The UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Select Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into reform of the Gender Recognition Act, following the outcome of the government’s 2018 consultation on proposed changes which in turn followed the Select Committee’s 2015 inquiry into trans equality. The committee put out a call for written evidence and have also held, so far, one oral evidence session.
I was already aware that Survivors’ Network, despite its origins as a grassroots feminist organisation, run by and for female survivors of sexual abuse, has in recent years adopted a policy of (to coin a phrase) ‘acceptance without exception’, under which all its women-only services are open to ‘self-identifying women’ and therefore may include male people who identify as women, as service users, staff or volunteers.
Nevertheless, I was still shocked to see an organisation which exists to respond to the devastating effects of (overwhelmingly) male violence now arguing for a review of the law which permits women to exclude male people from some services and spaces, when they have a good reason to do so.
This is a long post, in two parts, in which I try to discover what has caused this about-face.
Part 1: which came first, the policy or the evidence?
In both the evidence submission and this 2019 statement on their website, Survivors’ Network make the claim that “We know, through ground-breaking research, that trans people are disproportionately impacted by sexual violence”.
But when you click through to the research itself, it doesn’t answer (or even ask) any questions about the rates of sexual violence experienced by trans people. The high rates of sexual violence experienced by trans people are taken as adequately evidenced by other studies, and mentioned only in this scene-setting paragraph:
“Trans* individuals are often marginalised and face significant levels of abuse, harassment and violence, including sexual violence (Hill and Willoughby, 2005). More specifically, research in the United States has shown that approximately 50% of trans people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime (Stotzer, 2009), compared with 20% of cisgender individuals (Black et al, 2011). Moreover, the ‘Trans Mental Health Survey’ (McNeil et al, 2012), the largest survey of the trans population in the United Kingdom (UK) to date, shows that between 40 and 60% of trans people know someone in their trans community who has experienced sexual violence.”
Now, I have done a lot of detailed work, which you can read below if you feel like it, to show that this is extremely flimsy evidence for a disproportionate impact of sexual violence on trans people. But I didn’t need to go to such lengths to see that there is something very wrong with this statement.
Just read it through again and think about it. Approximately 50% of trans people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. This is a distressingly high figure, I agree. Is it out of proportion with the level of sexual violence experienced by women? No.
Between 40 and 60% of trans people know someone in their trans community who has experienced sexual violence. Ask any woman if she knows a woman who has been raped or sexually assaulted. I can guarantee you the rate of positive responses will be a damn sight higher than 60%.
Compared with 20% of cisgender individuals. What? I beg your pardon? Is this piece of research, commissioned by the rape crisis service for Sussex, seriously suggesting that “cisgender individuals” is a meaningful category to use when discussing sexual violence?
Feel free to read to the end of my analysis to find out how they reached that figure of 20%, but before you do, just think about it. Sexual violence is the quintessential expression of patriarchal power. It is what holds up the whole edifice of male domination. It is a constant presence in the background of every woman’s life, from infancy. There is nothing about being “cis” that acts as a protective factor against sexual violence if you are female.
And a so-called feminist organisation is asking us to believe that it makes some kind of sense to measure sexual violence experienced by 99% of male and female people as a combined group? No.
I am, frankly, horrified that Survivors’ Network are prepared to sponsor this profoundly anti-feminist approach.
When I did the work of looking into these sources in more detail, I found that, in addition, the figures presented are far from robust. Always check the original source, kids.
So what does the Survivors’ Network research show?
In fact, the Survivors’ Network research is really about barriers for trans people accessing services. They interviewed 42 trans people who were survivors of sexual violence. These testimonies are valuable, interesting and moving, showing that trans people face a range of specific issues when accessing this kind of support.
Some findings include:
“The vast majority (83%) of respondents reported that they would feel uncomfortable accessing a service that advertises itself simply as ‘for men’ or ‘for women’”
“Over half (56%) of survivors said that it was also important or very important that the staﬀ/volunteers at the service are also trans or non-binary, while 64% said that it would be important or very important that they were not the only trans or non-binary person using the service.”
“While it is important that existing services become more inclusive of trans people, the research also demonstrated a clear need for specialist services for trans survivors of sexual violence. Since their experience of sexual violence and their support needs are often affected by their gender identity, specialist services could offer more supportive and clearly targeted services.”
The study’s conclusion reveals the inherent tension between maintaining the feminist approach which has always underpinned sexual violence services and complying with the new ideology of infinite gender possibility:
“Service providers and policy makers need to continue highlighting the gendered nature of sexual violence (Reed et al, 2010), but they must do so in ways that do not exclude those who do not conform to the male/female gender binary. In particular, while research (Women’s Resource Centre, 2007; Sullivan, 2011) clearly demonstrates the importance of single-gender spaces in the healing process of many survivors, it is difficult to determine which individuals should have access to such spaces, given the variety of gender identities and presentations among survivors, and to what extent such spaces match the needs of an increasingly gender-diverse population (Gottschalk, 2009).”
How does the policy relate to the evidence?
In my view, there is no inherent contradiction between meeting the expressed needs of trans survivors and those of female users of single-sex support services, if providers and funders are willing to put in enough resources to do both.
This research could have been used to support the provision of sensitive specialist services to meet the specific needs of a community that is undoubtedly marginalised and in need of support. Survivors’ Network – in response to the needs identified in this research – currently offers an online support group that is specifically aimed at trans, non-binary and intersex survivors of sexual violence, for example. I’m glad this group exists.
But the much more wide-reaching impact of the policy justified by this research has been to dismantle specialist service provision for another (much larger) community – female survivors of sexual violence.
None of the services offered by Survivors’ Network now meets the needs of women who need – or would simply prefer – support in a female-only environment.
Every ‘women-only’ group or service offered by Survivors’ Network is described as open to ‘self-identifying women’. Moreover, the weekly two-hour helpline is no longer a women-only service. It’s not even a service for self-identified women, but is now for “people of any gender”.
The personal stories gathered in this research mirror those frequently told by women asking for specialist services that respect their specific experience of the trauma arising from sexual violence. Survivors’ Network used to be a place where women who needed female-only space to recover from that trauma could find the support and solidarity they needed. That option is no longer available to them.
In summary, the “groundbreaking” research commissioned and frequently cited by Survivors’ Network:
- Does not contain any new information about the rate of sexual violence experienced by trans people
- Presents research carried out into this question by other people in a misleading way to create a predetermined impression
- Contains evidence which supports specialist service provision but has been used to justify replacing specialist women-only services with services open to both sexes.
Organisations like Survivors’ Network exist because violence against women and girls is endemic in our society. They grew out of the collective determination of women to speak up for each other, to create spaces in which that violence may be reckoned with, understood, grieved over and survived, in whatever way helps each woman to find her own strength. That task is in no way complete. The need for women’s support organisations is all too persistent. Given this, I want to know why services run by and for women are seen as expendable by the trustees, managers and funders of Survivors’ Network.
Male violence damages everyone, in millions of different ways. I am not interested in excluding trans people from services they need. Not at all.
But my investigation has led me to conclude that the rape crisis service for Sussex has made an ideological commitment to meeting the needs of this community at the expense of the equally compelling needs of female survivors. When presented with a conflict between the feminism which birthed the organisation and the gender identity theory which is now dominant in the UK’s statutory and voluntary sectors, they chose to surrender their principles, along with yet another of the small, safe places created by and for women.
Part 2: Showing my workings
Is this evidence that “trans people are disproportionately impacted by sexual violence”?
