No, I will not blame it on the Muslims

A video clip emerged online this week. It shows a Muslim woman, Rose Hadid, wearing a t-shirt that says ‘I come in peace,’ being escorted, not politely, from a Donald Trump rally, after making a peaceful protest against his exclusionary policies.

This image comes to mind again and again today as I browse the news. Why? Because I see, from a mix of media outlets, complaint after complaint after complaint that ‘feminists’ and ‘LGBT campaigners’ have not spoken enough about the horrendous attacks against women in Cologne, Germany, that took place on New Years Eve. In fact, that isn’t quite right. The complaints are more specific. The complaints are, in fact, that we are not talking enough about Islam, race, and border controls in relation to the Cologne attacks. 

As you will almost certainly have seen, since it has been the lead-in to nearly all of the Cologne coverage, some of those involved in the attacks may have been asylum seekers (although at the time of writing, the Guardian had reported that no asylum seekers have been confirmed as involved in any of the sexual assaults; only crimes of vandalism and/or theft.)

The clear implication (and in many cases, the outright assertion) made in these opinion pieces, tweets, interviews, and indeed, in many casual conversations, is that feminists should be more outspoken in denouncing immigration in general and Islam in particular. I am cautious to stride into this complex and long-standing debate with anything remotely approaching a tone of presumed authority, but when I see how much racism and anti-Islamic sentiment is being pushed forward in my name, as an English, feminist, queer woman, it leaves me with such a sour taste that I feel the need to say something. 

First, the lazy claim that ‘feminists’ do not speak about the connections between Islam, race, and feminism is very clearly not true. Feminists around the world speak, march, write about these things every day. Salma Yaqoob, Rania Khan, Shireen Ahmed, Sam Ambreen, Shami Chakrabarti, Maya Goodfellow, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Ava Vidal, Shane Thomas, and Musa Okwonga* spring to mind as people who have written about these subjects now or in the past – and as I haven’t exactly pushed the boat out looking for names to add to that list, and this list is by no means extensive, it doesn’t seem to me as if anyone claiming that ‘feminists do not speak about’ this subject is either well-informed, nor particularly adept at research. 

But, of course,  ‘talking about’ these subjects is not what they mean, and we all know it. What they mean is that these knowledgeable, thoughtful, nuanced voices are not saying what they want them to be saying. Why, they say, angrily, are there no experts on this subject who agree with me? This proves that the experts are all wrong, or brainwashed, or lying, or scared of Musim reprisals. Right? I’m reminded of climate change skeptics who complain that the majority of scientists and climatologists believe that climate change is man-made, as if this is evidence of some outrageous bias against their theories, rather than evidence that perhaps their theories are due for a reboot.  

I suspect most of the people asking this hypothetical question ignore the writers I mention because they are not drawing anti-immigration conclusions from attacks like Cologne. These feminist and/or LGBT campaigners are not concluding that we must water down the painfully weak rights that refugees already have in order to protect Western women from foreign misogyny. This is probably because they are feminists, as opposed to racists pretending to be feminists. It is not surprising that feminists or LGBT activists would focus on violence against women and LGBT people, rather than using those topics as a proxy to talk about something else. 

(Incidentally, even if these people outright admitted their complaint is that the ‘liberal left’ never talks about these things from anti-immigration, anti-Islamic perspective, it would be way off the mark. There is a constant stream of casual anti-Muslim sentiment from supposedly liberal, supposedly feminist, supposedly progressive voices – from Kate Smurthwaite, to Richard Dawkins, to Cathy Newman in the UK; from Bill Maher to Hillary Clinton to Sam Harris in America, there is an endless stream of sneering, faux-concern, dog whistle racism, generalisations and assumptions, about the supposedly inherent sexist and homophobic nature of Islam. Even the BBC, the famous UK cornerstone of Political-Correctness-Gone-Mad recently screened a huge show presented by Reggie Yates that focused for an entire episode on the “homophobia problem in the black and Asian communities.” I use this example not as a criticism of Reggie Yates – it is very far from my place to make any such criticism – but rather to show how ridiculous the assertion is that “no-one is talking about” the subject. The portrayal of Muslims in general as sexist or homophobic or both are rife in the media – and not just the famously anti-immigration right-wing papers like the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, and the Sun.

It is not new or surprising that racists use feminism or LGBT rights as a proxy for attacking other minorities. There is, of course, a very long history of using the narrative of protecting white women from sexual violence as a justification for enslaving and murdering black and brown-skinned men. But it is embarrassing – worse than embarrassing; it is disgraceful – that so many white, Western feminists and LGBT people, like myself, have sat comfortably for too long while this is done in our name. 

Two things about this framing of the issue alarm me in particular. The first is the erasure of Muslim women, and Muslim LGBT people. Second and first generation immigrants who are LGBT, refugees who are women – many of them escaping the very brutalities of Isis that get laid at the door of all Muslims. It is surely no coincidence that many of the writers I list above get forgotten when a generalisation is made about what ‘feminists’ write or speak about. Despite being tireless campaigners and spokespeople for women’s rights, in the mainstream press, black and Muslim feminists tend to be seen as Muslim first, feminist second. The concerns raised uniquely by Muslim feminists are boxed away as ‘Muslim issues’, or, perhaps, ‘Muslim women’s issues’, while concerns raised by wealthy, white women like women in boardrooms, breastfeeding in parliament, and even the line of succession in the monarchy are reported as ‘women’s issues,’ that should be important to all women, despite these issues affecting only a tiny minority of women. This allows the dangerous myth to foster in some sections of society that violence against women and girls is predominantly perpetrated against white women by black or Asian men, and, as we have seen repeatedly this can have terrible consequences both in terms of victims that do not fit this narrative being silenced or ignored or disbelieved, and in terms of the issue being exploited by the far right to stir up hatred.   

