This year, spurred on by social media and the effects of the recession, a new wave of feminism is continuing to gather strength at an impressive pace. Over 200,000 signatures have now gathered on the No More Page 3 petition nationwide, lads’ magazine Nuts finally pulled down its shutters, and previously unknown groups like Daughters of Eve, who campaign against female genital mutilation, are gaining wider attention.
As our formal political channels fall further into disrepute (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 step behind.
The Labour party achieved a great deal for women while in office, from a national minimum wage that brought a million women out of poverty, increased maternity and paternity provision, to flexible working and sure start centres. It’s the party of social justice, equality and tolerance. It should be the staunch ally of feminism. But relations are currently cool at best. As women prove they can address the issues that affect them without the help of MPs, it might appear 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.
Yet Labour can still be a vehicle for contemporary social activists to achieve lasting, systemic change in their fight for equality. The trick, as Colin Crouch wrote recently in the Fabian Review, is for the 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 has become centralised and hierarchically rigid, but it is essential if the party is to become a genuine movement again.
A new Fabian and Compass report published today, Riding the New Wave, argues that Feminism can teach Labour valuable lessons about political participation and engagement outside the mainstream. In return, feminism stands to benefit from a healthier relationship with the party. Its campaigners must recognise that in the age of neoliberalism and historic concentrations of power in the hands of the few, the transformative political action they want needs to be routed through government by working collaboratively.
The collection is about providing a platform for a diverse group of feminists – black and disabled feminists; transgender campaigners; women aross generations; new and established voices – all of whom bring a fresh perspective to this challenge. Though the authors have very different viewpoints, several key strands can be identified.
First, 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 the report: “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”. If more feminist campaigners are making that crucial journey along the continuum between online activism and real life participation, Labour must become more adept at reaching out digitally too.
Second, the autonomy of the feminist movement is its lifeblood. Feminist campaigners can be justifiably wary of politicians; as Zita Holbourne, co-founder of Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC UK) states in the report: “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 too.”
Indeed, 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 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.
There is far more to do to get more women into politics, of course – and parliamentary measures such as getting Labour’s Diversity Fund moving again and using all-women shortlists remain important. But political parties will forever be chasing the tail of a movement as fluid as feminism. Labour needs to find ways to hang on and enjoy the ride.
The Fabian and Compass collection ‘Riding the New Wave: Feminism and the Labour Party’ edited by Anya Pearson and Rosie Rogers is available to read online here.