“Trans* individuals are often marginalised and face significant levels of abuse, harassment and violence, including sexual violence (Hill and Willoughby, 2005). More specifically, research in the United States has shown that approximately 50% of trans people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime (Stotzer, 2009), compared with 20% of cisgender individuals (Black et al, 2011). Moreover, the ‘Trans Mental Health Survey’ (McNeil et al, 2012), the largest survey of the trans population in the United Kingdom (UK) to date, shows that between 40 and 60% of trans people know someone in their trans community who has experienced sexual violence.”Supporting transgender survivors of sexual
violence: learning from users’ experiences; Sally Rymer and Valentina Cartei, on behalf of Survivors Network; Critical and Radical Social Work • vol 3 • no 1 • 155–64, 2015
Of the four studies referenced here, three use data primarily from North America. Hill and Willoughby’s work was aimed at developing a quantifiable scale and questionnaire to measure prejudice against trans and gender non-conforming people. The authors undertook three small-scale studies in order to test and calibrate their scale, concluding that “Although previous research has shown acceptance of transsexuals, these studies demonstrated that anti-trans views were neither rare nor difficult to elicit. There was a wide range of responses to the GTS scale, but some scores indicated extremely intolerant attitudes toward gender variance.”
The study was not aiming to quantify the level of abuse, harassment and violence experienced by trans people, but to develop a tool future researchers could use to understand the underlying beliefs motivating such behaviour.
Stotzer’s research was a review of other studies into violence experienced by trans people. The author presents data from a range of self-reporting surveys, stating that “the most common finding across surveys and needs assessments is that about 50% of transgendered persons report unwanted sexual activity.”
I am not a professional researcher, and I hope readers with more relevant skills will let me know if this is an unacceptable method, but it seems to me that an alternative way to assess a range of studies like this would be to use the reported percentage from each study to calculate what percentage of all the study participants reported having experienced sexual violence. Applying that method to Stotzer’s figures, I calculated that 42% of participants in the ten studies mentioned had experienced rape or sexual violence.
Of course, whether this figure is 50% or 42%, it is undoubtedly a distressingly high proportion. But is it reasonable, as Survivors’ Network do, to compare this with a figure of 20% for “cisgender individuals”?
Comparing apples with oranges
As noted in Stotzer’s article, there are significant methodological issues relating to the use of this data: “self-report surveys often use samples that are easiest to access and the most visible, such as transgender people accessing drug rehabilitation centers, HIV/AIDS services, or who are engaged in sex work. This clearly does not reflect a representative sample of the wide variety of transgender people in the United States and around the world.”
The only UK-based research cited by Survivors’ Network is affected to some extent by the same limitations as those used in Stotzer’s study. The Trans Mental Health Survey was completed by a reasonably large but self-selecting sample of 889 people living in the UK and Ireland, recruited from “Trans support groups, online forums and mailing lists with UK members” and publicised “primarily through word-of-mouth”. The authors note that due to the impossibility of identifying the entire population of trans people, their “research relies on participants self-selecting”, and that “the sample may not be demographically representative of the trans population as a whole. In particular, the sample primarily comprised white trans people and a good proportion of those had undertaken post-Secondary education. There is no way of knowing for sure how representative this sample is.” Overall, however, they state: “While our sample is essentially one of convenience, we believe that we have fairly robust findings given the sheer size of the sample.”
This survey did not ask a question about all experiences of sexual violence, but did ask participants whether they had been sexually assaulted or raped “because you are trans”. 14% of respondents reported having been sexually assaulted and 6% having been raped because of being trans. The percentages experiencing fear of sexual assault or rape were much higher, at 42% and 38% respectively. When asked about the experiences of other trans people, 28% said they personally knew of someone who had been raped because of being trans, and 44% said they knew someone who had been sexually assaulted because of being trans. (percentages estimated from Figure 10, reproduced below)
This appears to be the source of the Survivors Network researchers’ claim that “between 40 and 60% of trans people know someone in their trans community who has experienced sexual violence”. Presumably the range of between 40 and 60% reflects the unknown degree of overlap between these two sets of respondents.
However, especially given the recruitment methodology of this survey, these figures tell us very little about the number of trans people who have actually experienced sexual violence. We have no way of knowing how many of these respondents are thinking of the same incidents of rape and sexual assault. Given that respondents to the survey were recruited from trans community support groups and networks, it seems very likely that several participants would be aware of each incident of rape or sexual violence within this small and connected community.
This statistic has multiple issues which make it unreliable as an indicator of the prevalence of sexual violence experienced by trans people in the UK. Someone using the same method for other crimes listed here could end up suggesting that 14% of trans people have been killed because of their trans status. Fortunately, murder of trans people in the UK is in fact extremely rare. The context in which this extrapolated statistic is used in the Survivors’ Network research suggests that this is as reliable a source as their fourth study, but this is far from the case.
What about the fourth study?
The final study cited in the Survivors’ Network report is the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010, carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA. From the report’s introduction, we learn that:
“The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey is an ongoing, nationally representative random digit dial (RDD) telephone survey that collects information about experiences of sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence among non-institutionalized English and/ or Spanish-speaking women and men aged 18 or older in the United States. NISVS provides detailed information on the magnitude and characteristics of these forms of violence for the nation and for individual states.”
This is a much more robust study than the others mentioned, and should give us a reliable baseline from which to assess whether the data reported so far does describe a community that is disproportionately impacted by sexual violence.
The study found that nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives; an estimated 13% of women and 6% of men have experienced sexual coercion in their lifetime; and 27.2% of women and 11.7% of men have experienced unwanted sexual contact.
Using the same method employed by the Survivors’ Network researchers to deal with the unknown degree of overlap between these figures, we could therefore say that between 27 and 59% of US women have experienced some form of sexual violence. For men, this range is between 12 and 19%.
The Survivors’ Network report gives this study as the source for their figure of 20% of “cisgender individuals” having experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes. It appears that what they have done is to assume a complete overlap between the reported categories (ie that all of the people who reported rape and sexual coercion were included within the group who reported unwanted sexual contact), and then average the male and female percentages to reach a combined figure of 19.5%. Given the very large disparities between the rates reported by men and women in each category (over twice as many women as men have experienced each type of crime – in the case of rape, it is 13 times as many), this method serves to obscure the clearly disproportionate impact of sexual violence on women.
Here is the text of a letter I’ve sent to my MP, Caroline Lucas, following the government’s leaked announcement that they do not intend to amend the Gender Recognition Act.
I was pleased to see reports in last weekend’s Sunday Times that the government is intending to abandon its proposed reforms of the Gender Recognition Act.
The proposals arising from the 2015 Women and Equalities Select Committee Transgender Equality Inquiry were ill-considered and developed following a flawed process in which women’s organisations were not invited to participate as witnesses.
After the government indicated its intention to implement these proposals, including changes that would have made single-sex services illegal, several grassroots womens campaigns were launched, to defend the existing provisions in the Equality Act. As a result of this campaigning, the government was forced to back down on this intention in 2018, when the consultation on GRA reforms was finally announced.
Nevertheless, many statutory institutions, companies and voluntary sector organisations had meanwhile adopted policies which made it extremely difficult for women to access single-sex provision of services. This is a real setback for women and girls who need female-only space in which to recover from, reflect on and resist the impact of living in a sexist society. As a result of organisations adopting self-id policies:
- Women in Brighton have no access to female-only support and counselling when they have been subjected to sexual assault and rape
- Girls in Brighton schools are routinely expected to share changing rooms with male pupils, and official guidance suggests that any objection to this is contrary to human rights practice
- When a woman in Brighton requested that her preference for female clinicians (resulting from her experience of being raped) be recorded in her medical notes, her request was presented as an example of transphobia in staff training materials
- Anti-feminist and unscientific concepts such as innate gender identity and sex as a spectrum are being presented as settled fact in official local authority guidance for schools
Liz Truss’s statement to the Women and Equalities Select Committee in April included a welcome commitment to protecting single-sex spaces. This echoes a similar commitment in the 2019 Labour Party manifesto, and I am pleased to see this cross-party support for the existing legal framework set out in the Equality Act. I hope you will issue a statement adding your voice to this consensus.