When anti-Muslim hate crime rises (in the past year, in the UK, it went up by 70 per cent), 60 per cent of the victims are women. This goes largely unseen because in this false dichotomy of ‘Muslims’ versus ‘feminists’, Muslim women are invisible; inconvenient to the narrative. 

The second alarming thing about this dichotomy is the way it makes the rights of immigrants or asylum seekers living in the UK conditional. I despise homophobia and misogyny as much as the next person, but my right to be accepted as a UK citizen is not conditional upon my dislike of bigotry, and nor should it ever be. We should not be telling the immigrant population (perhaps even less so those who seek refuge in the country) that they are welcome, but only as long as they adhere to a value system that is not even shared in full the country’s most honoured institutions, let alone by the whole population. When Prince Philip’s position is conditional upon him subscribing to values of equality for women and queer people, when MPs have to swear an oath of intersectional feminism before taking office, when our greatest educational institutions don’t boast proud and celebratory statues dedicated to slaveowners, then perhaps we can demand to know your views on gay marriage at the border controls before we let you in, but as things stand right now, the idea that it is immigrants, asylum seekers, and Muslims who are keeping the UK away from being a magically progressive utopia is, I promise you, not catching on, not because feminists and LGBT campaigners are cowed by Islam and don’t want to discuss immigration, but because it is frankly ahistorical to the point of total delusion.   

Allowing a disparity in how we measure people’s rights as citizens is profoundly dangerous. Across the Atlantic, we see how conditional rights can look. In the nation that prides itself on being the cradle of freedom, for Sandra Bland, or Tamir Rice, or Trayvon Martin, freedom is not quite the same as other people’s; you are expected to know that don’t have the right to argue with the police, that you don’t, even as a child, have the right to play with a toy gun, that you don’t have the right to walk down the street if everyone knows that some people will find your appearance frightening. You are free but only if you abide by the conditions that have been attached to your humanity. If you break those conditions, then your humanity itself is up for debate.

Muslims living in the UK, whether born here or not, should not be told they have to accept ‘liberal’ values any more forcefully than anybody else is. Immigrants should not have to prove they are twice as patriotic, twice as committed to ‘British values,’ (whatever they are), twice as hard-working as everybody else in order to be welcome. That this is already the case in practice for some first and second generation immigrants is saddening; to demand it be explicitly enforced as government policy is chilling.

And yet these demands that we treat immigrants differently, that we apply different standards to people on the basis of where they were born, is supposed to be feminist, somehow. Open-mouthed people who want to make everything into an argument against immigration stare at women and queer people who do not, and express baffled rants as to our motives. Why do we not care about the women and LGBT victims of Isis, they yell at us. Why do we not show more solidarity with them, by mocking the prophet Mohammed with cartoons, or banning hijabs, or marching against immigration?

Why indeed. Because we do not show support or solidarity with the victims of Islamic terrorism by attacking Muslims, when the people most victimised by Isis are Muslims themselves. We do not show solidarity with gay victims of terror or their families by mocking their religion – we show it by offering them asylum and working to make sure that our LGBT communities are not racist once they are here. We do not show solidarity with women who have been victims of sexual assaults by detaining women and children in centres like Yarls Wood, where rumours persist of sexual assault cover ups – we show it by providing counselling, legal aid, and good quality housing. You do not show solidarity with me, as an LGBT woman, by making the lives of people I know and care about more difficult. You will not turn us against each other, no matter how frustrated you are that not everyone shares your xenophobic interpretation of world events.

So please do not keep asking why feminists aren’t using horrific events like the attacks in Cologne to push an anti-immigration or anti-Islamic agenda. Please do not imagine, not for a moment, that you are protecting me by restricting other people’s rights in my name. It is not in our interests, as women, or as LGBT people, to make our, or anyone else’s humanity conditional. It is so easily done. It is so easily made to feel normal. And what does it look like? To you, I suppose it looks like something foreign, or from the past – a white hood, a pink triangle, a bloodied coat hanger. To me, it looks like something that I see now, that I keep remembering again, and again, and again. It looks like a leading presidential candidate’s henchmen escorting a woman, while she conducts a peaceful protest, from the premises, because of her faith, while the people around her celebrate it as ‘freedom.’

*I am not sure if the latter two identify as ‘feminist’ as such, but Musa Okwonga has written about the Cologne attacks in the New Statesman from the perspective of gender violence and misogyny and both have written about how the two issues intersect, so I’m including them on this list.  

 

Free speech is to journalists and academics what tax cuts are to rich libertarians 

We all have our own understanding of freedom, and it usually begins to evolve, as a starting point, from our own immediate experience. To an artist, perhaps freedom means being able to express yourself through creative means without being told what you are and aren’t allowed to paint. To a political activist, freedom might mean the right to march, chant and strike without being beaten or arrested by police. For a large corporation, freedom may mean the lack of restrictions on your manner of making profits.

