Rahila Gupta

Corbyn’s F grade: Failing Feminism

I have written this piece essentially as a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, having joined the Labour Party for the very first time in order to vote for him as leader. However, to my dismay and that of other feminists, he has failed to engage with us on a number of issues.

Controversy follows closer on Jeremy Corbyn’s heels than his shadow. Even as I began writing a piece on the The World Transformed, the Momentum conference, where all three sessions on feminism were dominated by the Crossroads Women’s Centre whose political views are seen to be marginal by mainstream feminists, Corbyn has thrown another grenade into the crowd of feminist supporters. A letter demanding that Corbyn withdraw his attendance from the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP), Stand up to Racism Conference on 8 October, was signed by a number of organisations and individuals and published by Media Diversified. SWP was rocked by a well-documented scandal following rape allegations against a senior member and the exodus of 500 members in 2013. As the letter points out, ‘sexism and racism do not operate in silos’ but are oppressions that ‘often overlap and intersect. The campaigners were assured by Corbyn’s team in writing (albeit on twitter) that he would not attend. Yet he did.  Here is the photographic evidence.

Reprinted from the Socialist Worker website

Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott speak at the Stand Up to Racism Conference organised by the Socialist Workers’ Party

Is this incompetence, poor communication or simply the old Left’s inability to take sexism seriously or understand intersectionality?’ The storm created by this overshadows positive initiatives like the fact that his new shadow cabinet has the highest number of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) MPs. The SWP debacle comes on top of feminist disappointment with Corbyn’s stance on Keith Vaz and his failure to condemn sexual exploitation on the grounds of it being a ‘private matter’. Corbyn’s new cabinet appointments, in response to criticism that not enough women had plum positions previously, are also open to criticism: Diane Abbott, who became shadow Home Minister, spoke alongside Corbyn at the SWP conference; Shami Chakrabarti, who became the shadow attorney general has had to defend the fact that her son attends a private school; and Dawn Butler, who became shadow minister for BME communities, although not a plum position, brings a whiff of the expenses scandal with her.

Corbyn didn’t condemn Vaz’s use of prostitutes because his views  on the sex industry were eventually clarified when he told students at Goldsmiths’ College that he was in favour of decriminalisation of the whole industry. This disappointed feminists who support the decriminalisation of prostituted women but campaign for criminalising the buyers of sex, in short, the Nordic Model, as the first step in winding down an industry which they see as a violence against women issue. The English Collective of Prostitutes, (ECP) one of the sixteen groups set up by the Crossroads Women’s Centre has both Corbyn’s ear and that of the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who staunchly defends the ECP position, that decriminalisation will ensure the safety of women. Given the closeness of their working relationship, we have to assume that this is now the position of the leadership.

The ubiquity of the Crossroads Women at the Momentum conference suggests that they are squatting on a number of Labour’s policy platforms. There were three sessions given over to a discussion of feminism and gender; the programme was officially endorsed  by Jeremy Corbyn.  The first, We Should All Be Feminists, had five speakers, three  of whom were members of the Crossroads Women’s Centre; at the second session, Oppression Divides: Race, Nation, Class & Gender, four out of five speakers were members of Crossroads projects; and in the third session, Building the New Movement from a Grassroots Women’s Perspective, four of the six speakers were members of some of the 16 projects listed on the Crossroads Centre website as dealing with issues ranging from disability to prostitution to refugee women. Surely Corbyn should have ensured that a conference aiming to promote debate about ‘a radical, positive vision for the future’ reflected a range of feminist opinions.

Other feminists had been invited to the conference, women like Pragna Patel and Hilary Wainwright, but they were there to speak about the rise of the far right and power and politics respectively.  Pragna Patel agrees that,  ‘It was disappointing to see the Momentum festival, which was otherwise dynamic and buzzing with energy and ideas, limit feminism’s input to the debates. Whatever the rights and wrongs, by allowing only a particular strand of feminist politics represented by the Crossroads Women’s Centre to dominate the discussions on gender, the festival undermined rather than engendered the new, progressive and democratic politics that Momentum is trying to forge. On principle, if we do not listen to and engage with different political strands of feminism, how can we hope to re-invigorate Labour politics for the future?’