Sex is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act, because discrimination, harassment and abuse on the basis of sex continue to blight the lives of women and girls in the UK and around the world. It is horrifying that women who have stated this fact, such as Maya Forstater, Kathleen Stock and most recently JK Rowling, are denounced and slandered by people presenting themselves as progressive.
The government’s decision to focus on a symbolic legislative change – introducing a self-declaration basis to the GRC process – rather than any of the material issues raised during the inquiry, was unwise and divisive. Taking a step back in order to proceed in a way that upholds the rights and freedoms of women and trans people is the right thing to do.
Please convey my views to Liz Truss. I would – as ever – be pleased to discuss these issues with you in person, and look forward to receiving your response.
A new leader of the Labour Party has been elected today. As expected, it is Sir Keir Starmer. I didn’t vote for him, nor for any of the leadership candidates. All the candidates showed appallingly poor political judgment on an issue I happen to know something about, but mainly I couldn’t get interested in the contest at all.
After December’s election defeat, it seemed clear to me that the Labour Party had managed to stifle its own last, best hope of becoming a place where the kind of political action and understanding we need could be developed.
Starmer’s victory is being served up to us as a return to ‘sensible’ politics, with ‘grown-ups’ in charge. But it is precisely this tradition which has fed and watered the idea of the all-important leader for so many decades. Not wishing to be left out of the current trend for being shown to have been right all along, this is what I wrote in 2015, when Corbyn gained enough nominations to stand in the leadership election:
“British political culture is obsessed with leadership. Leaders are required to be visionary, charismatic, good looking, inspiring, firm but fair, correct in all things and (most crucially of all) victorious. If they miss the bar on any of these aspects, they must resign.
The fact that the Labour Party’s response to losing the election was to immediately start a process of electing a new leader is just the latest manifestation of this obsession.
Jeremy Corbyn is not leadership material. He is not charismatic, firm but fair, correct in all things or victorious. I will leave the question of his looks to people more qualified than I to comment. He is an inspiring speaker, who articulates a vision, shared by many people, of a world that is more just, more peaceful and more sustainable than the one we are living in now.
He is the kind of MP most people would love to have – the kind we are also blessed with here in Brighton Pavilion – a hard working, principled advocate and representative. A kind of anti-leader.”
I was frankly astonished to read this ridiculous piece by Ian Dunt this morning, bemoaning the Corbyn movement as an example of unthinking hero-worship. But as I said, this whole thing feels like a sideshow.
Back in the real (end of the) world, people are busy bringing each other food, organising street by street, providing equipment for health workers, and sharing whatever they have with those who have nothing.
None of these people waited to be told what to do by Keir Starmer, Boris Johnson or any other ‘leader’. When it comes right down to it, we all know that the people around us are what keeps us alive, not the people who think they are above us.
The health of all of us depends on the health of each of us
We have been violently reminded that we are part of an ecosystem. We should not forget it.
This perceptive piece by Jane Clare Jones draws out some of the linked lessons of the current moment: value care, accept vulnerability and abandon attempts to erect borders between us.
As she points out:
In our isolation, what becomes suddenly and starkly visible is all the life-sustaining labour that usually goes unnoticed and undervalued, much of which involves material exchange and transportation. Food distribution. Stacking shelves. Water and gas supply. Delivering post. Sewerage and rubbish collection. All the material ins and outs across the thresholds of our homes and the borders of our bodies – the mucous membranes that mark, now more than ever, our vulnerability, but keep us all alive. It’s been said, and will be said again, that we must learn our lessons here. The invisible work we hold in such low esteem is, literally, vital, and we should value it as such. The virus could enter us from animals only because we’re also animals. And like all animals, we’re materially dependent – on water, air, nutrients and the Earth.
We can’t leave people sleeping rough, or jammed together in hostels, in the middle of a pandemic. Why did we ever think we could?
We can’t expect people to follow public health advice if that leaves them without the necessities of life. So everyone must be guaranteed a basic income.
We can’t pretend that Europe’s wealth protects us from diseases, when faced with a disease spread around the world by the very same global travel and commerce that made Europe rich. Whoever grows the food you eat, whoever picks it, whoever cooks your takeaway, cleans your hospital ward or delivers your parcel is intimately connected to you. Nationality is meaningless. Making different rules for people with or without residence rights is not only cruel, it’s positively dangerous.
It won’t all be over by Christmas
Right now, we are all comforting ourselves with talk of ‘when this is over’ and ‘when things go back to normal’.
But I think we are all also haunted by the knowledge that this is not something that can be fixed quickly. Nobody knows exactly how we are going to get through this, or if that is even possible.
We do know that ‘normal’ is not something we can go back to, even if we wanted to. ‘Normal’, don’t forget, was living in a house that’s already on fire.
We now see what an emergency response looks like. We need something on at least this scale for the climate emergency.
Under pressure from below, benefit rates have increased, self-employed people have been offered some kind of safety net, and workers have had their incomes underwritten by the government.
Our local council – with extensive input from the voluntary sector and local community groups – has established a network of food hubs and a central contact point for people who need help. Public buildings are being used to pack up food parcels and repurposed as hospitals. Homeless people are being accommodated in hotels.
As the ad hoc community response becomes institutionalised, the danger of borders being recreated is very present. Support must be available to everyone, with no questions asked about immigration status or local connection.
In the meantime, those of us who are lucky enough to still have money coming in will need to continue to share with those who remain locked out.
People who call themselves leaders should take note – this crisis is making it very clear to everyone what is essential and what is not.
This is the text of the speech I gave at the Woman’s Place UK fringe meeting at Labour Party conference in Brighton on 23rd September 2019. I have added links and images, but not altered the words.
I’m 50 years old. I’ve been a left wing political activist since I was 12. When I was 15 I spoke in Trafalgar Square for Youth CND, alongside a young MP called Jeremy Corbyn. I campaigned against Section 28 and helped set up Brighton Pride. I made the front pages by invading the stage at the Brighton Centre when Princess Di was welcoming a homophobic conference. I’ve had eggs thrown at me in Churchill Square and glass bottles thrown at me in London for being an out lesbian.
But I’ve never been as worried about the consequences of speaking in public about my beliefs as I am here today.
I want to talk about the division that has opened up between many feminist activists of my generation and the current queer activist movement. We should be each other’s allies, but the atmosphere is so toxic that we are hardly able to speak to each other at all.
I am worried that trans people I know and like will feel hurt and will think I am their enemy. I am not. I am worried that I will lose the friendship of people I respect in Brighton & Hove. I am worried that I will be treated as an outcast in some political circles, and that this will make it difficult for me to continue my voluntary activity in solidarity with migrants and with benefit claimants in the city.
I hope people will be prepared to hear what I have to say in good faith. I think it is possible to disagree politically while remaining courteous and respectful. I think learning from each other is more important than winning.
I am worried, but I am doing this anyway, because something has gone very wrong, and I want to be part of helping to put it right.
I’m doing this because I can’t accept that women like Helen Steel deserve to be vilified and ostracised.
Helen Steel is a woman who has spent her life standing up against the destructive power of capitalism and the state. When McDonalds tried to shut her up by suing her for libel, she took them on in an epic court case – and won – earning the lifelong admiration of many in my generation. The state tried to shut her up by sending undercover police officers into her small activist group. Helen has survived being deceived into a relationship by one of these spy cops and is still fighting for justice for herself and other women affected.
But earlier this year, because Helen has spoken out about her feminist views, she was told that her presence made people feel unsafe, and asked to leave a climate protest camp, organised by a group she helped to found. Many other excellent feminist activists have been cast out in the same way.