And for people whose job is to speak, such as professional opinion writers or academics, freedom, quite understandably, looks at first as if it can be measured purely in the right to speech. Or, more accurately, the right to an audience, because if you’re used to having one, you conflate your right to speak with your right to have people listen.

And if you’re still looking at things from this starting point, then ‘freedom’ is as simple as ‘free speech,’ and so free speech should be more or less absolute. If you’re coming from this starting point, removal from a panel at the request of the event’s attendees becomes censorship; having an article pulled because it is deemed harmful by the people it is written about becomes an attack on your personal freedom.

This is an almost endearingly childlike understanding of what freedom is. You hate paying taxes but you have to pay taxes so your freedom has been curtailed. You wanted to go to the party but they didn’t invite you because you’re a homophobe so your freedom has been curtailed. You want an ice-cream before dinner even though you’re unwell but mummy says you can’t have an ice-cream so your freedom has been curtailed.

And that may all be true as far as it goes but as an adult you usually develop the ability to recognise that the world does not begin and end with getting what you want, and that ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ are a little more complex than the things that directly impact you. As she gets older, the thoughtful libertarian looks in the mirror and realises, for instance, that perhaps she’s been giving a disproportionate amount of attention to the things that directly impact upon her own life. The rich, white, perfectly progressive libertarian perhaps realises that, quite unintentionally, she’s spent, say, half her energy on calling for tax cuts and and half her energy asking why, say, black people (especially women) are so much more likely to be detained when they have a mental health problem than white people (especially men) – as if these examples of curtailing freedoms are all of equal magnitude. It’s not that taxes don’t relate to personal liberty, it’s just that there are all sorts of examples of people’s liberties being trampled upon – and it turns out that some of them depend, unfortunately, upon collecting a bit of tax to rectify. It’s not about saying tax isn’t an issue of personal freedom. It’s about keeping things in proportion when it comes to focus and priority.

The fact is there are invisible freedoms being curtailed all the time. We don’t hear from the people who really are, in practice, being ‘censored’ and ‘silenced’ because, funnily enough, that’s a big part of what real censorship and silencing means. People may disagree about whether it amounts to ‘censorship’ or ‘silencing’ to petition a university to no-platform Germaine Greer on account of her transphobia, but I think we can all agree that those words do not apply to appearing on Question Time and NewsNight and in the papers to talk about how you feel about it. Incidentally, while we’re on the subject, it also does not apply to having your article removed from the Observer website and having it republished by the Daily Telegraph instead, as happened to Julie Burchill not so long ago, and nor does it apply to being sacked for punching someone in the face, or to being criticised for saying the N-word, as happened to Jeremy Clarkson.

Huge sections of our media, however, appear to view these cases as enormous and significant restrictions upon personal freedom. Perhaps so. Here is another example of restrictions upon personal freedom. A choice between dying from getting overworked in brutal conditions and dying from homelessness, starvation, or lack of healthcare.

That is, course, the reality of the ‘freedom’ most people enjoyed before there was government regulations about working conditions and wages, and before a basic welfare state was introduced in the form of unemployment benefit, sick pay, pensions and health care. These things were denounced as anti-freedom when they were new, because the focus was disproportionately on the powerful people having to make compromises instead of the individuals who became freer as a result. Nowadays even critics of welfare tend to accept that these things make most people freer, and give people more control over their own lives. To those defenders of freedom who never quite got past that initial starting point, with the disproportionate focus on that which impacts themselves directly, the minimum wage was the government interfering in business. Anti-discrimination workplace laws were denying employers free choice. Paying for universal healthcare out of taxpayers’ money was a blow against financial liberties. It is only if you are no longer forced to choose between starving or freezing, between unemployment or back-breaking labour that doesn’t pay enough to live on, between bankruptcy or leaving a sick loved one untreated, that you would, irregardless of the theoretical ideological principles that you may hold in abstract, in practice, find yourself to be freer.

What does all this have to do with Germaine Greer getting no-platformed, you might ask. Well, a lot. If you have never feared for your life when walking down the street because you were assigned the wrong gender at birth, if you have never been physically threatened and called an abuser for wanting to use the toilet, if you have never been told that you should not exist, told that you do not exist, by respected academics who are celebrated as experts in their field of study – their ‘field of study’ being your life – it may be natural, as a starting point, that you would feel as if being disinvited from a panel or having an article pulled is the most significant impingement on ‘freedom’ that you can imagine. But it is not.

If there are certain places you cannot go, because you know you’ll be at risk of severe violence, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not able to use the toilet safely, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not allowed to transition to your correct gender without the permission of your spouse, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are banned from accessing a women’s refuge or rape support service, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not allowed to exist, without your right to exist being put up for academic debate, you better believe that is a violation of personal freedom. Think about that. Not allowed to exist. Paying taxes is annoying and all, but what greater violation of personal freedom can there be than being told that your right to exist is wholly conditional upon the approval of those who seek only to hurt and destroy you?

