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AT Labour Party conference in September 2017 there was a great spirit of hope.
The Labour Party had committed itself to the most radical social and economic reform programme in living memory. If elected to power the new government could be as transformative as the post-war government.
The shadow chancellor’s speech in particular struck a radical note, making direct reference to the ’45 Labour government that built the welfare state.
John McDonnell spoke in visionary terms of the current rentier economy being replaced with strategic investment, nationalisation of infrastructure and regional development through regional investment banks.
Rail and transport and infrastructure projects are all to be delivered by a workforce that has full protections through access to legal rights and secure work.
For young people, McDonnell was clear that student debt through loans would be replaced and Labour would build more affordable housing for future generations. These commitments alone have secured an impressive radicalisation among young voters.
However, for me, one line stood out more than any other, and it was this: “And we will ensure every piece of legislation will be measured for its impact on women before it is implemented.”
That was very specific and reassuring. It was an acknowledgement that feminism and women’s rights remain foursquare at the heart of our movement and that they cannot be easily diminished.
Wherever the trade unions and the Labour Party have been on the ascendant, so too have women’s rights.
Just days before his speech the skirmishes that have now become the hallmark of the “transgender debate” were becoming evident and had made national news.
A woman was assaulted last year by a trans rights activist in Hyde Park when having to secretly meet to discuss the Tory proposals for gender self-identity.
The secrecy of the meeting was because of threats being routinely made online towards feminists and directly towards those attending.
McDonnell’s speech nodded to an understanding of the silencing of women. Tory policy itself was adopted without taking a single piece of oral evidence from women’s organisations.
Footage of the assault had been widely shared on social media with some prominent left commentators intimating that the female victim had provoked the beating (it is notable that to this day some left journalists have failed to condemn this assault).
The speech at party conference seemed to be saying that women’s voices will be heard, and we cheered from the rafters.
But in the pursuant onslaught drowning out women’s voices, McDonnell’s reassurance has not come through on the fundamental question of women ourselves, women’s spaces, women’s and girls’ rights to privacy and safety and our right to define who we are.
Instead there is a dangerous standoff between the Labour Party and the feminists who desperately want a Labour government for the benefit of women.
Women’s organisations that are from within our tradition, such as A Woman’s Place UK (WPUK), have been frozen from access to the leadership of the party.
As a result, our own party is as guilty as the Tories in its failure to reach out to women or take us seriously. This is bitterly disappointing and we hope it can be rectified soon.
Both mainstream political parties were badly advised on the difficult territory they were entering and were unaware of the furious backlash they were likely to provoke by amiably adopting gender self-identity without considering the consequent impact on women.
The current state of play is potentially disastrous for the Labour Party. Threads on Mumsnet, which can be considered from the real world as far as politicians are concerned, run into hundreds and hundreds of comments, overwhelmingly ridiculing and expressing frustration with the party, many of them discussing resignations or a change in voting intentions.
A recent poll suggests a six-point drop in support among women. While it might be unrepresentative, it certainly suggests the party should not be cavalier about women’s concerns.
Secret online organisation is the new vogue among women and worthy of its own article, but suffice to say party figures are discussed with disdain and anger in these secret spaces.
Prominent female trade unionists are beginning to understand the fundamental questions at stake and are furious to realise they have been blocked from consultation or meaningful discussions.
Where socialist feminists are involved in trying to reassure women that the party will come good, they are angrily dismissed because, quite rightly, women want to hear reassurance coming from the party leadership itself.
Simultaneously, vitriolic, misogynist language, such as the use of the acronym “Terf” and the insult “bigot” are being liberally sprinkled into the language of some party supporters and used against women with a long history of organisation within the movement, or to silence dissent among new party activists.
Rather than clamping down on the culprits — even with a narrative of “oh, these are just some silly boys, pranks and hijinks gone wrong” — there has been instead an elevation of some of the worst perpetrators to the national stage. Women everywhere see this as appalling and I see it as an act of stupid self-sabotage.
Jeremy Corbyn, in promoting liberal good intentions fails on good politics. He recently said of his support for trans rights: “I see the person in front of me.” We all do. Our intention is not to remove the rights of trans people to have happy and secure lives but it is to ensure that women’s rights also remain secure and that sex-based protections are not diluted in law.
These are complex matters that deserve meaningful dialogue. Instead the Labour Party has added fuel to the fire with its “decision,” announced by Dawn Butler without consultation with women, to promote self-identified women onto all-women shortlists and the Jo Cox Programme for potential new MPs.
As the zeitgeist moment continues to unfold, as some of us knew it would, the party leadership seem frozen, out of touch and ready to surrender its feminist wing, which will be like chopping off its own limbs.
To have a Labour government bowdlerised of feminism sits outside any historical framework. Feminism has always deeply influenced our movement and that is how some of us intend to keep it.
Only a cursory glance at history shows women’s rights have to be fought for as they are not gifted.
McDonnell was right to include women in his speech and see us as an integral part of the radical vision of the next Labour government.
One way or another we intend on taking him and the Labour Party up on their commitments to us because without the inclusion of women there is no radical vision.
Ruth Serwotka is a founder member of WPUK and convener of the Socialist Feminist Network. WPUK is holding its fifth meeting on the Gender Recognition Act in central London on Tuesday February 27. The speakers are FBU regional officer Lucy Masoud, community organiser Pilgrim Tucker and WPUK speaker Steph Pike. It will be chaired by Megan Dobney, formerly regional secretary of Sertuc. Tickets are available via Eventbrite.
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