If you are on the left and you think women like Helen Steel are suddenly the enemy, then something has gone very wrong.
My mum was a feminist of the second wave. She went to women’s liberation movement meetings in London in the early 70s and was part of the campaign to get the law changed to make sex discrimination illegal. Her generation of feminists, along with the organised labour movement, won some hugely important victories. As well as the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts, they won the right for women in most of the UK to access safe abortions, they established women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, and they paved the way for better representation of women in parliament, the media and the workforce.
When I came out at 18, it was into an activist movement that took feminist ideas seriously, and incorporated them into our practice. Brighton Area Action Against Section 28 listened to the experiences of lesbians who had broken away from the Gay Liberation Movement a decade earlier and we recognised that the way men and women are socialised means that men tend to dominate the space in mixed organisations. Therefore we made sure that our meetings were chaired by women and our campaign was represented by women in the media and on public platforms.
We rejected the Stonewall model of a paid CEO and professional lobbying, because we knew that real change comes only from below. We were one of the most active and longest-lasting local campaign groups in the movement against Section 28, and Brighton Pride emerged directly from our very political, grassroots, volunteer-run and female-led campaign.
My overwhelming memory of that time is of a feeling of freedom. Being involved in the campaign was an intensely creative and empowering experience of working collectively with other people to make new things happen and demand change. As well as discovering and establishing myself, I learned a lot about how grassroots activism can weave together the diverse experiences and skills of a community to create a sense of solidarity that is more powerful than repressive laws.
I am worried that the experience of being involved in queer activism now is not a liberating one, particularly for young women, female non-binary people and trans men. I hope I am mistaken about this.
But I have been listening to young women who have detransitioned, desisted or reidentified as women in the last few years, and one of the repeated themes of their stories is that within the trans community they felt that only only one path was available to them as they sought to understand themselves. Here are a few examples of statements I have seen from young detransitioned women, in the UK, in the last year:
“I knew I was a boy because I meet the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria – a strong rejection of typically feminine toys and typically feminine clothes, mostly male friends, a sense that my feelings and reactions were typical of boys, the desire to be treated as a boy. When I spoke about these experiences to older friends, or in online chat rooms, the message was affirming. Nobody encouraged the idea that it’s okay to be gender non conforming, Instead, friends and healthcare practitioners alike ‘affirmed’ my gender. Yes, you are a boy” (https://firstname.lastname@example.org/the-medicalization-of-gender-non-conforming-children-and-the-vulnerability-of-lesbian-youth-10d4ac517e8e)
“Internalised homophobia and misogyny can play havoc on your mental state. I was a vulnerable person and I saw this one option that fit, no one talked about how dysphoria can have other causes.” (https://twitter.com/tjdetrans/status/1139505371972886530)
“I wanted to find ways of dealing with my gender issues that aren’t medically transitioning, and those ways weren’t presented to me. The only solution that was presented was chopping your breasts off, injecting yourself with hormones and becoming a man.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CjeGgSRBcI&t=7s)
“It’s like my entire life for seven years has been dominated by my gender dysphoria and wanting to avoid it as much as possible by Passing, so much that I stopped being myself. Now I’m realising that my life doesn’t have to be constrained by having to pass. It’s so liberating.” (https://twitter.com/detransing/status/1127265875382419456)
If you are a movement for liberation, and your female activists feel that their involvement is constraining their possibilities, then something has gone very wrong.
During the New Labour years, while I was busy with young children, Brighton Pride became more and more commercialised and less and less political. When we organised a weekend of activities around a protest march in 1991, none of us could have predicted that it would become the massive corporate spectacle it is today.
Under Stonewall’s leadership, the LGBT movement has abandoned the feminist analysis of marriage as a key site of women’s oppression, and embraced large corporations and celebrity endorsements, until our community, with its radical, creative, subversive culture has become nothing more challenging than a market segment.
Slowly, I picked up a habit of holding my tongue. Nobody wanted to hear about how marriage is bad for women when there was a gay wedding fair to go to. What was the point of reminiscing about grassroots alternatives when we seemed to have achieved mainstream acceptance?
But it seems clear to me now that because we let that silence fall, young lesbians coming out into today’s queer activist movement are cut off from the experiences of lesbian feminists who came before them. In fact, older lesbian feminists are explicitly positioned as their enemies, while massive corporations are presented as their friends.
If you are a liberation movement and you think that Barclays, Aviva, Tesco, and Proctor & Gamble are on your side, then something has gone very wrong.
When my youngest child was 11, I started writing and thinking about politics again, as the impact of the Coalition government’s austerity programme began to hit.
I was inspired by the working class women leading campaigns against the Bedroom Tax in the north of England and the young single mums of Focus E15 in London. Since 2010, at every level, austerity has hit women harder, and women have been – as usual – expected to patch up the gaps in our shredded safety net.
Some of the most important gains made by feminists of my mother’s generation are under threat. Funding cuts are leaving refuges vulnerable, while at the same time women’s options are being severely restricted by benefit cuts and caps. Women are terrified that their children will be taken into care if they stay in an abusive relationship, but denied the financial means to leave. So far in 2019, at least 72 women in the UK have been killed by men.
We still need places of safety for women. But Stonewall, in 2015, recommended to the Women and Equalities Select Committee “A review of the Equality Act 2010 to include ‘gender identity’ rather than ‘gender reassignment’ as a protected characteristic and to remove exemptions, such as access to single-sex spaces”.
Just to be crystal clear, the exemptions they are referring to are the ones which allow service providers to exclude male people from some facilities and services, even if those male people have changed their legal sex by acquiring a Gender Recognition Certificate. The example given in the Act’s explanatory notes is this:
“A group counselling session is provided for female victims of sexual assault. The organisers do not allow transsexual people to attend as they judge that the clients who attend the group session are unlikely to do so if a male-to-female transsexual person was also there. This would be lawful.”
Feminists of my mum’s generation created safe spaces for female people to escape male violence. Spaces where women could have some respite, could share their trauma with other women who would understand, could begin to heal and make their way back into the world stronger. From nothing, women built up these services and kept them going over decades.
But Stonewall would like the law changed, so that these small, safe spaces, made by women for women, are no longer permitted to exist.
Here in Brighton, even without a change in the law, our local Rape Crisis service offers no female only support groups. All their services are open to trans women, on the basis of self-identification.
I am not in any way suggesting that trans women should be denied access to support if they have been assaulted, nor that it is unreasonable for rape crisis services and women’s refuges to provide services for trans women. But I do think it is unreasonable to campaign for the removal of female only spaces, which enable traumatised women to recover from male violence.
If you are a liberation movement and you want to make it illegal for members of an oppressed group to organise independently, then something has gone very wrong.
I am not an enemy of trans people. Nothing I have said this evening is an attack on trans people or a call for rights to be denied to any trans person.
All of us, in fact, have a much more dangerous enemy than each other and that is the growing threat of fascism, fuelled by catastrophic climate change.
At a moment when the human race is finally realising that we are not separate from the earth’s ecosystem, and our poisoning of the air, land and oceans is destroying our own habitat, we are already seeing how that plays out: more wars over resources, more movements of refugees across the world, and – as always in situations of conflict – more rape and trafficking of women, and intensified attempts to control our fertility.
Whatever is in store for us, as we head into the next stage of this national and global crisis, I think solidarity in diversity is going to be worth much more to all of us than the support of multinational corporations. We don’t need to flatten all distinctions between us, we don’t need to deny material reality, and we don’t need to set our minds against our bodies. Instead, we need to learn how to listen to each other and learn from each other.
That means, first of all, that everyone must acknowledge that there is a discussion to be had. We are well past the point where women will accept that our concerns are unspeakable.