We mostly accept as a society that ‘freedom’ is not simple and not absolute. I’m not arguing that there is no freedom of speech issue to be discussed when it comes to no-platforming, but rather, that every time we discuss it, by virtue of being the kind of people who enjoy discussing these things, we inevitably have our focus completely out of proportion. The exclamations of outrage we hear from people who take platforms for granted at the suggestion that a democratic, peaceful process like a petition be used to take someone off a panel, on the grounds that their inexpert views are actively harmful, is not unlike the exclamations of outrage you hear from very wealthy people over higher taxes, or corporations over the minimum wage. After all, if freedom means the absolute right to appear on panels even when you have no expertise in the subject at hand then God help us, nearly every single person in the country is oppressed. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a panel. I’m being censored as we speak, I presume.

Besides, most grown adults understand that words have consequences. If you say a lot of nasty things about people and deliberately drum up controversy, well, of course in a free country you can carry on talking, but guess what – some people might not want you at their events anymore. Only somebody with a job like an opinion-journalist or an academic could possibly imagine that most people have an unfettered, unadulterated right to free speech without consequences. Every other adult in the country surely knows that free speech means the police don’t throw you in prison for your opinions, not that you have a God-given right to be invited to universities to speak. In most jobs, your boss is entitled to dislike your offensive opinions, and they are entitled to sack you or remove you from projects if you show yourself to be inexpert, unqualified, or if enough people complain about you. That’s not censorship, it’s facing the perfectly legal and reasonable consequences of your own actions. Your friends are entitled to stop inviting you to parties if you become offensive (or for any other reason, for that matter). And that is not censorship either. It doesn’t stop there. Your partner is entitled to leave you if they discover you are a terrible person. Customers are entitled to complain about you if you’re rude to them. You are free to use any words you like but words have consequences. It is laughable to see the journalists and academics so used to the idea they are entitled to a platform (and a microphone and a captive audience) no matter what they use it for and no matter whether they are even qualified in the subject of which they speak that they are taking such profound offense at someone being taken off a panel – yet all the while, lecturing others about navel-gazing, living in a bubble, and being too sensitive.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not arguing for or against Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Nick Griffin or anyone else who comes out with hate speech to be given platforms. I believe that debate should be had between the people affected by their words – and the likelihood is, there will be different situations where a different approach is best. Sometimes no-platforming works, sometimes debate works. It depends upon the parties involved, the consequences, and, perhaps most of all, on what you are trying to achieve.

But freedom as a fundamental principle means looking at all of its manifestations. It means asking more than: “how does this impact my property and my free speech?” It means asking: “how does this impact people’s lives, all people’s lives, not in theory, but in practice?” The idea that freedom can be entirely measured in terms of what we are allowed to say without consequence is perhaps a positive evolution from measuring it entirely in terms of how much tax we pay, but it is still embarrassingly simplistic. Simple moral absolutes are like a comfort blanket. They make us feel safe. Opening them up for debate is challenging, scary, messy and complicated – especially when those absolutes happen to form the basis of how you make your living. But freedom matters, and the world is complicated, and we are all learning. And I think we can do better than this.

The Labour Party divide isn’t about power vs purity 

It puzzles me how such astute electioneering experts who pride themselves on their ability to reach out beyond their own ‘tribe’ can fail so spectacularly to understand that not everyone in their own party is motivated by the same things they are.
The Labour Party talkers have gone full panic mode this week, with arguments about the split between the “left” and the “right”, the “purists” and the “realists.”

But the split in Labour isn’t as simple as a split between left and right, and it certainly isn’t as simple as purists and realists; rather, it is a split between the motivations of those who think all social progress happens through a strong executive government, and those who see parliamentary democracy as only one tool of many for bringing about social progress.

Those in the “executive government is all” camp aren’t necessarily cynical bastards who think power is an end in itself (undoubtedly there are people like this on all sides of politics but that’s not who I’m writing about here). Many of these people are motivated by a desire to win elections because, in their world view, it is the only way social progress of whatever sort they seek can occur.

It is not, of course, a coincidence that there is a lot of overlap between people who take this world view and people who have a career in the world of politics, be it in parliament, or be it in journalism or election strategy.

Most political activists, on the other hand, believe that social progress happens through a variety of means. Parliamentary democracy might be one means of achieving change but legislation isn’t everything and the role of the executive within the legislative process certainly isn’t everything to this group. Many of these people support electoral reform in some way, wouldn’t mind seeing a proportional system with power-sharing and coalitions that hold each other to account rather than ‘strong government’ from one single party.

As far as the Labour leadership candidates are concerned, it might be wise for them to keep in mind that much of their party’s new intake consists of former Liberal Democrat members or voters, who are quite used to voting on the basis of wanting the makeup of parliament to be such that it represents their values rather than first and foremost expecting to form a strong executive government.

And many Labour members are also activists. Far from an insular, narcissistic ideological purity, activists tend to believe that changing attitudes, empowering communities, and actually making a positive impact in all sorts of practical ways, is as important, if not more important, than getting a Labour government. That’s not because they are too pure for power and prefer the self-indulgence of opposition, but rather, because they see evidence that plenty can be done with marches, strikes, community organising, volunteering in the local church or foodbank, giving talks in schools, validating and listening to marginalised people, consumer power, petitions, lobbying and, of course, by having the MPs you want in parliament to represent and vote against things or table EDMs or basically get things done for their constituents – all without necessarily being in government.

In other words, it is a split based on a disagreement about the best way to achieve practical change, not a split between those who want practical change and people who want an ideological circle jerk, as is repeatedly inferred by increasingly rude senior Labour figures, supposedly experts in this stuff, who, for all their pride in understanding Tory voters, don’t seem to have any understanding of their own.

