Riding the New Wave: Feminism & the Labour Party – Introduction

This year, spurred on by social media and the effects of the recession, a new wave of feminism is gathering strength at an impressive pace. Over 200,000 people have signed the No More Page 3 petition nationwide, lads’ magazine Nuts finally pulled down its shutters, and groups like Daughters of Eve, who campaign against female genital mutilation, are gaining global attention.

As our formal political channels fall further into disrepute (a 2013 Ipsos MORI poll found that just 18 per cent of people trust politicians to tell the truth) and our political parties struggle to offer inspiring solutions to the challenges people face in their daily lives, this increasingly vibrant wave of feminism seems to be everything that party politics is not. It’s dynamic and accessible; designed to encourage active instead of passive participation from supporters; and it’s run by people from all walks of life. Most of all, it’s autonomous, driven largely by single issues, with no party line to fall in with.

Labour is the party of social justice, equality and tolerance. As Lisa Nandy MP outlines in her chapter in this collection, it achieved a great deal for women while in office: a national minimum wage that brought a million women out of poverty, increased maternity and paternity provision, flexible working and Sure Start centres. It should therefore follow that the party is the staunch ally of feminism. But relations are currently cool at best, and every day, women prove they can address the issues that affect them without the help of MPs.

We might be forgiven for thinking that Labour is in danger of becoming an irrelevance for this generation of feminists who care passionately about inequality and social justice but do not identify with the party politics of yore. But this collection shows that Labour has much to learn from the feminist movement in countering political apathy – and that it can still be a vehicle for contemporary social activists to achieve lasting, systemic change in their fight for equality. The collection is about providing a platform for a diverse group of feminists – black and disabled feminists; transgender campaigners; women across generations; new and established voices – all of whom bring a fresh perspective to this challenge.

In his chapter at the start of this collection, Stuart White argues that grassroots groups create new spaces for political debate, and can act as a vital counterweight to vested corporate and elite interests that plague contemporary politics. The trick, as Colin Crouch wrote recently in the Fabian Review, is for the Labour party to embrace the “groundswell” caused by social movements which has led to “widespread pools of implicit support for social democratic values” while respecting – valuing, even – their autonomy and lack of partisan loyalty. This may be difficult for a party which is too often centralised and hierarchically rigid, but it is essential if the party is to become a genuine movement again.

So what can feminism teach Labour about political participation and engagement outside the mainstream? These activists and political thinkers have a variety of responses to this question, also reflecting on how feminism stands to benefit from a healthier relationship with the party in return. Indeed, in the age of neoliberalism and historic concentrations of power in the hands of the few, the transformative political action that feminist campaigners want must be routed through government by working collaboratively.

Though the authors have very different takes on the problem, several key strands can be identified. First, there is far more to do to get more women working in mainstream politics. Describing the harassment, bullying and other barriers currently faced on a regular basis by women MPs, Kirsty McNeill points out: “The real question is less ‘why won’t more women enter politics?’ and more ‘why would they?’” However, she writes that through ‘widening the pipeline’ into politics, and offering protection and promotion to female MPs, these worn-in patterns of patriarchy can finally be challenged.

Elsewhere in the report, it is argued that widening the pipeline should also include supporting up-and-coming candidates from non-traditional backgrounds. Talented women may often be found in local campaign groups; transgender activists Anwen Muston and Natacha Kennedy write that Labour could do far more to “elevate talented individuals from minority groups by equipping them with the skills they need to win through structured training programmes.”

Second, Labour should take seriously the extent to which online campaigning is igniting the interest of thousands of women who did not previously consider themselves ‘political’ at all. It has helped women who feel alienated and excluded from mainstream and political structures find a voice and a support network. Lisa Clarke, a 40 year old nurse from Nottingham who started working for No More Page 3 after becoming involved with their campaigning, writes: “I see many women like me who on the back of their campaigning experience are entering into dialogue with politicians and attending meetings at Westminster”. Labour must become more adept at reaching out digitally if more feminist campaigners are to make that crucial journey from online activism to real life participation.

Third, Labour needs to get better at sharing power. Ivana Bartoletti writes:  “Feminism means a radical transformation of the traditional allocation of power, whether that is in families, institutions, the media or the wider economy … If Labour wants to engage with the new generation of feminists, it has to speak about the core issue of power.” If the party wants to win the trust of campaigning groups they can only do that by trusting people in return. In practice, this means making it far easier for people to gain access to political decision-makers and submit meaningful contributions to the policies that affect their lives. Taking part in feminist actions, online debates and protests makes people feel powerful again. Party politics too must encourage this empowerment.

Fourth, the autonomy of the feminist movement is its lifeblood, and feminist campaigners can be wary of politicians. As Zita Holbourne, co-founder of Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC UK) states in her chapter: “The only time I ever see local councillors is when they are canvassing for votes … [but] the party must be willing to support our grassroots campaigns in the spaces we have created”. With this in mind, the Labour party must make a more explicit commitment to welcoming the ideas, experiences, skills and talents women from all backgrounds, generations and walks of life. Collaborating means campaigning in partnership with them – not just in the meeting rooms of Portcullis House, but in the political spaces they have created in their towns and cities. As Crouch warns, Labour should try to ally with but not control these movements. For such collaborations to work, local Labour parties also need to become more pluralistic and open. In the latter case that would mean, for example, committing to campaign on some of the issues that BARAC UK campaigns on, such as the multiple discriminations faced by young black people, while respecting that their strong anti-austerity stance does not comfortably align with Labour’s public spending policies.

From Yas Nacati’s campaigning for sexual consent to be taught in schools; Fiona Mactaggart MP’s description of the constructive potential and social value of older women (which often goes unrecognised) in their families and communities; to disability campaigner Sue Marsh’s work campaigning against government cuts, there is a wealth of energy and ideas radiating from the pages of this collection alone. Collaboration will not always be easy and political parties will forever be chasing the tail of a movement as fluid as feminism, but Labour needs to find ways to hang on and enjoy the ride.

This is the introduction to our joint publication with the Fabian Society ‘Riding the New Wave’ which can be found here


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