The mess over Clive Lewis is how we know you see misogyny as a game

If you were a Tory and you wanted to give the impression that you, and your political colleagues, take misogyny very seriously, you might think that taking a stand over an MP’s supposedly misogynistic comments in a public setting is a no-brainer. It will show that you care about misogyny. It will show that the Labour party doesn’t care about it. It will show that left-wing people can be misogynists too, and that misogyny isn’t the sole preserve of the political right. Right? 

Well, I promise you that every single woman who is on the left and cares about misogyny already knows, probably better than you do, that misogyny is rampant among left-wingers as well as Tories. I promise you that nobody believes having a socialist perspective on economics means you can’t be sexist. After all, why would it?

Why bother to have this fight and have it now? It’s an embarrassing time to be a Tory. You can’t smugly go on about the merits of economic soundness because whatever you feel about Brexit, there’s no sensible way to argue that it isn’t an enormous economic gamble – even if you believe it’s a gamble that will pay off. You can’t enjoy your chuckles anymore at the Labour leader’s inexperience or his weak party support, can you? That’s turned a little sour, hasn’t it? And you can’t exactly talk about the last Labour government leaving a mess, since your party has now been in power for about 7 years.

So what can you do? What better way to try and divide people than use what you guys call ‘identity politics’? It’s a classic Tory move, it’s tried and tested, and as long as you’re fairly removed from the reality of what people actually care about and why we care about it, you may feel like it kind of works. You may distract people from your own party’s mess but if you take a step back you’ll see it’s not a good look for you, either. There’s a glaringly obvious glass houses thing going on here; Boris Johnson is your foreign secretary, Philip Davies MP who is essentially an elected representative for the so-called men’s rights movement, sits on the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee, your Brexit Secretary David Davis reportedly grabbed Diane Abbott, kissed her without her consent, and then laughed it off in texts declaring that he did not kiss her because he is “not blind.” Jacob Rees-Mogg was touted as the party favourite for leader all summer, and your prime minister herself, when Home Secretary, presided over, knowingly or otherwise, some very brutal treatment of women held in detention centres at Yarl’s Wood, including women who were profoundly traumatised. Your prime minister also chose to make headlines for herself by denouncing ‘safe spaces’ that are free from, among other objectionable things, misogynistic jokes. Your Minister of State for Universities Jo Johnson has only this week made headlines for himself by defending “free speech” with the threat of fines or suspensions for universities that allow safe spaces. Presumably Johnson will find this dangerous, censorious (that’s the kind of melodramatic language we use to defend dodgy comments, right? Shall I throw in “Orwellian” for good measure, too?) attack on Clive Lewis’s “free speech” to be equally objectionable. Although who knows, because it was admittedly a rather confused defence of free speech by Johnson; it somehow ended by expressing strong opposition to the public protest campaign #RhodesMustFall. This protest apparently doesn’t count as free speech for some curious reason.

By the way, it’s not only Tory politicians who are showing their hypocritical arses by condemning Clive Lewis. Jess Phillips, best known for being cheered on by journalists when she told Britain’s first black female MP Diane Abbott to “fuck off”, for replacing Britain’s third black female MP Dawn Butler as Chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, and for hanging out socially with Jacob Rees-Mogg who she describes as “a real gent,” has joined in with the condemnation of Clive Lewis. At least the Tory MPs are probably aware that they’re being massive hypocrites and using misogyny as a stick to beat the left with for their own personal gain; people like Jess Phillips seem to really believe that they’re on the side of the angels. 

The reason I’m not falling over myself in a fit about Clive Lewis’s choice of words isn’t because he’s closer to my political perspective than, say David Davis or Boris Johnson. It’s because I actually take the impact of misogyny seriously. It’s not a cosmetic game or a way of deflecting from serious things. Serious things like the universal credit rollout leaving people without food for weeks, for example, or the pathetic spectacle of our prime minister begging EU negotiators to take pity on her and help keep her in power because her own choice of foreign secretary is so appallingly incompetent, dishonest and yet popular with her party membership that, despite everything, she argues, the EU leaders ought to work with her to prevent him nicking her job. (I don’t usually think of Theresa May as a wildly original thinker but I have to admit that emphasising your weakness and desperation as a leader is an extremely novel negotiating tactic.)

Clive Lewis’s joke may have made some women uncomfortable, and if they want to say so, then of course that’s fair enough; they absolutely should be able to speak up about it and we should absolutely listen. Lewis himself has already apologised for what he said; nobody is making out that it warrants no comment or discussion. But if you’re nowhere to be seen until it’s politically expedient to call someone sexist, if you’re using misogyny as a way to distract public attention away from very real policy choices your party has made – choices that actually do have a meaningful impact on women around the country – then you should know that jumping up and down on Clive Lewis’s head does not make you look as if you care about women at all. In fact, it does the opposite. It shows up crystal clear for us all to see that far from giving careful consideration to the impact of your actions or words on women, you see misogyny as a minor, incidental thing; a tool for you to play with whenever it works to your own benefit to do so. And I don’t know, but maybe in the long-term, the perception that you’re disingenuous, opportunistic, shallow hypocrites may actually prove more damaging to your public image than a consistent, professional silence, in this instance, might have been.  

Advertisements

What if ‘identity politics’ really did provoke the rise of the far right? What then?

There are two buzzwords right now that spike my blood pressure every time they’re uttered: “ordinary people,” and “identity politics.” These two buzzwords (or buzz phrases, I suppose, to be accurate) are often thrown around in conjunction with each other. They’re both fuzzy in meaning, yet we also all know exactly what – and who – is meant by both of them.

We know that “ordinary people” is code for “the opposite of identity politics.” People without an “identity.” Or rather, an identity that hasn’t been politicised. “White working class” is definitely an identity, and so, for that matter, is “posh white MP who looks like a third rate Harry Potter stand-in”. But talking about how white people’s fears about immigration must be indulged or taxes are too high for hard-working people isn’t “identity politics.” These are all “ordinary people.” (Seem logical so far? Excellent.)