I must admit I tend to fall into the second group. Most significant societal progress has not happened solely as a result of electing the right people to power and letting them get on with it. It is always, always, always driven by other types of activism. I don’t conclude from that, as some do, that parliamentary democracy is irrelevant. But it means when I vote, I am choosing people who I think will be most likely to be influenced by all the other forces driving that social progress; that they will represent their constituents rather than being bullied by whips even if it’s contrary to their constituents’ interests, raise important issues in parliament on our behalf, to do meaningful work in the constituency, to be thoughtful and evidence-based in their approach to getting things done, and be always focused on the impact a policy has on the public, not just its marketability.

What’s curious to me is that for all their talk of listening to people you disagree with and meeting people where their values already lie, people like Liz Kendall seem to have no clue whatsoever about how to connect with the people they need at this stage of their campaign – and that is Labour Party members.

As Chuka Umunna so wisely put it, “screaming at voters” doesn’t change their minds if what you’re screaming isn’t what they care about.

And asserting that you are popular and electable because, well, because you say so doesn’t make a convincing case. This is the crux of the problem. Jeremy Corbyn may of course be unelectable in a general election. But the problem is that in many people’s eyes, so are the other three.

Yes, it’s simplistic and false to say that the Labour Party lost the last election because it was not left-wing enough – but it is also simplistic and false to say that it lost simply for being too left-wing, and that all the party has to do to win next time is move a bit further to the right.

Everyone knows Ed Miliband wasn’t trusted on the economy. That isn’t the same as being left-wing. It is also about leadership skills and credibility; about a lack of original ideas and the absence of a positive narrative. Not being on the extreme left of the party is not the same as having these things. You have to have other qualities to offer as well as being comfortable moving to the right. For a start, you have to actually be good at campaigning, communicating, and persuading – and the first rule of being good at that, surely, is understanding how to speak to your current audience.

You’d think cold-headed strategists who believe the most important thing is to win would approach a Labour leadership contest by appealing to the Labour membership. In being utterly unable to do so, Kendall, Cooper, and Burnham demonstrate the vacuousness of their position – and the difference between themselves and the ultimate election-winner, Tony Blair. Just as his supporters will remind us that Tony Blair achieved some progressive things (a minimum wage, a fox-hunting ban, tax credits and the Human Rights Act, many of which, incidentally, are now seen as left-wing) but he had to win over middle-England first, I am inclined to remind them that he may have won over middle-England – but he won the Labour leadership first.

And so the party grandees are throwing a sulk and insulting the party members because these three are failing to do that. Because Jeremy Corbyn’s arguments are seen by some in the party as so “ridiculous” that they’ve forgotten to actually counter them.

If you want to make sure Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t get the leadership then you have to understand why people are supporting him. It’s amazing that anyone thinks “screaming” that he’s unelectable will work. It’s amazing that they don’t hear the double standards as they pompously lecture people on how they must never mention the racism and wider bigotry that lies behind Ukip’s appeal in case it alienates racists and bigots, while sneering at and insulting the people they disagree with every time they open their mouths.

Not everyone lives and dies for the cult of the Labour Party. Not even all Labour members, and certainly not your new, younger ones. Alistair Campbell apparently once said of the left-leaning voters who could abandon the party as it drove to the centre: “where can they go?” Well, nowadays, lots of places. Look at Scotland. The Labour Party is one of the parties in parliament; it is one tool in achieving social progress. But it is not the only one. If the Labour Party doesn’t want people like that to be members, then go ahead and chase them out calling them names, insulting their motives and, worst of all perhaps, sneering at young people for daring to take an interest in politics and say what they truly think.

But to then get on their high horses about how they’re so good at reaching out to new voters after doing that beggars belief. Each campaign for the party leadership is an audition in the candidates’ campaigning skills. It’s not just about left and right but the ability to persuade, negotiate – to lead. If Jeremy Corbyn is so bad at these things, and the other three are so much better, how come they are all so dismally failing to beat him?

What is the point of the Labour Party? 

What is the point of the Labour Party? It’s not the first time I’ve asked this. But maybe it will be the last. Maybe I’ll give up asking. Perhaps once they pick a leader this time they will make the answer clear and I won’t have to keep asking.

Right now they seem to be saying that the point of Labour is to get back into government. That sounds reasonable until you realise that’s where it stops. That’s the end in itself. The point of Labour is to give Labour’s top names a career and to win elections. But ask them why they want to be prime minister, the party strategists, the electoral ‘realists’ who do nothing but consume polling data and spit out clichéd inanities about aspiration while insisting they are in touch with ‘the public’, ask them what it is they want to do with their power, and they look at you blankly.

Liz Kendall wants to be leader because she wants the Labour Party to win elections. And then what? She’s often compared to Tony Blair but she has none of the vision, no overriding sense of how she wants to transform the country, that made people believe in Blair. Or, if she does, she hides it from Labour members during the leadership contest, which makes me a little nervous.

Yvette Cooper, according to one new MP, wants to be prime minister because she wants the economy to be strong and because she knows that the internet exists. A strong economy based on a digital revolution, which could be a joke policy from the Thick of It, except it’s too boring.

Andy Burnham, from what I can establish, thinks he’s the best candidate because he has friends, has a constituency that he goes back to sometimes, used to work at a publishing company and likes football.