The Labour Party should be facilitating this discussion. Let’s identify the common problems we are dealing with, and respectfully discuss how to tackle them. There will be areas where we disagree. It’s OK – in fact it is necessary – for people to disagree with each other. That is how we learn.
Let’s talk together about male violence. Three quarters of violent crimes and 94% of homicides are committed by male people. Feminism has many theories about why that is. I want to hear what young people think about it. I stand in solidarity with everyone who is victimised by the longstanding connection between masculinity and violence.
Let’s talk together about stereotypes and socialisation. How do children learn what it means to be a boy or a girl? What would society look like if we let go of gendered rules, roles and expectations? Does individual self-identification on a spectrum actually make a difference to the way society works?
Let’s talk together about self-organisation. I hope everyone would agree that groups of people who face oppression sometimes need exclusive spaces in which to relax, recover from, and collectively resist their oppression. I think it’s pretty clear that female people are an oppressed group, and need to be able to organise autonomously. If you disagree, let’s talk about it. Bring your argument and make your case. That’s what we do in the labour movement and in the feminist movement.
I regret that I held my tongue for such a long time. I am angry that I was intimidated into hiding my name for a year, when engaging with these issues. Women like me – like Helen Steel, like Linda Bellos, like Bea Campbell, like Julie Bindel – have every right to participate in discussion in the movements we have helped to create. We are not the enemy. Let’s talk.
When I was collecting signatures for my petition about the road crash hotspot at the bottom of Elm Grove, a few people asked how redesigning the road could improve safety. How different could it really be?
Following the council’s invitation to submit ideas for their forthcoming review of this junction, I got together with a few friends and we have come up with two options for a safer junction, plus some other ideas to think about. I’ll be emailing all these ideas to the council’s Travel Planning team tomorrow, just in time for their 1st November deadline.
If you think these are good suggestions, there’s still time for you to drop them a line to say so – feel free to link to this blog post if you want to. Or, of course, send in your own thoughts about what’s wrong with the junction and how it could be improved.
Preferred option – London-style
Move the central islands on Lewes Road, both north and south of Elm Grove, to create a wide, protected, two-way cycle track on the western side of Lewes Road, connecting with the cycle paths around the Level and continuing past Union Road, Park Crescent and Elm Grove, as far as (approximately) Kendrick’s Property Services.
Convert the bus stop opposite to a floating bus stop, and provide a signalised crossing for southbound cyclists to enable them to join the two-way track as they emerge from behind the bus stop.
Here’s a picture of a similar crossing already in place in London:
Introduce a two-way protected cycle track at the bottom of Elm Grove, accessible both from Elm Grove and Islingword Road (provide a cyclist-only cut-through at the bottom of Islingword Road).
Use signals for cyclists on the two-way track to allow them to turn left or right into Elm Grove (via Islingword Road) and for cyclists turning left or right out of Elm Grove.
Add a pedestrian crossing just south of Elm Grove. This will make it quicker and easer to access the GP surgery. Straighten the crossing north of Elm Grove, as the distance to be crossed would be reduced by the width of the cycle track. Remove all the railings.
Option 2: Copenhagen-style
One-way raised or wand-protected cycle lanes on both sides of Lewes Road and Elm Grove.
Vehicle traffic stopped further back from the junction than cyclists and left turning vehicles held, with a large “mixing zone”, giving cyclists a clear head start as the lights change.
If there is to be no alteration at all to the road layout, the council could still introduce:
- Advance green signals for cyclists, or simultaneous green for cyclists
- Low level lights, so that cyclists can easily see the signals
- Traffic lights which hold vehicles from making a left turn into Elm Grove until cyclists have had a chance to clear the junction
A broader view
In order to allow the structural changes outlined above, it may be necessary to reduce the number of vehicles passing through the junction. The council could explore the following possibilities for doing that:
- Preventing vehicle left turns into Elm Grove (except for buses). This may require some other changes to prevent rat-running.
- Making the southbound left-hand lane into a bus lane.
- Preventing vehicle right turns out of Southover Street, to minimise traffic turning left into Union Road.
- Making Lewes Road one-way northbound (except for buses, taxis and cycles), and Upper Lewes Road one-way westbound (except for cycles)
I am aware that the brief for the council’s review is to focus on efficiency, and that the budget is tight. Our suggestions may seem unrealistic. However, I think there is a very strong case for designing streets that feel safe for cycling, in order to enable a significant shift away from private car use and towards cycling for most short journeys.
This is why people are moaning about gridlock. This graphic is all English journeys (so will include inter-urban pulling averages up). pic.twitter.com/oz0IvTfISj
— The Rancid Zombieman (@RantyHighwayman) October 16, 2016
All the evidence from Europe is that protected infrastructure provides that sense of safety, and that it is possible to create the circumstances for a much higher modal share for cycling than we currently see in the UK.
More people cycling would relieve congestion in the city and therefore improve the overall efficiency of the road network. It would also make a big contribution to our air pollution problem and give more people an opportunity to take everyday exercise.
Even if the council does not currently have enough money to transform the junction fully, I think it would be worth producing a tested and costed design that would afford adequate protection for people on bikes, so that they are able to quickly bid for the necessary funds in the future.
Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, is a hard-hitting illustration of the cruel chaos our social security system has been reduced to. If you’ve had to deal with this system in the last few years, or if you’ve simply been paying attention to the voices of disabled activists over that time, you won’t be surprised by the events of the film. But Loach’s presentation of them through the fresh eyes of Daniel, a skilled carpenter rendered unable to work by a heart attack, deliberately highlights the shocking fact that our safety net is truly in tatters.
I’ve been volunteering in the computer room at Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project for a couple of months now. I’ve met several real-life Daniels. One thing the film doesn’t show is the soul-destroying effect of the grotesque merry-go-round of ESA rejection/JSA application/appeal tribunal when it is followed almost immediately by another assessment and another rejection, starting the whole ridiculous business again. I met a man recently who reckoned he could easily end up living on the streets because of this kind of instability. He didn’t think he’d survive it again.
It also didn’t show the knock-on effect of sanctions on people’s housing. Both Daniel and his friend Katie were sanctioned in the film, leaving them without income for four weeks. We weren’t shown whether they contacted the local council to ensure their housing benefit was not automatically stopped – despite belated DWP guidance to the contrary, many people in real life have gone into rent arrears because of this delightful bureaucratic hiccup.
Some of the most upsetting sequences in the film showed single parent Katie struggling to keep her head above water, alone in an unfamiliar town, dependent on the kindness of strangers and the charity of the foodbank. The latest survey of foodbanks in Brighton & Hove was published just this month by Brighton & Hove Food Partnership. As you might expect, the city’s 15 foodbanks are dealing with increasing demand, due to benefit changes and delays, and high housing and transport costs. In 2016, local foodbanks are supplying 298 food parcels in an average week.
But real-life Katie is unlikely to be able to stay in Brighton for much longer, even with the help of her local foodbank. Right now, the weekly benefit entitlement for a single parent with two children of opposite sexes is a total of £455.18. That’s £73.10 in JSA, £117.40 in Child Tax Credits, £34.40 in Child Benefit and £230.28 in local housing allowance.
Brighton & Hove Council reports that there are currently no 3-bedroom properties available in the city that are affordable for a family on this level of housing benefit. If Katie were living in Brighton & Hove, she would already be paying at least £100 of her weekly rent out of her remaining income, as well as around £4 a week in council tax, leaving her and her children with less than £120 a week to live on. No wonder she needs the foodbank.
But next month – from 7th November 2016 – the new benefit cap will come into force. That will reduce Katie’s housing benefit to £159 a week, and her remaining income – after rent and council tax – to £50 a week.
£50 a week to feed and clothe a family, and pay the bills? It’s clearly impossible.