If you’re one of those self-indulgent moaners who is always doing “identity politics” then – and this might be news to you, because you might not have realised you were this influential – but it turns out you’re to blame for the rise of the far right across the Western world. That’s right – Brexit, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Golden Dawn – it’s a backlash against you. Well, you, and other people like you. People (“ordinary people”, that is, not people like you. “People” never means “people like you”), people are so alienated, provoked, and embarrassed in equal measure by you, your existence, and the fact that you dare to make comments on the way public policy impacts your life from time to time that, apparently, struggle as they do, they simply cannot help but turn their support over to borderline (or, in some cases, not so borderline) fascists.  

How are you alienating them, you might ask? Well, for a start, you’ve probably been picking them up on factual errors, especially factual errors with consequences. You may have heard claims about immigration lowering wages or weakening the economy and challenged them with official figures. You may have seen people make claims about what Muslims believe or wear that don’t chime with your own experience so you joined in the conversation. Who wouldn’t be provoked into voting to leave an entire body of law after that? You’re not supposed to be well-informed. That is proof of your elitism. You need to accept that the people who voted for Brexit are very well-informed, and probably read every single piece of legislation that has ever come out of Brussels to assess the consequences before casting their vote – but you should also remember to be respectful of people, by pretending you agree with everything they say, even if it’s factually incorrect, because they won’t be interested in facts or experts, and to imagine anything else is patronising. 

You also probably use words like “cisgender” or “intersectional”. According to articles I’ve read in down-to-earth, read-it-down-the-pub-while-waiting-for-a-beer publications like the New Statesman, and the Guardian, “intersectional” is such a long word that by the third syllable it literally stops “ordinary people” from being feminists. In fact, it actually forces them to start treating women like objects every single day, in protest at the audacity of a writer having the nerve to imagine they would be able to grasp such a wildly complicated concept. Everyone in Stoke-on-Trent was reading about intersectionality on twitter last time I was there, too, which is why they’re all driven to vote for Paul Nuttall in the by-election. I know, it seems a bit unbelievable, the idea that people are both completely removed from something but also their voted is shaped by it, but this must be true as a piece of analysis. After all, the New Statesman and the Guardian are sure that it’s the fault of words like these, and they’re about as down to earth and in touch as you can get. That’s why they never use any words with more than three syllables, words like “nationalism” or “pornification” or “deindustrialisation” or “neo-Popularist”. Certainly these publications never discuss academic concepts, like Keynesianism, or Neoliberalism, and they only ever reference modern, pop cult classic writers like Sheila Jeffries, Janice Raymond, and Germaine Greer to back up their arguments. So you can see how words like “queer” and “cis” and “#punchnazis2017” really pushed them over the edge.

But wait! You might be more than a little indignant at this. In fact, you’re actually very passionate when you talk about these things, not least because they directly impact your life. If anything, people dismiss you because you’re too emotional, aggressive, and biased. That’s partly why you present yourself as academic and use so much evidence to back up your points in the first place. Yes, well, that’s also true. What do you mean that’s a contradiction? It’s perfectly simple: you’re too aggressive but also too wimpy; too academic but also your arguments are poorly-structured and don’t follow professional debate rules; you’re too introspective and obsessed with your own, personal victimhood, but also, you should be more like Donald Trump because he’s the model of a healthy ego. You’re too detached and irrelevant to people’s lives, but also, you’re not respectably dressed and you haven’t done a full PhD on the subject; you’re too busy following the mob and jumping on bandwagons but you don’t pay attention to the popular mood in the country; you’re too sensitive but also you’re lacking in empathy for other people because you don’t mix with anyone outside your bubble.

That last one, if you’re anything like me, might get you in the gut the hardest. The idea that you could be unintentionally insulating yourself into a segregated bubble of safety bothers you, so you check yourself to see if this is true. But, if you’re honest, it really does feel like you spend quite a lot of time hanging out with different people, from different backgrounds, who speak different languages, with different gender identities, and different states of personal health or physical ability, with different ideas about the world. Yes, you know that you probably do spend a lot of time around people who are similar to you in various ways, you’re not trying to completely deny that, but at the same time, you’re not entirely convinced that the Daily Express newsroom, or the Ukip headquarters, or the average evening with David Davis’ or Liam Fox’s friends would necessarily be more diverse than your little insular bubble. In fact, you have to admit, you reckon there’s a chance it might be even less so. It’s not immediately clear to you how the insular nature of your social or professional bubble might be so much worse that it renders all your comments on the world irrelevant.

I do see why you might be confused. I was confused too, until I learned that “in a bubble” doesn’t mean you mix with people who are all the same. “In a bubble”, you see, actually means the opposite of that. For example, one unanswerable piece of evidence that you spend your life “in a bubble” is if you live in a big city like Manchester. If you’re trying to define “ordinary people”, by the way, Manchester and Liverpool are very confusing places: you may think that they are full of these much-mentioned “ordinary people.” Ukip’s new leader Paul Nuttall is definitely an “ordinary person” in spite of all other evidence to the contrary chiefly because he has a Liverpool accent. However, these cities are both super queer-friendly (super friendly in general), they both voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, and both insist on voting for the left-wing luvvies in the Labour party. (Which means, of course, that no Conservative or Kipper must criticise Labour in those cities, because the will of the people has spoken. Right?) When you consider that in Liverpool so many people (rather famously) hate the Sun newspaper, it becomes clear that they can’t be “ordinary people” after all.

But even these privileged, elitist, cosmopolitan stuffy Liverpudlians, swanning about in a city where everybody owns at least six yachts and nobody eats anything but prosecco-soaked kale isn’t as much of a bubble as the nation’s capital. That’s right: if you live in the capital city, by virtue of it being one of the most multicultural, diverse cities in the world, you are, in fact, living inside the ultimate “bubble.”