And they wonder why Jeremy Corbyn is grabbing people’s imagination. At least he sounds as he has an idea or two in his head about what he actually thinks the country needs. At least he has a bit of passion, at least he trips over his words rather than reading them off a page without caring if they even make sense or directly contradict the logic of something else he’s said only moments ago.

It’s hard to expect people to take seriously the meaning of labels like hard left when the rest of the accepted narrative has moved so far to the right that Nigel Farage is in touch, George Osborne is a moderate man of the working people, putting up taxes for people in work on low pay is balanced, and suggesting that child poverty is bad or that sick people shouldn’t have even more money taken away from them, is all the stuff of the so-called looney left. It doesn’t matter that policies like working tax credits were the stuff of popular, centrist Blairism not so long ago.

And yet the left of the party, not the ones with the ever-changing principles and week-long memories, are the ones to get attacked for moral relativism.

It’s true that the Conservatives won the last election, and it’s true that there’s a lot of public hostility to various aspects of the welfare state. But the Conservatives did not, however much it seems to be the accepted popular narrative, win by some honking, stonking majority. They did better than everybody expected with their surprise victory, but it was still, compared with Blair, or Thatcher, by the skin of their teeth. And that’s without even beginning to consider the mess of the electoral system. The vast majority of people in the country did not vote Tory, and did not vote centre right.

The Tories won the election but that doesn’t mean democracy stops for five years. We don’t have an elected dictatorship, we have a parliamentary democracy. The Labour MPs elected to parliament have a job to do. They are paid to do it – and paid rather good money to do it. That job is holding the government to account, and representing their own constituents – not worrying about what floating voters in a handful of other marginal seats may or may not be concerned with in five years time. 

Let’s not forget that the party will oppose the government at the risk of losing the ‘centre ground’ when it suits them, of course; the link between the unions and the Labour Party is hammed up to be just as toxic as anti-benefit sentiments but the party speaks up against anti-union reforms because that could impact the party’s pockets, rather than just yours or mine.

Arguments about the actual impact of the Welfare Bill won’t matter to the party ‘realists’ of course – if they were going to be listen to those impacted by the cuts they would have done so by now – but there’s a cynical, political argument as well for not letting the centre be dragged any further to the right. How much further can this go? If cutting taxes for people in work has become some sort of extreme left wing socialism, then where will the centre ground be in five years? And Labour think they can win an election, on that ground, on the terms set by George Osborne, in five years time? By repeating patronising platitudes and hoping the SNP implode or that Scottish voters simply decide they rather like Liz Kendall and quite fancy another five years of cuts and privatisation, actually?

The Labour ‘realists’ keep going on about how Labour needs to stay as a party of government, not a party of protest. But Labour MPs are sitting in the House of Commons, paid by those taxpayers that the ‘realists’ keep pretending they care about. They have a choice. They can take a ‘tough decision’ and use their influence to hold the government to account, as they’re paid to do. Or they can sit on their hands and stick their fingers in their ears and refuse to oppose things that will cause actual harm just to make an abstract point. A point they will be hammered on anyway, because Labour will probably always be seen as the party of the welfare stare. Labour is the party of the welfare state. Or, rather, it was, once upon a time. If any of the leadership hopefuls really want Labour to be seen as a party of government, they should take a little bit less interest in the beauty pageant of leadership contests, or the faffing around with percentages in marginals to decide what position to take on any given day, and take a little bit more interest in showing they are actually up to the serious business of governing.

Why do we care so much whether technically you can be racist to white people or not?

Why do we care so much whether technically you can be ‘racist to white people’ or not?

We need to make sure we always have the best, more qualified, most informed people in each job. That’s what meritocrats who don’t see colour or gender or anything else always say. Tell me why, then, we have so many repetitive, inexpert voices, who speak without intentional malice, just with a complete lack of understanding?

This week we have heard a lot about ‘racism against white people’ in the context of Bahar Mustafa’s safe spaces and ironic jokes which have offended so many. Anyone who thinks ‘safe spaces’ of this kind are places full of groupthink and indulgent mollycoddling has almost certainly never been anywhere near one. I’ve been called out and challenged to think about my words, actions, and my most deeply-held opinions more in ‘safe spaces’ than in any other place I’ve ever been in my life. Strange how those who complain about safe spaces and groupthink also are so often the first to denounce so-called ‘call out culture.’ Which is it? We are too critical, jumping on everybody who opens their mouth until no-one can say anything, or we are too circular, just sitting there nodding our heads?

Let’s talk about safe spaces. Let’s talk about triggers. It’s a flawed, perhaps problematic analogy, but we put warnings about flashing cameras on things to help people with epilepsy makes choices about what media to consume. Many people have no understanding of PTSD (despite, of course, being given space after space to write about it), and vaguely imagine ‘triggered’ just means ‘upset.’ So the idea of a warning that something might throw you back into reliving a vivid flashback of being raped (for example), make you sick, make you unable to function for a time, make you pass out, make you panic and struggle to breathe, is dismissed as nonsense for the over-sensitive.

The ignorant conclusion those people arrive at is understandable I suppose, if irritating, but the demand that people don’t set up our own safe spaces either, while refusing to understand or respect people’s needs in public spaces, feels like outright bullying to me.