Crossroads women push a pro-sex work line but the issue is not a settled one. Many feminists are abolitionists who campaign to end prostitution. However, in all the heat that is generated in the debate on the sex industry, much of the common ground between the two sides disappears from view and it is worth restating. It is fair to say that most feminists support sex workers’ rights (the language – sex workers v prostituted women – itself is heavily contested) i.e. that they should not be stigmatised or criminalised nor should they be harassed by police nor exposed to violence from punters. Those who support the continuation of the sex industry believe that it is a trade union issue and with the support of the unions and decriminalisation of the whole industry, the safety of women would be assured. At some level, though, they are aware that violence is endemic and intrinsic to the commodification of women’s bodies and that women enter the industry under duress. The ECP website states that, among other services, it campaigns ‘for resources to enable people to get out of prostitution if they want to’. This is exactly what the abolitionists campaign for too. I am not aware of any trade union which promises to help its members leave the industry.  There is also a tendency among the supporters of the industry to minimise the violence faced by women and to emphasise the choice that is exercised by women who join it. Yet on the ECP site, where comments by the public are encouraged, a prostituted woman posted this:

‘I began working purely for financial reasons but things changed for me after I was attacked by a client and subsequently began using class a drugs as a way to cope and to enable me to continue working after the attack – it numbed me! Unfortunately about 3 yrs unto working I got a heroin and crack habit and from then on I only worked purely for the drugs. I worked to buy the drugs, needed the drugs to work in the first place and it he am a viscous circle. In my experience 99% of the women I’ve met in the sex industry are working purely to support a drug habit and I feel that more work needs to be done to specifically support working women regarding their substance abuse problem .’

This trap, be it drugs, poverty, lack of papers, is what I have come across in all my conversations with women who have left the industry. Fiona Broadfoot, survivor of prostitution and member of SPACE international, said two things which have always remained with me: while she was working as a prostitute she would not tolerate any criticism of her work, (an attitude which goes a long way to explain the vociferous campaign by women still in the industry), yet every day she would go home and clean herself with pure Dettol inside and out, including gargling with it.

The other main plank of Crossroads Women’s campaigns, which stretches back 40 years, is wages for housework, part of an international network. As far back as 1981, Angela Davis took apart the arguments for wages for housework in her book, Women, Race and Class. The logic of the campaign was that housework was degrading because it was unpaid labour, labour which was critical to the reproduction of workers under capitalism. Referring to the system in apartheid South Africa where black men were made to live in hostels and their wives and children, who were seen as ‘superfluous appendages’, were not allowed to visit, Davis argues, ‘if it were truly the case that the services performed by women in the home are an essential constituent of wage labour under capitalism..’ then ‘the deliberate dissolution of family life in South Africa could not have been undertaken by the government.’ And of course there is the classic rebuttal – if wages for housework is truly emancipating, why has it done nothing for domestic workers?

Liz Kelly, Director of CWASU (Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit) was dismayed by The World Transformed programme: ‘There is something deeply disturbing about this connection, as if the last 40 years of feminist activism and intellectual endeavour had not happened. This organisation has been nothing but divisive within the Women’s Liberation Movement, and has promoted simplistic policies – like wages for housework – which would merely cement gender inequality, while failing to ask the questions so many are addressing globally about how to create cultures of care which do not exploit women.’

The group still holds to its belief in ‘a wage for mothers that would make them financially independent’ as one of the speakers said in the third session; she argued that child benefit is equivalent to wages for housework. This is ‘an odd sleight of hand’, commented Professor Lynne Segal of Birkbeck University, ‘I, and the many and diverse feminists I have worked with, have always opposed wages for housework as a demand, arguing that the usual care and servicing we ideally share in domestic spaces… is distinct from wage labour.’

However, Corbyn has a way of dashing down his feminist supporters and then lifting them up again. At the Labour Women’s Conference, he announced that from next year it will become a decision-making and policy-making body alongside the rest of the conference. ‘A good move,’ says Diane Langford, an activist who was present at the largest ever Labour women’s conference. However, she laments the fact that the session on violence against women failed to mention prostitution. If Corbyn carries out his promise, then perhaps the way to his heart (or brain?) is to influence the Labour women’s conference demands.

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