I know what you’re thinking: there are lots of people living in London who do their damned best to still be “ordinary people.” If you look really, really hard, there’s still silenced, beaten down, underground enclaves where you can find “ordinary people”. There’s Finsbury Square in Islington where Nigel Farage used to work as a stockbroker, or Kensington, where Ukip MEP David Coburn’s address was officially registered before he rented property in Scotland while campaigning there to be elected to the European parliament. Both roaring with “ordinary people.” (Don’t get me started on Scotland itself, by the way. Very few “ordinary people” living there. You can tell how resolutely pro-Westminster establishment they are by the huge number of Scottish people who voted for an insurgent third party instead of Labour or the Conservatives in the last election. You can also tell because nearly half the country backs Scottish independence, like the Westminster establishment lackeys they are. The Scottish people would never, ever, even begin to understand the legitimate economic anxieties that Ukip voters in Surrey are facing so don’t even bother telling me it’s significant that they voted to remain in the EU, okay?)

So I guess it’s possible to be a Londoner and be an “ordinary person” after all. But if you happen to have one of those politicised “identities” that we all know about, then, sadly, it’s quite tough for you to ever be an ordinary person. Because the fact is, the people who in the biggest bubble of all are minorities. Everybody knows that. If you live every day in a society where the dominant groups of people are not people like you, and who like to remind you that they’re not like you, whether you try to ‘integrate’ into the dominant community or not, you will always, sadly, be “in a bubble.”  

If this sounds like Alice in Wonderland on stilts, it’s because it is. We all know what “in a bubble” means, just like we all know that “ordinary people” means.

Firstly, here are some things it doesn’t mean. In a bubble doesn’t mean assuming every relationship looks like yours or shrieking about how other people’s love makes you want to throw up. In a bubble doesn’t mean assuming everyone is assigned the right gender at birth because you were. In a bubble doesn’t mean that you expect everyone to look like you and that you have a hissy fit if a film you enjoyed as a child is remade with some lead actors who don’t look like you, while simultaneously claiming, if anyone is happy about the remake, that you do not see why it matters what the actors look like. In a bubble doesn’t mean throwing a tantrum when a bus has to wait for a wheelchair user to get on. In a bubble doesn’t mean smugly telling people to calm down about Trump because you don’t know anyone who has been affected by his rhetoric or his policies. In a bubble doesn’t mean bragging about you’d gladly chuck away your right to privacy, because if you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear, because you never grew up with the fear in your gut of being outed and you never got hate speech or violent threats sent to you for being too sexual or not sexual enough or having the wrong opinion, and you’ve never been given any reason to distrust the police.

No. These things are not examples of being “in a bubble.” It is not literal. Just like “Metropolitan elites” and “the establishment” are not literal either. We bang our heads against walls trying to argue down the absurdity of Trump or Farage or Arron Banks or Lord Ashcroft calling themselves anti-establishment, but it isn’t absurd at all once you realise that it is not literal. It is code. Translated, “in a bubble” means this: that you are too insulated from the people who hate you. In a bubble means that you don’t feel scared enough. In a bubble means you don’t feel scared, and you should feel scared. It means: how dare you not feel scared? It makes me sick that you aren’t scared. How dare you go about your life without apologising for yourself, without being eternally grateful to every “ordinary person” who doesn’t beat you up or call you a dyke?

And once we realise this, the logic of saying: you caused the rise of the far right by living in a bubble suddenly becomes clear. It’s not an excuse, or an abdication of responsibility. It’s a threat. They are saying: don’t you know how easily we could remove your humanity? Don’t you remember? You better remember, you better not push us too far, you better not expect too much or get too happy, because if you do, you leave us with no choice but to bring back fascism.

These groups of people (you know who I mean) want to pretend that we are the ones who politicise our own identities, but the reason that us being “in a bubble” makes them so furious is because it shows them that we have the audacity to forget for a bit that our existence is a political issue. We have the audacity to believe, for a bit, that our “identity” – our existence – is not still up for debate. That is what they want. They want it up for debate. They want us up for debate. They want us to not be “people”, but an abstract issue, a question, a problem. A problem that requires a solution.

That’s why it’s so dangerous for us to give ground on the matter of “debate.” It’s not about winning these people round with ideas. The debate itself is what they want. They want us to be up for debate. They have said as much themselves. 

I’m not speaking, now, to the people who make these arguments as threats to us. I’m appealing to the well-intentioned people to whom these arguments have filtered down. People who say they’re on our side while blaming us, while lecturing us about how we are obligated to present evidence in our own defence. As if opening your eyes and looking around the world isn’t “evidence” enough that bigoted beliefs are nonsense.

Asking people to “debate” far right politics is shifting the burden of proof away from the person making the case for extremism, and on to the person who is expected to provide evidence for their own humanity. We don’t shift the burden of proof in this way unless we believe that an argument holds some level of validity. In doing so, we are kind of accepting the premise of the far right argument. We are implying that they are making a reasonable case, that now needs to be disproved. And we’re kind of saying that it’s your fault if you’re not able to make a convincing enough case for your own existence.

People’s humanity should not be left in the hands of their tactical debating abilities. Imagine playing a panel show game, with panel show rules, rules that perhaps you aren’t even familiar with. Rules like “if your voice goes above a certain pitch, you lose the game,” or “if you swear, you lose the game.” Imagine that you’re playing against people who have practiced this game since they were young, because they went to a school were everybody played this game, all the time. Then imagine that if you lose the game, not only does it count as evidence against the case for your own humanity, but it’s also used as evidence against the humanity of everybody who shares your features, or hair texture, or romantic orientation, or faith. Because every time you play this ridiculous game, you are playing it as a representative of all those people. Would you want to play? Would you consider it worth the risk? How would you feel about that game being screened on television or at a university hall, as soft level entertainment? Marine Le Pen having a chat with Andrew Marr while we sip our coffee, wondering how many points she will score this time, wondering who will win this round of the game, this is not normal Sunday morning entertainment. 

I don’t know. Maybe people like me did provoke voters into voting for nationalism and probable economic oblivion. Maybe it really is our own fault. And if that’s true, I’m sorry, I’m truly sorry. I’m sorry I shared things on Twitter and blogged about politics and got emotional in public and embarrassed you, the respectable left, so much with what you call “identity politics” and “political correctness,” and what I just call “life” and “stuff that impacts people I care about.” I’m sorry if I did it wrong and fought for things I care about in the wrong way. I’m sorry, most of all, if I have made things worse for people who will be impacted most.