Safe spaces are not just about PTSD, of course. It takes a huge amount of personal energy to watch people with no knowledge or understanding or interest in listening to actual experts dominate the same old boring conversation, a conversation that is about your life, time and time and time and time and time and time again. Imagine walking into a university level maths seminar, with people who have years and years experience, academic or literal or both of maths, and stating that you don’t agree Pi exists, because it’s never used in common language between you and your mates.

And imagine, when people suggest you chat to a tutor separately if you want to learn maths, but actually, in this seminar people have turned up to have a bit of a more complex discussion about maths that you might find confusing, demanding that you have a right to be in the space and you’re being discriminated against for not knowing about maths.

People will say, of course: “Ah, but that’s about a level of understanding, not skin colour. Bahar Mustafa wanted to discriminate on skin colour. My skin colour is irrelevant to my ability to understand racism, my gender irrelevant to my ability to understand sexism.”

This is simply not true. Just look at where we place our focus. When Katie Hopkins or David Starkey or Jeremy Clarkson or John Terry or Prince Philip or David Coburn or Iggy Azaelea or Ricky Gervais or Frankie Boyle or Dapper Laughs says offensive things, you might hear a condemnation of what they say, but the focus, the central point, always gets dragged back towards “freedom of speech” and their “right to say it.” Ched Evans raped someone for crying out loud, and the overwhelming din from the media for week, if not months, was “do we really want to blight this man’s career, his future, over a mistake?” Meanwhile, when Bahar Mustafa or, as we learn this week, young Muslims who don’t want to shop at Marks and Spencer’s or drink booze (no, really), offend us, we might in passing acknowledge that they have a right to say what they said, but the focus always gets dragged towards why ‘reverse racism’ matters, whether you can be racist to white people, whether ‘social justice warriors’ have gone too far, and, above all, why it is so important not to be racist to white people.

Your life experiences impact what you think is immediately compelling about an event or news story. Of course they do. You can’t help it. It’s why diversity isn’t the opposite of “getting the best people for the job” – it’s the only possible way of doing it. How else do you explain the disproportionate amount of fuss made over whether technically you can or can’t be ‘racist to white people’?

And, boy, can people talk about that in great length! Why do we want it to be called ‘racism’ so much? Comparing institutions and patterns of systematic, deliberate, historical oppression with someone offending you because they dislike you as an individual for your white skin on one single occasion does seem extremely minimising to me. And since there’s already a word for the former (racism), how about we (white people) just let it go, and call it something else when someone is a bit mean about a white person?

Perhaps that’s not how your mates use the word. Perhaps you only ever use words in their colloquial meanings. Perhaps, in the maths seminar analogy, you think the professor could reasonably be expected to refer to Pi or zero or some other concept that mathematical experts probably have a rather different understanding of than you do, by a different term. But you probably don’t. You probably recognise that maths experts know more about maths than you do.

You probably understand (or who knows, maybe you don’t), that straight men aren’t all creepers, but understand that lesbian bars exist for women, and the bouncers might be inclined to turn away big groups of men who turn up demanding to be let in. You probably understand that a mental health support group isn’t a space you can wander into in order to ‘learn’ about mental illness, by listening to people’s experiences and vulnerabilities. You probably also recognise that David Cameron’s wealthy background doesn’t in itself make him personally a bad person, it just means that his perception of life is a bit different to that of a guy who works in Morrisons. And that his policies reflect that. So it is relevant to the debate about his ability to do his job well.

Imagine if David Cameron turned up in a trade union meeting about, say, the living wage, to ask questions like “but why does it matter if you earn an extra 20p an hour, it’s such a tiny amount anyway? Can’t you just use your savings? I don’t agree with your definition of the terms ‘work’ and ‘wage’ and ‘welfare state’ and ‘working class’ – after all, most people don’t commonly use it that way. Can you explain why you use the term ‘wage’ when technically we are talking about someone working for their benefit (because that’s what we have decided to call it)?” He might just get told piss off.

And imagine him saying, but how will you grow this movement, if you don’t let me in? If you tell me to shut up? I’m on your side, I believe in aspiration! I want to help you. You have to listen to me, I have heaps of ideas. I know about this stuff, man. I really, really, really care about it. I learned about it at school.

But one thing they don’t seem to teach you at schools like David Cameron’s is that you don’t need to be leading or speaking or even in the room where others are speaking in order to support social progress. You can volunteer time for boring, thankless tasks that no-one wants to do, donate money or possessions to charities and refuges, listen, learn, elevate, empower and validate and support others. It’s no fun hearing it if your entire skill set is to have opinions and say things for a living, but the most constructive thing you can do a lot of the time is shut up.

Klass war (look you know you all wanted to do this headline ok)

Sorry but Ed Miliband was terrible on Newsnight

The “what about the Londoners” Mansion Tax argument shouldn’t be a hard one. Rich people, who choose to live in London, just like anyone else who “chooses” to live in London, will be hit by the fact that property is expensive in London. That’s the price you pay for choosing to live in London. That’s what we say about everyone else, whether they’re unemployed, on low wages, or on more-or-less average wages. “I’m not rich, I just choose to live in a £2m house in one of the most expensive cities in the world” is not a convincing argument. At all.

Myleene Klass sounded good to a lot of people making such a daft argument because those people didn’t expect her to be so articulate, which is probably not unrelated to the fact that she’s a very conventionally attractive woman and she’s famous for singing pop songs and popping up in M&S adverts. She had the advantage of surprise.

