd's pie after all. Something will change.

Promising change is easy, especially when you're talking to a country that's so unholy pissed off that any sort of change to the status quo will do, at least temporarily. And when you promise change you don't have to talk in specific terms about economic fairness or social justice. When you say the word 'change', everybody imagines the kind of change they'd most like to see, whether it's mass socialist uprising or the neighboorhood being as safe as it used to be before non-white people were invented, when all the locks were made of paper and God saved the queen.

Everyone can get behind a change! As long as it's not bad change, the kind of change we don't approve of. Change like people with unfamiliar faces and accents moving into our streets, change like women divorcing their husbands and demanding jobs and support, change like it not being fucking okay to be discriminate against gay people, non-white people, people with disabilities, change like it not being fucking noble and brave to ask a prime minister on national television what he's going to do about people from Eastern Europe taking all the jobs. Promising change (it's even better if you say REALCHANGE) is easy. Making a better country is bloody hard in the middle of a recession.

I'm not interested in change. I'm interested in specific transformation: transformation of the parliamentary system through direct challenge to the two-party orthodoxy in this election, transformation of our creaking, illiberal democracy; transformation of the state's attitude to women's issues; nuclear disarmament.

It is for these reason that I am going to be voting, in my constituency of Leyton and Wanstead, for the Liberal Democrat Party. Not because of Nick Clegg's golden tie, and not even because The Guardian says so. Because I want a new, more representative parliamentary system in which citizens can feel like their voices actually matter. I like the Lib Dems; I don't think they were sent to save us. I'd prefer to vote for a third party that had stronger links with workers' organisations. But the Lib Dems represent the best chance this country has for transformation on a structural level. And, of course, I'm sick of the sight of Cameron's soft, evil face.

I'm with the Guardian and with Sunny: if we want anything other than five years of Torygeddon, burning jobcentres and bankers' red-cheeked sons deciding policy in private lunches with their friends from university and the nice men from Fox, then we have to vote first for the party most likely to beat the Conservatives in our particular areas. After that, or if there's no clear and present danger of blue peril, grab a shiny off-yellow biro and vote Lib Dem.