I don’t believe, as it happens, that these things caused the rise of the far right. I don’t believe these people when they make demands about what we must do or give up to placate them. They have been telling us in Britain for ages that they will all calm down if only we can have tougher borders and an immigration points system like America. But America has all this and they still voted for Trump. Nigel Farage and his friends have been telling us that all they want is a system just like America. Now he’s cheering on Trump and saying the American immigration system is too soft. No amount of “toughening the borders,” no amount of associated cost to human life will never be enough for people like him. America has an extraordinarily harsh immigration system, and Barack Obama deported somewhere around 2.4 million undocumented migrants – that’s more than any other President in history. It didn’t stop them. Because they aren’t telling the truth when they say dropping “identity politics” or “political correctness” will make them back off. Of course they aren’t. They aren’t making reasonable, moderate, meet-me-halfway requests. They are making demands. Demands, and threats. 

“You provoked me into harming you, and if you fight back, it will get worse, so don’t fight back” is always a repulsive argument. But even if it is true, for the sake of argument, the question is, what then? Because while I doubt I provoked people into voting for Brexit by sharing one too many jokes about Nigel Farage with a microphone moustache on Facebook, it’s almost certainly the case that we are seeing a strong backlash more generally against social progress. Or “identity politics”, as you might call it. “Political correctness.”  

And this is the point where I do get a little angry. I understand that for people who are primarily in the business of trying to get votes, that means you have to get people to like you. You feel you can’t define their actions as racist or tell them you disagree even if they’re talking rubbish or stand up to them if they’re coming for your friends. However, I am not trying to get people to vote for me. And every time I open my mouth, it’s not my responsibility to do free campaigning for the Labour party, or for “our side”, or anything like it. I will always, always, always, put my friends, my loved ones, their safety, their feelings, what makes them feel safer, what action they ask me to take ahead of what is going to make a bigoted person want to be nicer to me. At least, I hope I will always do this. I may fail at it, because we’re in for difficult times, and I’m not very brave, and this won’t be easy.  

But what’s the alternative? I come back to the question again and again: what do you want us to do? I’m serious here; I’m really asking. What are the options? I’ll speak to homophobia because that’s my experience; if I am dealing with a homophobe, I have essentially three options. I can love myself, and provoke their anger, hate, and discomfort, and live with the knowledge that there are people who think I should be dead, or cured, but hopefully not many, and I don’t have to be around them much. Or, I can be apologetic, talk about how ashamed or tragic I am, talk about how I’ve struggled and how no-one in their right mind would ever choose to be gay, so please have mercy on me, and then praise them, gratefully, every day, for not hitting me, having me institutionalised, or for deigning to tolerate me. Or, finally, I can not exist. That’s really it. And let me tell you, if you think the second one sounds reasonable, that it often goes together, in the end, with the third one. For me, the first option is the only one I am prepared to accept without a fight.

So if the first option provokes fascism, what next? If your argument is that some people’s existence is so inherently challenging for “ordinary people”, so provocative, so hate-inducing, that it takes work, arduous work and study and mollycoddling for them to not want those people exterminated, and that the people they want to exterminate must do that work, as penance for existing in the first place, I have to ask you, whose side are you on? If you are coming from a place where you can only conceive of a world where “ordinary people” can dictate the terms of existence to “extraordinary people,” with the threat of fascism hanging over everyone’s heads should we provoke them again, you are not on my side. There’s no third way solution with people’s humanity. You’re either considered “people” or you’re not. If you’re not with me on that, then go ahead, protect yourself and the people around you however suits you best. Prioritise what you need to prioritise. But for the love of God, please stop pretending to give me advice.   

What George Michael meant to me in 1998

Self-abasement in exchange for basic tolerance is the standard get out of jail card for LGBT people. George Michael was having none of it.

I was about 13 years old when it happened. I felt like I was witnessing it in slow motion. A beloved superstar called George Michael was entrapped, outed and hauled to the mucky tabloid stocks for what I can only describe as a minor sexual misdemeanour. A “lewd act” which not only pales in comparison to the things that many straight  icons get up to with little to no judgment, but was also, of course, conflated endlessly with his sexual orientation. His outing and his “lewd act” were treated as one and the same. I was horrified, anxious, angry, as I listened to my friends and classmates snigger endlessly about George Michael and toilets and how he was a fag and ha ha ha isn’t it hilarious and disgusting, let’s all pour over the delicious details and be sickened with delight. For a long time, my stomach churned whenever his name was mentioned. 

Sometimes I would weakly laugh along, occasionally speaking up, usually not speaking up, terrified at the constant, snagging, sickening weight in my gut caused by the knowledge that one day, in the future, maybe not far from now, I would have to have The Conversation with people. That conversation. The one where you Tell People That Thing about yourself, that thing that you work so hard to hide. Not only was I fearful but I felt like such a cowardly little shit because I didn’t say much in his defence at the time. He was such a kind-hearted, generous-spirited person, always thinking about his fans and always concerned about the impact this was all having on young LGBT people. I was so deeply invested in delaying The Conversation Where You Tell People That Thing About Yourself, that I could never quite face it.  

And then. And then. I saw how he handled it. I saw him respond not with shame, not with apologetic respectability, but with a music video for Outside that went so full-scale, off the charts, fantastically gay you couldn’t possibly imagine he was doing anything other than celebrating himself and sticking up two fingers to people who had a problem with the whole thing. I mean, I’m talking about dressing-up-as-a-cop-in-leather-gloves-gay, public-toilets-turning-into-discos-gay; a celebration of queer, sexy joy in all its glory. 

I felt like that song and video made the perfect smack in the face for all those homophobes I’d heard trying to tear him down. And it didn’t matter if they didn’t get it, because actually, it wasn’t for them at all; it was for me. I felt like George Michael was going up to all those kids who were like “ha ha you’re GAY” as if it’s the worst insult in the world, and laughing in their faces: “You think this is gay? MATE. You’ve seen nothing. You haven’t lived. I am not even being gay right now. You’ve seen nothing. Damn right I’m gay. I’m gayer than gay. Oh babe, you think it’s an insult? Look how awesome being gay is!” Which is what I always longed to say but never did. 