Some of my fellow students at the welfare benefits training course I attended earlier this month were council staff from the Housing Options team. Their job is to advise people about what to do if they are in danger of homelessness. Based on these facts, they are making it clear to people now that if you have children, your only options are to get a job or leave town.
To put it another way, there is no longer a safety net in our city for people with children.
I’m not telling you anything you haven’t been told before. Groups like Boycott Workfare, Disabled People against Cuts and Black Triangle have been campaigning about this stuff for years. Bloggers like Joe Halewood, Johnny Void, and Kate Belgrave have been valiantly trying to get the word out.
They’ve had to fight a battle to be heard, because benefit claimants were being relentlessly demonised by the press and broadcast media. Even the Labour Party’s former shadow secretary of state for work & pensions ended up joining in.
Jeremy Corbyn is one of the few politicians who was listening all along. Debbie Abrahams’ announcement at this year’s party conference that Labour would abolish the Work Capability Assessment has already made a difference, with the government immediately announcing that people with chronic disabilities and terminal illnesses would not have to be endlessly reassessed for ESA. Why they are still insisting on the same people being regularly reassessed for Personal Independence Payment remains a mystery.
If you haven’t yet raised your voice to support those who are campaigning on these issues, please take some action, however small. Write to your MP, pledge a ticket on this Facebook group to enable someone else to see I, Daniel Blake – or find someone who has pledged one so you can afford to see it, organise a community screening in January, when the DVD comes out, start a discussion in your own social network about the film, or how the benefit cap is forcing families out of our local communities, volunteer at a food bank or join a political party. I don’t think there’s one right thing to do – we need to build a diverse and broad social movement that changes the public mood, not just swap one lot of managerial politicians for another.
After all, if there’s no safety net for some of us, there’ll soon be no safety net for any of us.
Yesterday, I was proud to march in the parade with the contingent from Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants (Brighton), alongside the Hummingbird Project, Brighton Migrant Solidarity and the English Disco Lovers. We gave out leaflets to the crowd lining the streets, about how the aggressive maintenance of European and British borders results in the brutal detention and deportation of queer people, and how LGBTQ rights are being weaponised as a tool of racism. If you are interested in getting involved in LGSMBrighton, please go along to their next meeting on August 17th, 7.30pm, at Knoyle Hall, Brighton.
I felt at home playing this slightly disruptive role on the parade, reclaiming the march as a political space, complete with placards and chants (“Refugees are here to stay, let’s deport Theresa May!”).
The first Pride was a riot
Afterwards, relaxing on the Level, we were discussing how Brighton Pride has changed over the decades since I was involved in getting it started. There’s been a massive transformation, not just of that event, of course, but of the whole attitude of society towards queer people. I picked up Brighton Solfed’s leaflet on the subject during the afternoon, and found it uncharacteristically clunky in its analysis, jumping straight from rioting New York drag queens in 1969 to Brighton Pride as commercial orgy, with nothing about the struggles in between.
Surely, that’s the most interesting bit – how did we travel from there to here, and what can we learn about how society gets transformed?
As if by magic
My first observation is that it seems to have happened when I wasn’t looking. That may be literally true – I was quite preoccupied with parenting for at least a decade from 1997, by which time Section 28 was long gone from the statute books and civil partnerships were well established in law. However, I think that even if I had been paying close attention, I wouldn’t have been able to spot this change happening, because that is part of the nature of societal change.
Things as they are now (at any given moment) present the illusion of having always been so. But (paradoxically) the way things are when we first become aware of them is fixed in our minds as somehow more real, or true, than any previous or subsequent reality. The fact of Pride as a moneyspinner for the whole city is undeniable, but for those of us who met with town hall officials to challenge the stubbornly heterosexual presentation of Brighton as a family resort in the late 1980s, it still seems somehow unlikely.
Pushing back against the backlash
My (obviously partial) understanding of what happened is that there were a series of struggles. The one in which I was most directly involved was provoked by Section 28 – a really shocking piece of legislation designed to appease bigots within the Conservative Party by threatening teachers and local government workers who dared to voice views unacceptable to the Christian right. It was a law which truly created “thoughtcrime” and which was, of course, never tested in court. There was no need to prosecute anyone, as the law was designed to operate directly on the minds of local government managers, to prevent new initiatives, to stop people discussing homosexuality, to create an atmosphere of fear.
The enactment of this law was itself a backlash against the initial implementation of equality policies within a few left-wing Labour councils, mainly in London. The hysterical reaction to this from sections of the media was part of a terrifying atmosphere of hatred, focused particularly on gay men, who were blamed for the AIDS tragedy even as they watched their friends and lovers die.
Many of the equality officers who put forward anti-discrimination measures in London boroughs in the 1980s had been trained in the Greater London Council (GLC), where Ken Livingstone’s popular, left-wing administration was such a threat to the Thatcher government that the whole organisation found itself abolished in 1986.
In 1988, it seemed that the Labour left’s tactic of introducing anti-discrimination policies from above had backfired badly, with the GLC abolished and a pernicious law in place to stifle any further imaginative ideas. But it was this backlash which finally produced the grassroots rebellion that had been missing until then.
The campaign against Section 28 was chaotic, passionate, angry. It was driven by outrage, fear, and a feeling that we may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. If we were so hated as to be specifically legislated against, if we were blamed even for the disease that was killing us, why not fight back?
We had no real strategy to prevent the law coming into effect. The Tories had a large majority in Parliament and the campaign had hardly begun before it was ostensibly defeated. But we didn’t accept defeat. We carried on organising, demanding change, rebuilding a community. We made plenty of mistakes and had lots of rows.
The Section 28 campaign in Brighton was the crucible of Brighton Pride. It was also pioneering in terms of rebalancing relationships between the lesbian & gay community and the police, and initiated the shift towards promoting Brighton as a destination for LGBT tourism. By the time Section 28 was repealed in 2003 (2000 in Scotland), it had already been dead for a long time.
Many of the things we asked for at that time – in a spirit of demanding the impossible – have come about. So why do I feel so ambivalent about Brighton Pride?
Why does winning feel like losing?
Power struggles are rarely straightforwardly won or lost. I am certain that our campaigning changed attitudes, in a more thorough and lasting way than the policy prescriptions of Haringey council could have done alone. Just being visible, supporting each other and having the courage to demand reasonable treatment was revolutionary. We took the campaign into our lives as we grew older, not by continually protesting, but by refusing to be closeted and claiming our rightful place as equal citizens. Pride was, and is, part of that process.
But the structures of capitalism and patriarchy were more flexible than the Christian fundamentalists had hoped, less brittle than we perhaps expected. I think the decision of professional campaigners to focus on marriage as a key goal meant that the direction of organised lesbian & gay campaigning became explicitly towards becoming incorporated into existing structures and systems, rather than changing them. The development of donor insemination techniques and the opening up of adoption to lesbian & gay couples also meant that ‘traditional family life’ became a real option for many of us, opening up new life choices but removing our former ability to view these institutions from the outside with a critical eye.
Meanwhile, capitalism did what it does best, and seized every new opportunity to make a profit. From gay wedding fairs to rainbow-decked Tesco floats on yesterday’s parade, we have finally made it as a highly valued market segment – not really the outcome I was hoping for.
We changed the world, but we have to keep changing it
The process of change is more complicated than writing a policy, passing a law or organising a campaign. The interaction between all those things – and many others – is what has brought us from there to here.
Nobody in this story had a winning strategy, and nobody has definitively won. The forces of capitalism are powerful, but there isn’t a central conspiracy and things can be fundamentally shifted by ordinary people taking action.
One key lesson for me is about the danger of assuming you have won because you have become part of the establishment. Employing good people to implement equal opportunities policies in London was not enough to change the situation of lesbians and gay men in the 1980s. Electing a socialist as Leader of the Labour Party is not enough to change people’s views about the kind of society we need.