Ed Miliband is a potential future prime minister. He should be able to respond, articulately and convincingly, to a rich person saying basically “I don’t like paying tax.” Of course he should. It’s absolutely fair to say that Myleene Klass “wiped the floor” with Miliband and “gave him a pasting.” The fact that her arguments were superficial and self-serving makes that worse for him. “I missed the ball but in my defence it should have been an easy hit” is not a very good defence.

This really gets to the crux of Ed Miliband’s problem. A lot of people genuinely think he’s right on key issues. A lot of people believe he more or less has a good heart and is an intelligent man. People know he can give good, long speeches when he needs to, and people know that the Tory party’s policies have been found to worsen the wealth divide in Britain. What people are nervous about is his ability to hold his own in a debate or a negotiation, and command leadership. I am not saying Ed Miliband doesn’t have these abilities, but to leap all over Myleene Klass for winning the argument, an argument Miliband really, really should have won, feels like a bit of misdirected frustration. I’m not saying it isn’t kind of amusing to set up a petition to help Myleene Klass pay her mansion tax and make fun of her ridiculous assertion that you’re somehow hard done by if you can only afford a couple of million pounds to buy – to buy! – a house in London because oh my god horror of horrors it might be kind of small, but it’s not Myleene Klass’s fault political debate has sunk so low that Newsnight brings her on talk about tax (instead of some boring old fart like, say, a tax expert). Nor is it her fault that the leader of her majesty’s opposition turned into a rabbit in the headlights when confronted with one of the major economic questions of the day. The reason the interview was annoying and embarrassing to watch was nothing to do with Myleene Klass being useless – it was entirely because of Ed Miliband.

Yes, another blog about rape

I really wish I wasn’t writing yet another blog post about this. I wish we were done with it already. It seems the articles, blogs, diary entries, personal testimonials, criminologists, legal experts, historians, anti rape charities and terrible, tiring, triggering explanations will never be enough. So here. Have another little piece of my energy, another little piece of my mental well being. But can you do one thing for me? Please can you at least try? Can you do that? Please at least just try to let this be about rape survivors, not about you.

It may or may not be news to Richard Dawkins and his Twitter supporters whom he is so uncritically retweeting, but the most central moment in processing your rape for many survivors is nothing to do with deciding to report or obtaining a conviction; obtaining the validation of an external legal system that yes, what happened to you should not have happened, because it happened without your consent. It is a moment that happens within you, yourself, where you first apply the dreadful, enormous, shame-associated, guilt-laden, painful word – ‘rape’ – to that terrifying, traumatic, degrading thing that happened to you.

Many, in fact most, rape survivors never report the incident. Many never tell anyone. Let that be your starting point. Rape is not an abstract concept that becomes something else if we call it something else. If you don’t report it, it didn’t magically never happen. If you don’t have a jury convinced that there is a bit less than 100% absolute absence of reasonable doubt, that doesn’t heal you.

Why, then, are so many people obsessed with the technical legalities and the best criteria for reporting or convicting, when this isn’t what defines a rape? The legal technicality is about whether the rapist will be told and made to accept that they are a rapist, and whether they will get some sort of punishment. The point feminists are making is that the important person, who should be centered in all discussions about rape, is the raped person. How do they feel about what happened to them? What do they need to feel safer in their own skin? How will they best be helped and healed? If you wade into a conversation about rape and your starting point is to tell survivors not to report things, not only are you totally telling them not to do something that statistically they most likely weren’t going to do anyway, you’re also making the conversation about something which is actually kind of besides the point.

Let’s just suppose Dawkins gets his wish and all survivors with memory lapses (which, incidentally, is a pretty common and natural response to trauma, something you’d think a scientist would be aware of) stop reporting rape. What next? You must know that isn’t the end of the matter. The nightmares, the flashbacks, the throwing up, the terrified jumping when somebody fucking sneezes or claps their hands behind you, the terror of closeness and intimacy and trust, these things don’t vanish because there’s no been smartly dressed men validating or refusing to validate what happened to you in a courtroom. Life goes on. It gets light. It gets dark. You have a bitterness in your mouth and a fist in your gut every time somebody innocently barks out the word ‘rape.’ You lie awake at night with your eyes open, staring into nothingness, wishing you could sleep. You bite at your hands or cut quietly at your wrists to try and numb it, or make sense of it. You sneak out to the toilets at work to throw up when your colleague says, ha, we totally raped them with that deal. Your partner brushes against you in the night and you shake in fear before you remember where you are. It gets light. It gets dark. It just goes on, you get older, and you get more and more tired of having to explain to people that whatever you call it, whatever words other people approve of you using, whatever you tell people and whatever you keep silent, whatever words other people understand it as, rape is always, always, always still rape.

The difference between the Richard Dawkinses and feminists isn’t that he isn’t aware of all that and feminists are. It’s that it is irrelevant to him, because those stories, those voices, aren’t what he wants to talk about it. But when you talk about rape, that is what you’re talking about, whether you like it or not. There are some people for whom rape is a subjective term, who believe there is a debate as to whether we can apply it to the above scenarios or not. Then there are people for whom it is not subjective; for whom it is painfully specific. For those people, the above scenarios are not a side consideration, or an exception to a rule. They are the entire point of the entire conversation.

And if rape survivors are not the point of your conversation about rape, then what is?