I secretly adored this song. Not only the song itself but everything it meant to me. I loved the idea of making a song like that so much it hurt. This song that one of my friends told me I was not allowed to buy when she was with me because it was “so gay.” This song that caused one friend to keep pretending to be sick whenever it came on because “it’s so gay.” (It didn’t escape me that the same people who had mocked George Michael for being in the closet were now mocking him for making a song that was “too gay.”)

But the most beautiful thing for me was the evening I sat in my family living room to watch George Michael’s interview with Michael Parkinson. I saw that this man was still someone my family admired, someone they wanted to watch on TV, a man whose music they still listened to, a man they thought was brave and cool and human – and he was putting into words things I had not being able to spell out very well even to myself; things I had timidly attempted to scribble about in my diary, perhaps, but that was pretty much it. 

And actually, whenever I truly want to explain my sexuality, even to this day, I often still refer back to the way George Michael put it in this brilliant interview. It’s hard to find better words than this for how I feel. I never felt as if I entirely fit any of the labels, the way I’d understood them, the way straight people had defined them to me. George Michael summed up what, for him, made the distinction between being bisexual and gay so neatly, with such clarity, yet without removing the complexities of human experience – or, importantly, without trying to speak for anybody but himself – that even then, with no meaningful romantic experiences to speak of, I stopped dead. I thought my heart might stop with excitement. I forgot all about what other people might call me, and, perhaps for the first time, I began to think about what I might actually want to call myself. Even at 13 this distinction spoke to me so poignantly. This is what he said: 

“No, I wasn’t confused [about my sexuality]. I thought I was bisexual. When I could take it or leave it from either side of the fence, I just thought I was bisexual. The day I knew I was gay was the day I fell in love with a man. I thought it was about who you can get it up for. I realise now that it’s not about you get it up for, but about who you can get it up for – and love. So now I don’t think I’m bisexual; I am gay.”

I am sure this kind of thing has been said by countless others, of course. But I had never heard anything like it before. I had certainly never heard it from anyone who was such an enormous star. I watched the interview again after George Michael died and realised I still love, love, love everything about this. 

I love that he isn’t dismissing or minimising bisexuality. Unlike so many straight or gay people for whom “feeling bisexual” was a transition phase, he’s acknowledging that what he feels is not bisexuality, and so, by logical extension, that bisexuality is real and does exist. Bisexuality is not being “confused.” Come to think of it, this might be the first time I’d heard anyone talk not only about being gay, but about bisexuality with any measure of respect, any measure of acknowledgement that it is, in fact, real. 

I love that he doesn’t say being a lesbian or being gay means you automatically have no desire or curiosity or hot one night stands or enjoyable kisses with people of the opposite sex. Its funny, because if a woman says she enjoys casual fun with women but would only have a relationship with a man, the assumption is that she’s heterosexual, even if she herself says she’s bisexual. Yet if you are gay, people find it much easier to process it if you say you have never, ever so much as looked at someone of the opposite sex. 

Yet it’s well-known that for many people, including straight people, there’s a world of difference between being into someone for Netflix and chill, and actually liking that person in a meaningful way. Far before falling in love comes into it, there are some people where it’s just not about anything deep, and it never will be, and that’s fine as long as you both know it. Casual fun with the opposite sex doesn’t necessarily make you straight – or even bisexual. We are not supposed to say this. But he did. 

And I love the truthfulness and authenticity of his answers to these questions all the more for the fact that at this time, he was trying to rescue his image from a very public trashing. He could have thrown bisexuals, promiscuous people, polyamorous people, and kinky people under the bus to save himself and play the respectability and hypocrisy game that the media loves. He didn’t. 

I love the conviction with which he rejects the familiar old self-flagellating narrative he gets offered up by Parkinson time and time again as a lifeline throughout that interview. Self-abasement in exchange for basic tolerance is the standard get out of jail card for a lot of LGBT people in the public eye. It is a tempting rope to grab. George Michael was having none of it. 

I love that he talks about getting it up and falling in love in the same sentence. In 1998, as far as I could see, we were supposed to be either  entirely sexless, or degenerate animals. We could not be whole. Bollocks to that, George Michael seemed to be saying. We have sex and we fall in love and guess what, it’s not always with the same people. But sometimes it is with the same people. Because we are whole. 

Sexuality is so personal. It would be amazing if any of these labels entirely fit any of us. Yet even at 13, George Michael’s definition, as uniquely personal as it was, touched upon some level of truth for me. I had never heard anyone express anything so honest about queerness. Clumsily, chaotically,  I listened to this interview, heart racing, and thought: wow, yes, that’s it, that’s how I feel, that’s how you tell people. Maybe I can have The Conversation. Maybe it will be okay. 

It was largely because of George Michael that I realised there are different ways of loving and having relationships and having sex. You don’t have to pretend that arbitrary boxes fit your reality when it’s obvious to anyone with the most basic understanding of human interactions that the boxes are painfully small for the task. 

George Michael’s coming out was my earliest memory of hearing someone seriously suggest that perhaps it was the boxes that were wrong, not me.

It was like someone was reassuring me: you’re allowed to exist. If your existence is too confusing for people, they need to change their silly, pointless, self-imposed boxes. You don’t need to not exist. The boxes need to not exist. You are not wrong for existing. Your existence is not a problem to be solved. Maybe one day you, and others around you, will even celebrate it. Not tolerate. Celebrate. 

Hearing that George Michael has died, seeing the outpouring of love for him (including the hypocritical tabloid press that hounded him), I’m flashing back to George Michael’s coming out, his Parkinson interview and the fabulous self-acceptance of Outside. I want to celebrate his life and his music. The truth is, I feel slightly sick. Because I am also flashing back, vividly, to how all-consuming the terror was of being 13 years old and thinking that my very existence was an anomaly, an error, a bug in the system. A society that teaches a 13 year old that their existence is a problem to solve is abominably cruel, however unintentionally or subliminally it’s done. If you tell a child repeatedly that they should not, by rights, exist, what do you think they will do? It is not melodramatic to say that hearing these things articulated saves lives. 