We need a grassroots movement to do that. People who can support each other to speak out and argue the case for solidarity, collectively owned public services, fair wages for those who do vital caring work, justice and equality for migrants and refugees, and a genuinely sustainable relationship between the economy and the planet.
We need to keep demanding the impossible, and never forget that everything we have was won by the struggles of those who came before us.
As I think I mentioned before, I’m not hugely persuaded that anyone knows what’s really going on. Everybody is getting only a partial view of things, from within their own particular bubble.
I’m very aware that the bubble I live in (lefty Brighton, pretty much) is perhaps especially peculiar. I’m trying not to generalise too much from that very particular experience.
I have rejoined the Labour Party because I think a defeat for Corbyn now would be demoralising for thousands of people who see Corbyn as the only politician with the integrity to represent their interests. A return to the slick, content-free, Westminster-focused, sharp-suited Labour Party we had become used to would send many of those thousands back to a place of disengaged despair, while others would likely turn to UKIP, or worse.
I think it’s important to defend Corbyn, but for several reasons, I think it’s unfortunate that the Labour Party is the location of this important debate.
The Labour Party is run by people who try to solve political problems by organisational methods
The NEC’s hysterical reaction to the election of pro-Corbyn officers at Brighton & Hove Labour Party’s entirely calm AGM last week is a pretty extreme example of this, but there are countless others.
Tragically, this description applies to plenty of people on the left as well as the right. It was pretty much unavoidable as a way of surviving in Labour’s culture over the last few decades. But it has led to an unhealthy focus on winning internal elections and votes of confidence among those who took it upon themselves to organise Corbyn supporters after the last leadership contest.
In the end, the political disagreement is still there. Neither side is about to give up and go home if some higher authority rules against them. So all this fixation on the letter of the law is a waste of everyone’s time. As the author of this interesting piece concludes:
“The complaint of socialists in the Labour Party for the last ten years has always been that the party is too geared towards parliamentarism and too tied up in constitutional coils. The desire of members to become politicians, the desire of Unite to have its own group of MPs, led to the PLP becoming unduly powerful. But now the socialists have seized power the cloak they have inherited from the old controllers has become an iron cage. … We all know the members have constitutional advantage. They need to turn that advantage into power and control, and to do that they need to stop talking about the constitutional legitimacy of Corbyn. They need to give other reasons as to why they should commandeer the party, why Corbyn should be the leader of the opposition, why they have any place in history at all.”
The new members are not just recruits in an existing faction fight
Because of the inward looking nature of the Labour Party, the influx of new members brought about by Corbyn’s election has been mistaken by the left for an army of reinforcements for the faction fight in which they were already engaged.
But this is not what happened at all. Instead, the Corbyn wave was an attempt by disenfranchised, disenchanted people to knock the party off course, to shake it out of its well-worn groove. There was no coherent plan or strategy, just a seizing of a one-off opportunity to bring socialist ideas back into the mainstream of British politics.
I think the Corbyn vote is part of a series of shocks delivered by an excluded public to an establishment they view as detached and out of touch. From the expenses scandal through to the shock of all shocks that was the vote to leave the EU, there have been a series of eruptions of a subterranean sense of outrage against the political and media consensus. Each one has been presented to us (by that same media) as an inexplicable and isolated surprise, but I think they are linked, not by organisation or even intention, but in the way described so beautifully in this piece by Rebecca Solnit:
“After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many come from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms, mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but it is the less visible long-term organising and groundwork – or underground work – that often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists and participants in social media. To many, it seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.”
I went to the Momentum rally in Brighton last Saturday. It was probably the biggest political meeting I’ve ever been to in the city. But I felt that there was an opportunity missed – Corbyn’s ideas had motivated 500 people to come together on a Saturday afternoon, but the ideas and issues themselves were hardly mentioned. More to the point, there was no discussion of the dire situations faced by thousands of our fellow citizens here in Brighton & Hove – insecure housing, precarious and exploitative work, food poverty, benefit sanctions and cuts, collapsing public services – nor the many local campaigns already being waged by exhausted activists.
There’s a reason why there’s no alternative left candidate
The ascension of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party is not the culmination of a strong, self-confident left, building up mass support and winning the leadership of the democratic party of the working class. It’s a fluke, an accident, a slip-up by an out-of-touch political elite, which has resulted in this vertiginous catapulting of Corbyn from the party’s fringes to its very top.
As some old bloke with a beard once said, we make our own history, but we do not make it as we please (or something like that). When a chance presents itself, you need to take it. But we should be honest and realistic about our strengths and weaknesses.
This is not about one man, but currently, Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is all we have. There is no alternative left candidate, because the left in the Labour Party was a small, isolated minority until five minutes ago. The structures of the party were designed specifically to keep power and control in the hands of those who already have it. If we want Corbyn’s leadership to mean something in the long term, then being a member of the Labour Party needs to mean something more than turning up to vote the right way at occasional meetings, or turning up to deliver leaflets when an election comes round.
Rather than the illusory democracy of a £3 supporters’ vote and an opaque National Policy Forum process – both of which have been snatched away at the first sniff of them being used by undesirables – the Labour Party needs to become a place for real democratic debate, about issues that matter to real people. It needs to be transformed into a party that represents working class people, by enabling them to speak for themselves.
The Labour Party is not yet a democratic party
Whether or not Corbyn retains the leadership, the profound political differences within the Labour Party are not going away and can’t be short-circuited. They need to be addressed in a political way, through democratic debate. Our anti-democratic electoral system (and its consequence of large, internally divided parties) is perhaps the biggest obstacle to that. I agree with Matt Bolton that fighting to change the electoral system is a top priority now, though I am not convinced by his conclusions overall.
People who have been under sustained attack for decades need space and support to develop a self-confident voice.
Brexit does change everything. It has finally shattered the illusion of consensus that was created under Blair, Brown, Clegg and Cameron. I was astonished to witness Tessa Jowell on Newsnight a few days ago, arguing that the Labour Party needs to return to the consensus, seemingly having failed to notice that there is no such thing.
The connecting thread between the expenses and phone hacking scandals, the Scottish referendum, the election of Jeremy Corbyn and even Brexit (with a much more frightening overtone of racism) is the call for democracy. Not the sterile democracy of a vote every five years but something deeper and stronger. The Labour Party could become the midwife of a more democratic politics, but only if it is willing to transform itself.
That means open community meetings, accessible language, acceptance of criticism, willingness to listen and engage with people, even if you don’t agree with them on everything. It means turning outwards to invite people to share their experiences and views, and offering them practical help with the difficult things they are facing. It means a complete change of culture. Can the Labour Party do this?
Labour Party conference is in town, and it’s fascinating in a way it hasn’t been for decades. Here are a few more words on how I see things developing. As I said before, now that we live in a world where six impossible things can happen before breakfast, I think it’s foolish to be too certain about anything – all my conclusions are tentative.
Let’s not mistake debate for division
I went to the Red Pepper fringe meeting last night, which was a really interesting discussion about the future of social movements, with Corbyn in the leadership of the Labour Party. There were excellent contributions from a range of thinkers and activists on the platform – most impressively, in my view, Neal Lawson of Compass and Ewa Jasiewicz, whose track record as an activist and organiser is phenomenal. She is involved in Fuel Poverty Action, Reclaim the Power and is now a Unite union organiser, working with hotel workers.
Ewa talked about the way Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had been stalwart supporters of all the campaigns she’s worked on – they would turn up at the demos, put down Early Day Motions in Parliament, listen to and represent campaigners. To have people like that on the opposition front bench is a scenario none of us predicted, only a few months ago. Ewa clearly wants to offer them support in return, to defend them against the onslaught from the media and the right wing within Labour – but she is still undecided about whether joining the party is the best way to do that.