I want to feel like that’s all in the past. I want to end my blog by saying how far we have all come, and how wonderful it is. I can’t make myself feel this. We live in a world now where the most powerful person in the world, the American President Elect, does indeed view entire groups of people as a problem to be solved, and is not shy about saying so. That is scary. That is how true horrors happen. 

The people who minimise the importance of things like famous people coming out and nullifying some of that terror are usually people who have not grown up believing their own existence is seen by others (perhaps even by their own loved ones) as a problem to be corrected. They have never sat in a room where respected people debate their right to exist, or debate what conditions should be attached to their right to exist. They do not know the fear that never quite dies; the fear that the people who think you are a problem to solve will one day hold serious power over your life. 

I used to be in awe of the cognitive dissonance these people were capable of. You know who I mean. The people can moan on Monday about political correctness and cheer on “locker room talk” from the President Elect, but by Tuesday they are attacking a musician for being a poor role model or for having too much sex. People who smear and humiliate anyone queer who is open about their sexuality, but also criticise people for staying “in the closet”. They attack LGBT people for “flaunting” their love in public or wanting to get married but also for being dirty disgusting queers who use public toilets or night time parks or pay sex workers in secret. 

These are also, amusingly, often the same people who pounce on any deviation from our boxes as evidence of dishonesty (“You said you were a lesbian but you kissed this man!”) then have sneering tantrums when we make bigger boxes (“Why are there so many letters in LGBTQIA, why can’t it just be gay and lesbian, yawn”). 

I used to be in awe of their cognitive dissonance but I’m not anymore. If 2016 has convinced me of one thing, it’s that these people don’t even believe that they believe any of this. They couldn’t possibly mean it all. The contradictions are too great, too ridiculous. And many of the people spewing it all out are too well-informed, too clever with logic, too self-aware to believe such directly contradictory things. What they are is homophobic, and what they want is for people like me to go away. 

In 1998, I sat in my bedroom, wondering if I would ever be able to be happy, if I would ever get to have a romantic relationship with a woman, and if so, if I could do it without everybody finding out. I wondered what was the worst thing that could happen if I just never told anybody, ever. And I wondered if I would dare to buy Outside on cassette. What would the salesperson in the shop think of me? Would I hide it when my friend came round, or would I show her it, defiantly? Perhaps, even if I didn’t buy it, I would just admit, quietly, that I liked the song. Perhaps I would admit to myself why it made my heart leap every time it came on the radio. (I never did buy it. I picked it up in the shop and turned it over several times in my hands. I put it back. I pretended I didn’t like the song.) 

As I go into 2017, decades later, I am living with my wonderful girlfriend who makes my heart sing every day, who my family  members welcome into their lives with open arms. And I feel so much gratitude to people like George Michael, whose battle with the media vultures helped me, and thousands of others like me, know that we are allowed to exist, that we are not an anomaly, that we are not a problem that needs correcting. I never write to celebrities – they get so many letters, what would mine matter? – but I have often thought of writing to George Michael. I never did. Just like I never bought the Outside cassette. In 1998 I wanted to blast that damn song from the rooftops. Maybe this weekend I will. Let’s go outside. In the sunshine. I would like to be playing it as a victory anthem. But for now, a celebration will do. 

‘Taking control’ means taking responsibility, too

Okay, first of all, no more petitions to re-run the referendum. Please. It confirms everything that the Brexit campaign has said about people who wanted to stay in the EU. People voted. It’s done. The anger at over-turning it or demanding a do-over would be so enormous that Brexit would probably not only win again but would win again with an even higher margin. And the level of rage we would see in response could honestly be so great as to be dangerous.

That’s not to say that down the line there is not room for the debate to be continued. Given that people voted for Brexit for a myriad of different reasons, with different goals and different visions of post-Brexit Britain, it seems reasonable to say that once a specific deal has been reached, that it could be put to the public, to give people a chance to have their say again. And, of course, going into a general election, parties can campaign on whatever platform they like. But right now, the vote was to leave the EU. Everyone must respect and, to use an irksome political phrase, be seen to respect it.

Okay, now I’m done with all that. Please also stop with the accusations that we, the people who supported Remain, are labelling everyone who voted for Brexit and thick or racist or both and are terrible mean bigoted people, when we raise our concerns about the severity of the impact of Brexit, or the strengthening of the far right. This simplistic and dismissive response to people’s very real concerns about the impact of Brexit, the way the campaign was fought, and the way decisions of this importance can be sensibly made is getting extremely tedious. Democracy doesn’t mean that the minority has to shut up and respecting people’s right to have an opinion doesn’t mean you have to pretend to agree with it.

First, the racism bit. I am extremely bored with the inane statements about how not all leave voters are racist. No-one is saying this. There could are lots of sensible arguments on both sides of the EU debate (I have written about some of them myself). But that isn’t the campaign that the Leave strategists chose to run. What I have heard expressed is: ‘The Brexit campaign won because of racism.’ That is a very different statement from ‘every Brexit voter is racist.’ And it’s true. Of course it’s true. We know from polling, interviews, and conversations with people in real life, that huge numbers of people voted for Brexit because they basically dislike foreigners. I know people who did so. It is a senseless, patronising waste of everyone’s time to pretend that this isn’t the case, and to pretend the campaign we saw was not fuelled by racism and xenophobia. By the end, they might as well have sent out leaflets saying: “If you want a Turk for a neighbour, vote Remain.” It is not helpful to pretend not to see it. It wasn’t only Nigel Farage’s poster. There was a banner from Leave.EU which claimed we were in danger of an Orlando-style shooting if we voted to Remain. There was that map sent out claiming Turkey will join the EU, with the only countries labelled on the map being Syria and Iraq (let me know if you can think of any non-racist reason for that. I am stumped). And who can forget that Nigel Farage genuinely warned of middle-eastern men coming to assault European women. Let’s not pretend that comments like that are accidental. We know they are very old, tried and tested techniques to stir up racism and xenophobia without taking responsibility for it, for political ends.

So calm down and have a beer, because no-one is calling you, personally, a racist. I’m sure you’re a lovely person. But so what? I am sure when the Conservatives ran their infamous ‘if you want a [slur] for a neighbour, vote Labour’ campaign, there were people who voted Conservative for other reasons. Perhaps they disliked the Labour candidate. Perhaps they didn’t agree with Labour’s economic policies. Perhaps some just thought Peter Griffiths would do a good job as MP for Smethwick. Do you see the flaw in this reasoning now?

Ultimately it doesn’t much matter if your motivation for putting those people into power was racist or not. No-one cares about what is going on inside your heart. No-one cares if you like them or want to hang out with them or want to have sex with them. People care if your actions impact their lives, their rights, their safety. Once the far right is out of their box it matters very little who opened the box, or why they did it. All the Brexit voters are not racist but what does that matter; the point is that huge numbers of Brexit voters are comfortable with racism, and prioritised something else over keeping racism out of politics; huge numbers of Brexit voters were happy to vote in such a way as to give a mandate to racists, and to reward a racist campaign, thereby encouraging more of the same. That, I’m afraid, is a factual reality of what you voted for. You can be offended by it as a lovely non-racist Brexit voter but that’s tough. If you get into bed with Nigel Farage don’t be surprised if people look at you funny when you’re doing the walk of shame in the morning without your knickers on.

It is at this point that I expect to hear the familiar cries of either ‘but unity!’, or, ‘I’m bored of this now; get over it.’ With regard to the first, well, you might want unity but that’s just tough for the time being. I’m afraid you can’t run or support that kind of campaign and expect everyone to be the same towards you in the immediate aftermath. Actions have consequences. Telling everyone else to shut up and stop boring you by discussing the consequences of your actions is not cuddly and warm; it’s actually quite unpleasant. And make no mistake, you can tell people to shut up in whatever polite, superior language you want – don’t be divisive, calm down, let’s not be hysterical, let’s have a bit of positivity – but that’s still what you’re doing.

But the second cry, the cry to ‘move on, get over it, stop discussing it’ is perhaps the most troubling. Look. I absolutely believe that most voters knew what they were voting for, looked at all the facts, and voted carefully for what they believed was best. I am also aware that many voters feel lied to, ill-equipped to make the choice, or exploited, and am happy to accept that this is not their fault. What I am struggling to be patient about, however, is the huge groups of people who insist with furious indignation that they analysed all the information, and are absolutely qualified to make this decision, but are now puzzled to find that people are still discussing it, and think it’s hilarious that so many people are so angry, scared, and upset by what they’ve done. There is no nice way to say this: if you think we should all just forget about it now, like a football match that our side lost and your side won, then guess what – you did not understand the ramifications of your vote. If you didn’t realise there would be consequences for the pound, the wider economy could be plunged into recession, we would end up with – and this is just off the top of my head – effectively no Prime Minister, potentially the breakup of the United Kingdom and the end of the peace process in Northern Ireland, then I’m afraid however intelligent you are and however carefully you considered the information available to you, it’s really, really, not unreasonable for people to question whether we, any of us, are qualified to make such a momentous decision by the means of a referendum.

Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not like I think I’m any better informed or smarter than you. I’m not. None of us has time to read all the legislation that comes out of the European Parliament and analyse the impact on domestic and foreign policy; none of us has time to speak to world leaders and diplomats and economists around the world to pull together detailed insights into what impact Brexit would have on world markets and borders and the likelihood of peace; none of us has time to read up on the full-scale impact of Brexit for workers rights or human rights, women’s equality or trans equality (I mention trans equality in particular because the Trans Equality Legal Initiative has produced a briefing on it, which you can access here); none of us has time to calculate by how much food prices will go up and what impact that will have on child poverty and malnutrition; none of us has time to consider all the different Brexit models, establish how all of the above and many, many more things would be impacted by each one. That’s not because we are ignorant or thick, it’s because we have day jobs, families, partners, friends, and we are not subject experts. I know, those pesky experts again. But you see, just because experts sometimes get things wrong, it doesn’t mean that the whole concept of knowledge or expertise is null and void. I get that it isn’t our fault we were asked the question. But it’s not as if no-one told us that the consequences of Brexit would be disastrous – it’s not even as if only David Cameron and politicians told us so. Everyone told us so. World leaders. Economists. Business leaders. Scientists. Academics. Doctors. And contrary to the line we keep hearing, it’s not about class. Plenty of homeowners in leafy suburbs voted for Brexit; plenty of people in low or no income voted to Remain. Immigrant-free seaside towns or leafy suburbia can be just as much of a ‘bubble’ as London, you know. This is nothing to do with ordinary people who voted Remain thinking we know best. You are the ones, the Brexiters, who thought you knew best. You knew there was no plan, no answer to any of the above – how could there be, when all the people campaigning for Brexit can’t even agree on what model they want instead – and you still thought you knew best.

That is why people are pissed off. That is why people are struggling to be polite through your sneering and mocking people’s concerns. That is why people are still talking about Brexit. I’m not pissed off at people who can see the impact on the markets already and see that they may have made a mistake. I’m not pissed off at the people who were confused about why we were asked the question in the first place – the people who have spent the last several months asking, pleading, begging, for the facts and the information they needed. It’s the having the cake and eating it attitude that pisses me off. That attitude comes from the politicians who are supposed to be steering the ship and have no plan, but, yes, also, I’m afraid, from those voters who thought they knew better than the experts, and now find the inevitable chaos that has ensured boring, funny, or someone else’s problem. The Brexit camp wanted to take control – but when it’s time to take responsibility, none of them can be found.

EU referendum: Beyond liberal economics

The official campaigns from both sides of the EU referendum debate are both so exasperating I frequently find myself wishing I could vote against both of them.

Neither campaign deserves my vote, and yet, it is an historic question, which is bigger than both official campaigns. It is bigger than David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn; certainly bigger than Nigel Farage or George Galloway.