Neal Lawson told an oft-repeated story about Roosevelt, lobbied by union leaders soon after he became president, who concluded the meeting by saying “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Neal’s point was that progressive political change always happens because of popular pressure. Corbyn’s leadership relies on the massive wave of popular support he has attracted, and we have to keep that pressure up to keep him afloat.
Neal also spoke about the old ideas about vanguard leadership having been swept away. He said Facebook has replaced the factory as a location for communication and organising. Far from the masses needing to be mobilised and led by tactical thinkers, the wave now carries everyone and everything before it. A good social media campaign, such as the one that supported Corbyn’s leadership bid, is about making space for discussion, sharing resources and tools, and empowering people to take action, not about broadcasting the line.
If anyone thinks that “we” – whether that means Corbyn’s team, the activist left, the left within the Labour Party, or any defined group of people that can agree on a course of action and carry it out – can control what happens next, they are sadly mistaken.
It seems to me that there might be more than one right thing to do now. If Corbyn’s leadership has brought the Labour Party back to its rightful position as part of the wider labour and social justice movement, then that movement needs to remain vibrant, diverse, autonomous and challenging.
If the debate turns inwards, all is lost
Over 60,000 people have joined the Labour Party since Corbyn was elected leader. Together with the thousands who joined during the leadership election campaign, these new members have a unique opportunity to give the party’s culture a much needed overhaul.
But cultures are resilient things, and there is a grave danger that instead, the new members will be “ground down with endless canvassing and procedures”, as Anthony Barnett warns in this excellent piece today.
Worse, they may find themselves sucked in and spat out, exhausted, by a vicious internal debate, as the new leadership’s policies bump up against the habits and preferences of unaltered local leaderships around the country.
I think the recent experience of socialists in the Green Party in Brighton is a timely warning. The party’s surprise success in the 2011 local elections turned its internal debates into damaging divisions. As I said in 2013, the ensuing focus of the Green left on winning arguments within the party left campaigners outside feeling abandoned and ignored. At a time when we hoped for real resistance to the assault on local government, with some of our people on the inside, our allies in the party switched their focus to an internal battle which they were unable to win.
As an alternative to this unappealing prospect, I was pleased to see this initative by Red Pepper, to build a network of anti-austerity activists committed to working together within and outside the Labour Party.
Can Brighton show the way?
In many ways, the success of Corbyn’s campaign was prefigured in Brighton. In 2010 we elected – against all odds – the first Green MP ever elected under First Past the Post. In 2011, Brighton & Hove voters surprised everyone by electing more Green councillors than representatives of any other party. In 2015, we bucked the trend again, returning one Labour and one Green MP to Parliament, amidst a sea of blue in the rest of the South East.
Caroline Lucas’s increased majority was built on her reputation for straight talking, honest politics, her commitment to clear principles and her untiring hard work as a constituency MP. She, like Jeremy Corbyn, has not forgotten her roots in the activist movement, and has been prepared to stand – and sit – with us on the streets as well as in Parliament.
The wave that swept Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party began to swell in 2009 with the expenses scandal. It gained momentum in Brighton, with those unprecedented Green victories, and elsewhere took a more frightening form, with the growth of UKIP. It brought down the News of the World and is painfully unravelling the dark web of abuse at the heart of the political establishment. It forced the BBC to include the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru in the 2015 general election televised debates – bringing anti-austerity arguments to more people than ever before.
Corbyn’s extraordinary success is built on all these extraordinary happenings, driven by the hunger of British people for justice.
The result of the 2015 general election was a blow to that sense of justice and the reaction has been powerful. In Brighton, hundreds more people have begun to take action on a whole range of issues, raising money for refugees, organising events on climate change, thinking about new forms of democracy, calling for an end to the housing crisis and challenging political parties to work together for the common good.
Brighton People’s Assembly against Austerity is one strand in this fast-developing movement. Everyone is invited to the next People’s Assembly meeting on October 7th, to talk about how we can work together to have maximum impact locally. I hope members of all progressive parties – and none – will join the discussion.
British political culture is obsessed with leadership. Leaders are required to be visionary, charismatic, good looking, inspiring, firm but fair, correct in all things and (most crucially of all) victorious. If they miss the bar on any of these aspects, they must resign.
The fact that the Labour Party’s response to losing the election was to immediately start a process of electing a new leader is just the latest manifestation of this obsession.
This attitude prevails not just for the leaders of political parties and football teams, but for senior managers in all walks of life, especially in what used to be known as public service. We are told, for example, that our local council needs a Chief Executive on a salary of well over £100k, in order to ensure that we attract a “high calibre individual” able to “provide leadership”. [PDF] Unfortunately, the job of Chief Executive at Brighton & Hove Council now seems to be endangered by every shift in the political balance of the council.
The combination of (real or perceived) political patronage with salary levels that mimic those of private sector CEOs, has proved pretty expensive for the council’s budget over the past few years.
Maybe we should try organising our local services without a Chief Executive for a while. While we’re at it, we could get rid of all the managers and trust the front line staff to make decisions about how to organise their work. Maybe it would save enough money to pay care workers a decent wage.
It’s not just the mainstream that looks for answers in leadership. The left is always in search of new leaders whom we can idolise, and later despise. The political tradition in which I was educated (the Trotskyist Fourth International) held that there is a crisis of leadership in the working class, and that overcoming this is crucial to getting out of the pretty pass we find ourselves in.
So wedded are we to the leadership model of political organising that we simply don’t know how to respond when people (even famous people) speak about something quite different.
What Russell Brand has brought to the national conversation is a recognition that there is a crisis, not of leadership, but of representation and accountability – a crisis of democracy. Our elected representatives are distant from the true centres of power and our voting system denies most of us any meaningful choice, even from within the diminished pool of candidates presented to us.
The Labour Party should not be asking “who will be the leader who can return us to electability?” They should be asking “how can we represent and support the people who are at the sharp end of austerity?”
In the absence of political representation, some of those people have been organising themselves. In the absence of media coverage, people have been making and sharing their own news. The internet has been used to create the networks of knowledge, support and resistance that the traditional political system has failed to offer over the last five years.
The victory of the Tories at the election has driven people to take action – hundreds of people from Brighton joined the demonstration in London last week, including many who had never been on such a demonstration before.
This is the constituency for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party. His Facebook page has over 30,000 likes. Labour MPs were pestered and petitioned to nominate him, not by the dwindling Labour left but by the growing movement of activists who are angry that the official opposition seems to find it so difficult to actually oppose anything.
I first met Jeremy Corbyn around 30 years ago, when I was a rising young thing in the peace movement and he was a relatively new MP. For a few years, he would recognise and acknowledge me when we turned up at the same meetings and demos.
Jeremy Corbyn is not leadership material. He is not charismatic, firm but fair, correct in all things or victorious. I will leave the question of his looks to people more qualified than I to comment. He is an inspiring speaker, who articulates a vision, shared by many people, of a world that is more just, more peaceful and more sustainable than the one we are living in now.
He is the kind of MP most people would love to have – the kind we are also blessed with here in Brighton Pavilion – a hard working, principled advocate and representative. A kind of anti-leader. He, like Caroline Lucas, stands in solidarity with the people who are fighting for justice.
That’s why I’ve registered as a supporter of the Labour Party, in order to vote for him in the leadership election. Not because I think the Labour Party can be reclaimed. Not because I think electing a new leader is the best way to do that, even if it were possible. But because his candidacy amplifies the voice of those grassroots campaigns and their demand for representation.
Into the vacuous soundbite-filled “debate” between Burnham, Cooper and Kendall, the Corbyn campaign brings real politics and an understanding of the need to build a movement for real change.
God knows, we need some of that!