While the official campaign representatives haggle over how best to reduce immigration and cut benefits, the rest of the serious, complex issues that are affected by EU membership never seem to get a look in. It isn’t surprising; this EU referendum debate, and the reason we are having it in the first place, is all down to the fight in the UK between different types of conservative; between economic liberals and social conservatives. No wonder the spectrum of debate is narrow. 

Take Lord Stuart Rose’s comments to the parliamentary select committee last week. Lord Rose asserted that Brexit (specifically, an end to the ‘free movement of people’ between EU member states) would lead to fewer people on the Labour market, and, consequentially, higher wages. Will Straw, the Labour Executive Director of Britain Stronger In Europe campaign, was asked about this on the Daily Politics and replied that the evidence shows free movement of people is ‘good for the economy overall,’ while Conservative Danny Finkelstein said that higher wages aren’t always a good thing as they could increase unemployment. It’s not just the In campaign. Look at the way Boris Johnson, on the Andrew Marr Show, dismissed concerns about job losses as a result of Brexit, by saying that leaving will be good for the economy overall.

What if you simply want to know more about the impact of staying or leaving on your wages or on your job? You’d be forgiven for getting the distinct impression that this debate isn’t about you; that both sides consider you to be at best an annoying irrelevance.

These things are gold dust for the likes of Ukip, a party which loves to play the ‘anti-establishment’ card whenever it can. Without so much as having to lift a finger over workers rights or wages, Suzanne Evans, Louise Bours and Douglas Carswell get opportunity after opportunity to frame themselves as the only people in the room with any concern for low waged workers. (Or, I should say, for some low waged workers. They do not even pretend to care about all workers.)

With the arguments we keep hearing both for and against EU membership so rooted in classical liberal economics, it is unsurprising to see that Jeremy Corbyn flat out refuses to say he is “on the same side” of the debate as David Cameron. He is right, of course. He is on neither side in the fight between the two kinds of Tory. He is neither a classical liberal conservative nor a social conservative. His cautious, carefully-weighed answer to the question of which ‘side he is on’ may be intellectually honest, and to many it will be admirable, but unfortunately it leaves a gaping hole in the referendum debate which Alan Johnson cannot fill by himself. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party needs to be asking – and, ideally, answering – the question: what are the modern left-wing arguments for and against the EU project, and how do we weigh them up? 

The Labour party should not be scared of debating this openly. No-one can accuse them of ‘splits’ or ‘division’ when the Tories are practically plotting a leadership coup over the issue. And it’s not like the Labour party is taking the opportunity to criticise the Tories for being divided on Europe – they’ve had a bat and ball handed to them and they’re choosing not to even attempt to swing a hit; the least they could do is take the opportunity to work up a modern, social democratic vision of the EU while the government is busy fighting among themselves.

Besides, for all the critical talk of ‘splits’ in the Tory party over Europe, I find it rather refreshing to see politicians drop the ridiculous pretence for once that everyone in one party agrees on every single thing all the time; that they must all stick to the lines they are given, even if it doesn’t fly, even if it makes no earthly sense, even if everyone in the room knows full well that they do not believe it because they have said so in the past, on camera. 

And here lies one of the big risks for the In campaign: that the freedom to speak authentically puts the Brexit campaign at an advantage. Brexit is mostly made up of people who have spent years, decades, perhaps their whole political lives pondering the issue of the EU. While sometimes coming off as slightly weird and monomaniacal, it is evident from listening to these people that they care deeply about the subject, and know the arguments inside out. Michael Gove, Owen Patterson, Douglas Carswell, David Davis, John Redwood (although not, quite noticeably, Boris Johnson): these men give the distinct impression that there are very, very few questions about the EU that a journalist could throw at them which they haven’t spent hours considering for many hours over the course of their lives, while boiling an egg, waiting for petrol, sitting on the toilet, and basically any time their minds wander.

In contrast, many of those who are part of the In campaign are striving to stay on message, and repeat the approved lines. Many of them – not all, but many – appear as if they have not given the subject much profound or careful thought at all; in some cases because they never imagined Brexit to be on the cards in any serious way, and in some cases because they simply don’t see it as that important.

While sticking to a clear, agreed message might give the In campaign a more professional image, especially to the usual analysts, who tend to work in communications, media, or both, and therefore view everything through the lens of whether it looks like ‘good communications’ or not, we only have to look to the successes of people like Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump to see that this isn’t always a winning strategy these days. To many undecided voters, David Cameron and his colleagues risk sounding stilted, unenthused, arrogant, and – perhaps the biggest risk to the In campaign – elitist. The narrative that the ‘establishment’ wants us to stay in the EU and ‘the ordinary people’ want us to leave is helped further by stories about vital documents being withheld from pro-Brexit ministers or John Longworth being suspended from the British Chamber of Commerce over pro-Brexit comments. (Both these things may of course be entirely reasonable, but they feed into a perception about the fairness of the debate.)

And this is where Jeremy Corbyn’s voice is so sorely missed for many in the EU referendum debate – and where it is conspicuous by its absence. His ‘USP’ as we all know is his authenticity and his tendency to formulate policy positions on the basis of evidence, and by listening to the people affected, rather than choosing them as part of a communications strategy or ideological narrative. It is a strength, but it is also a great challenge to pursue intellectual honesty – and not just in politics. When you follow evidence and logic on complex issues you often end up with a conclusion that displeases those with much more power than yourself, or, a conclusion that does not fit under any labels, and it is therefore not saleable.

This is the problem with the EU debate. The right-wing case for the EU (that it facilitates globalisation in the modern world and is good for business in general) is saleable. The right-wing case against the EU (that it brings red tape and regulation, and allows too much immigration or the ‘wrong sort’ of immigration) is saleable. The left-wing case for leaving (that it is a “capitalist club,” which dilutes and overrides parliamentary sovereignty) is saleable. And yet, even though the EU is a social democratic project in so many ways – indeed, this is why so many right-wingers want out – it seems to be beyond the wit of the Labour party to articulate a saleable, authentic, progressive case for staying in the EU. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, with a large mandate, a philosophical thinker with an authentic voice who has credibility among left-wingers, seems the ideal person for the task. We may ask ourselves why he seems so cautious about stepping up to it? 

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.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: