Evening Call: Anti-Semitism in the Spotlight

If the improvement in Labour’s polling now stalls or reverses, it seems likely that this scandal will be part of the reason why.

The big story in British politics today: lawyers representing the Jewish Labour Movement have gathered sworn statements from several dozen current and former Labour officials, as part of the Equality & Human Rights Commission’s investigation into anti-Semitism in the party.

The sample of the allegations which have made it into the press today make for deeply upsetting reading. The Guardian cites one respondent, who listed 22 different examples of anti-Semitic abuse they’ve received at party meetings including “child killer”, “Zio scum”, “Tory Jew”, and, most chillingly, being told “Hitler was right”. Another quotes a comment at a ward meeting that “the only reason we have prostitutes in Seven Sisters is because of the Jews”, which is as baffling as it is racist.

Other testimonies claim that there has been political interference in the disciplinary process, and that information about complaints has been shared between the complaints unit and the leader’s office.

The party has said that the complaints process had been sped up and better resourced, and that there was now no backlog, though it has declined to release figures on how many complaints are still being investigated. It also says that new procedures meant that expulsions would be more rapid in future.

As for the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn maintains that he does not interfere with the independent complaints process. He added: “I deeply regret that there is any anti-Semitism within our society and obviously I regret the way in which some people have been hurt by it.” But whatever the contents of Corbyn’s heart, this problem has ballooned in his party and on his watch – and polling suggests that less than 10 per cent of the Jewish community will now vote Labour.

It seems almost tasteless to ask, given that we’re talking about an insidious form of racism here, but we’re now just a week out from polling day, so – what will this do to the election? As Stephen has often pointed out, “Gentiles don’t vote in the interests of Jews. See: all of history.”

But the NS politics team say they’ve found that, in their trips around the country, this issue does come up on the doorstep – as a mark of the competence, or lack thereof, of the leadership. Labour’s polling has been improving in recent weeks. If that now stalls or reverses, it seems likely that this scandal will be part of the reason why.

Some will point out that the Tories have a huge and under-discussed Islamophobia problem; that on Theresa May’s watch, the Home Office deported several British citizens who happen to be black; that this government has treated Britain’s 3 million European citizens and their loved ones abysmally. But none of those things makes it any less appalling that Jewish Labour members were made to feel unwelcome – and that the party did not do enough to protect them.

Good day for…

Unity on the right. Three Brexit party MEPs, including Annunziata Rees-Mogg, have quit the party to back the Tories at next week’s general election. A fourth, John Longworth, who had the whip removed yesterday, has done the same.

Rees-Mogg told reporters: “I find it absolutely unbelievable, but tragic, that the Brexit Party, with so many wonderful people, dedicated to a cause, are now the very party risking Brexit.” At any rate – the Tories are doing much better at drawing leavers into their camp than Labour is at attracting Remainers. Consequently, it feels increasingly like next week will not be a happy one for either Labour or Remainers.

Bad day for…

Anyone at the sharp end of the housing crisis, as one of the many things that will be awful about a Tory majority government is its abject failure to deal with this particularly domestic mess.

At last night’s national housing hustings, junior minister Luke Hall (me neither) genuinely suggested that spending half your salary on rent should still be classed as “affordable”. Meanwhile, Sajid Javid has been going on television blaming the rise in rough sleeping on the last Labour government. More from me on CityMetric here.

Quote of the day

“Excited to find out whether the Tories are going to press release any more of my jokes today.”

Former Labour advisor Tom Hamilton, who yesterday tweeted the Mirror’s splash (“Labour to put £6,716 in your pocket”), with the line, “Anyone who tells you Labour will put £6,717 in your pocket is lying to you, it’s as simple as that.” His words later appeared in a Conservative press release as a damning attack on Labour by a former staffer, and have been repeated by Tory MPs and media outriders for much of the last 18 hours.

There’s probably a lesson here somewhere.

Everyone’s talking about…

The looming impeachment of President Trump. The speaker of the US House of Representatives, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, announced this afternoon that she had instructed colleagues to draft impeachment charges, with a view to a vote before the end of the year. “The president leaves us no choice but to act,” Pelosi said, “because he is trying to corrupt, once again, the election for his own benefit.”

Don’t get too excited though. While the vote is likely to pass the House, where the Democrats have a majority, it will almost certainly fall in the Senate, where they do not. Nonetheless, it will make Trump only the fourth president ever (after Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton) to formally face being impeached.

Everyone should be talking about…

The Australian running the Tory election campaign. No, not Lynton Crosby this time: his 35-year-old protégé Isaac Levido. There’s a great profile by Patrick, our 2016 Anthony Howard scholar (and current political correspondent), and George Grylls, our current Anthony Howard scholar, in this week’s magazine. Read it here.


Questions? Comments? Email me.

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A is for Avocado: How a ubiquitous fruit defined a decade of generational inequality

The first letter in the New Statesman’s A-Z of the decade.

In May 2017, an Australian millionaire property developer called Tim Gurner ruined brunch.

Suited in an open-collar shirt, hair slicked back, the Melbourne mogul gave an interview to 60 Minutes Australia explaining matter-of-factly that young people would never own their own homes when they’re “spending 40 dollars a day on smashed avocado and coffees”.

“When I was trying to buy my first home,” he said, “I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each.”

This was the turning point for the avocado – and I don’t mean when it goes all grey and woody on the inside.

From that moment on, it became so much more than an aesthetically pleasing toast accompaniment. It was now a byword for millennial extravagance, and was quickly seized upon by older generations accusing millennials of living in excess, hence their spectacular failure to afford property.

The inconvenient truth, of course, is that no matter how hard the majority of the millennial generation save, they will never have any prospect of affording a deposit. And this is down to generational inequality, rather than too many avocados on toast of a weekend.

Young people in the UK face much higher housing costs, relative to their incomes, than their parents did at their age. Millennials are half as likely to own their own home at the age of 30 as baby boomers were.

We can have as many brunches as we like, goes the argument against avo-shaming, because there’s nothing possible to save up for.

Although avocados have been swimming in prawn cocktails since they hit the UK’s shelves from central America in the Sixties, they have come to define this decade in food and lifestyle, as well as inequality. Wellness trends, Instagrammable dining and socialising over brunch characterise a generation that drinks less and is more health-conscious than its elders. These days, it seems only our fruit comes stoned or smashed.

Avocado’s reputation as a superfood led to such a spike in consumption that there was a recorded rise in knife injuries as people tried to peel them and remove the stones – an injury dubbed by doctors as “avocado hand”. No birthday goes by for anyone under 35 without receiving an avocado-themed birthday card, and the world’s first all-avocado bar opened in Brooklyn, New York, in 2017, followed by an “avobar” in London’s Covent Garden.

This proliferation also caused a backlash, with environmental concerns about the fruit’s popularity in the west putting too much demand on farmers and pressure on water supplies. In 2016, Greenpeace Mexico warned against the “displacement of forests and the effects on water retention, the high use of agricultural chemicals and the large volumes of wood needed to pack and ship avocados”.

Taken with their most loyal brunch date and fellow journalistic stereotype, the flat white, avocados are also now a lightning rod for the homogeneous “hipsterfication” of a high street or community. When cafés begin serving avocado toast, the cliché is to declare this a harbinger of gentrification.

That’s a lot of cultural and socioeconomic baggage for one little fleshy fruit to carry, which is why it’s the perfect opener to the New Statesman’s alphabet of the decade.

> This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.


Happily avo after.
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Populist leaders are taking us backwards in the fight against torture

Britain once led the way in establishing the torture prohibition, but we’re now shirking the same obligations that we helped create.

The rise of authoritarian populism across the world is taking us backwards in the fight against torture. Despite a global prohibition on the practice, survivors from 70 countries were referred to Freedom from Torture for psychological care or forensic medical reports last year. The time when we could rely upon democratic constraints to oppose this practice is fading fast; torture proponents are taking office in liberal democracies like Brazil, the Philippines and the United States. As pro-torture politicians like Donald Trump topple incumbents elsewhere across the world, there is a growing risk that torture becomes a tolerated means of political control and repression.

Last month, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President of Sri Lanka, Asia’s oldest democracy, despite a well-publicised lawsuit in the United States accusing him of responsibility for numerous incidents of torture while serving as Sri Lanka’s secretary of defence. The former wartime defence chief’s strongman image was central to his campaign. There are already signs of Rajapaska’s appetite for repression; a Swiss Embassy employee was abducted and asked about asylum applications, and investigators were banned from leaving, just days after his election.

In the US, meanwhile, President Trump has been a strident supporter of torture. As well as pardoning convicted American war criminals, he is pushing for Marshall Billingslea, a vigorous advocate of the CIA’s torture programme after 9/11, to be the next undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights. Rather than prosecuting former intelligence officer Gina Haspel for her alleged oversight of torture at a “black site” in Thailand, Trump made her director of the CIA in 2018.

These actions of democratically elected leaders legitimise torture and give the green light to its proponents. Survivors of torture we work with are emphatic that the actions of Trump and his ilk engender the practice across the world. Here in the UK, for example, our government continues to block the truth about British complicity in CIA torture. A parliamentary investigation into the UK’s role in the post-9/11 programme of torture and rendition was abandoned because of government obstruction. And the Conservative government is currently proposing new laws that would create impunity for British soldiers accused of torture and other war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Britain once led the way in establishing the torture prohibition; first, through our common law, established from the thirteenth century onwards, and later at the global level – including as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. We’re now shirking the same global obligations that we once helped create.

The actions – or inactions – of political leaders shape the attitudes of the electorate. As countries like the US and UK waver in their compliance with the torture ban, public support for the ban weakens. New polling conducted by Freedom from Torture reveals that 43 per cent of people in the UK are unsure whether torture is always wrong, including 29 per cent who believe it is acceptable in some circumstances. Moreover, support for torture in Britain is highest among younger people.

As populist leaders continue to break through, we witness a wider erosion of public support for democratic checks, balances and institutions once thought inviolable. According to research from Hansard, more than half the UK population (54 per cent) now say that Britain needs a strong leader who is “willing to break the rules”. Trends including an increase in hate crimes and extremist views could be the catalyst for wider tolerance for torture.

Our polling finds that the majority of the UK’s population oppose tolerance in any circumstance. But their voices are drowned while a more vocal minority push for the dismantling of hard-fought rights and protections. Chief Conservative strategist Dominic Cummings has already warned that after Brexit, “we’ll be coming for the ECHR… and we’ll win by more than 52-48”.

In our heated and politically fractious climate, we must urgently remake the case against torture and help people understand the enduring harm it has on individuals and communities. We have an obligation to defend, uphold and promote the torture ban, and deliver justice for Britain’s failings. It is the litmus test of a fair, decent and tolerant society.

Sonya Sceats is chief executive of the charity Freedom from Torture.  

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France’s biggest strike in decades shows how Emmanuel Macron has alienated millions

The mass revolt by workers against pension reform is a symptom of the government’s political failures.

How long would you be prepared to strike against a pension reform that would leave the vast majority of the population poorer than they are now? The answer, for the French, is indefinitely: today marks the start of an “unlimited strike” in France, widely supported by trade unions in all transport sectors including rail, metro, airports and haulage, as well as in education, health, energy, justice and policing. Most schools are closed, while the SNCF rail service cancelled tickets in advance and forecasted around nine out of ten network trains would be disrupted. You get it: c’est la grève générale

The gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) crisis last year slowed down, but did not put an end to Emmanuel Macron’s spree of neo-liberal reforms. After passing a decree that reduces benefit eligibility and payments for the unemployed in October — which some have warned will be  a “massacre” — the youngest French leader since Napoleon, who promised to liberalise the country’s institutions, is facing what may be his biggest challenge yet: a complete overhaul of the French pension system. 

The reform, explained here in more detail, aims to merge the 42 current systems, tailored to each sector, into one “universal” system that will be calculated based on the number of “points” workers have accumulated over their career, instead of the current calculation based on worked trimesters. According to expert analysis, “everyone will lose out financially”. No wonder, then, that just about everyone in France is going on strike.

Indeed, many experts are raising the alarm: despite the government’s claims that the reforms will create a more egalitarian pensions system, economists have disagreed, including Thomas Piketty, the author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, who has called it “a fraud”: “Those who have less will end up paying the highest contributions,” he said.  

The French government’s communications strategy has been disastrous, with ministers making a string of contradictory declarations on the project, which has been postponed several times since January. Some said the retirement age would not change, then the change was mentioned tentatively, before being finally killed off by Macron himself. Several clauses have been discussed publicly only to be cancelled, and the details of the reform have yet to be published. Meanwhile, the French government quietly introduced capitalised pension funds in October — until then, pensions indexed on the stock exchange were unheard of in France. 

Of the new pensions system, the minister Jean-Paul Delevoye, charged by Macron with leading the reform, has said, with an air of mystery: “It is not a reform, it is a society project.” The authorities’ intentional vagueness has frustrated the public, a social policy expert and former Sarkozy adviser has written in Le Monde: “Those who enjoy their sector’s special provisions have understood clearly that they will lose out, while many others don’t understand how they will be impacted: this feeds their worry and their irritation.” Anecdotally, Macron’s declaration that he doesn’t like speaking about “difficult working conditions” (pénibilité) because “it suggests that work is hard”, did not settle an already fraught debate. Nor did his education minister’s statement that some who are striking are doing so only “because they don’t understand everything about the reform”. 

Rail workers, teachers, lawyers, bin collectors, police officers, hospital staff: this “interprofessional strike” is leaving no one behind. Striking firefighters even started early, setting up camp on Paris’s Place de la République on Monday, with the firm intention of remaining until Thursday, to demand that their pensions be maintained at their current level. The police, too, could mobilise: on Monday, officers symbolically placed their helmets on the ground in protest at the reforms. A police union has warned that while they will be on duty on 5 December, they might join the movement in the days that follow; some police unions are already calling for strike action.

As unions have said, the strikes will be renewed every 24 hours and the wave of industrial action could potentially continue until Christmas. It’s difficult to know how long the strike will last; but the French government is braced for a “cyclone”

Past mobilisations offer an indication of how big this one could be: in September, an initial strike by rail unions against the pensions reform paralysed the entire Paris Metro, as well as most of the city’s traffic. But it is the winter of 1995 that is most often invoked. On that occasion, French workers of all sectors rallied for a three-week-long action against a similar pensions reform that paralysed the country and peaked with two million in the streets. “The social malaise is now stronger than in 1995,” Bernard Thibault, the then leader of the CGT trade union, has said.

In 1995, the government, then headed by Alain Juppé, backed down. “We don’t back down! We must send a message of great determination”, prime minister Edouard Philippe said in November. Macron, too, has claimed that he won’t yield or give up. Not backing down is also the unions’ rallying cry. The French winter is coming, and it carries a wind of discontent. 

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Protestors hold red flares during a demonstration against the pension overhauls, in Nantes, on 5 December 2019.
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Disability News Service news for 5th December

This week’s update from Disability News Service is given below with all the articles in a single post, however if you would prefer to view them as separate articles, you can do that on the DNS Website WCA death doctor: DWP put ‘immense pressure’ on Atos to find claimants fit for work A company paid… Continue Reading Disability News Service news for 5th December
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Could changes in council control swing votes at this election?

Perhaps the popularity or otherwise of local council control is a form of reassurance for people thinking of switching parties.

Something happened in 2019 that has not happened before. In town after town across England, the voters not only voted against the two major parties, but also positively voted for independent candidates. Not only that, but many of the most successful independent campaigns did the smart thing of putting their place name on the ballot paper. Ashfield Independents, for example, took control of the council, but the emergence of the independent movement didn’t just happen there.

However staggering the result in Ashfield seems, it was perhaps equally a rejection of the incumbent Labour council. Am I right, people of Ashfield? Were you satisfied with the previous council? I’m going to say you weren’t; I can count.

Now consider Bolton council which, for the first time in a generation is now controlled by the Conservatives. People of Bolton, were you satisfied with the previous council? I live in Bolton and I can count…. the answer was an emphatic no.

I don’t want to pick on just Labour. Residents groups and independent parties have taken seats and some councils from the control of both Labour and the Conservatives. The point is they’ve been sending us all a message – namely that they’re not having it any more. And this year they broke through. It didn’t get anywhere near enough attention in the national press, with the exception of myself, John Harris in the Guardian and Jen Williams in the Manchester Evening News, but be in no doubt, this is a very marked change in our politics.

Now think about how this plays out in a general election. With the exception of Ashfield Independents, who I expect to lose in Ashfield, these independent parties are not on the ballot paper. However, the underlying dissatisfaction of voters minded to vote against the two main parties definitely is on the ballot paper. Voters in many areas of the country have spent the last two years kicking the two major parties in the gonads. You might say “Well, that’s just the local elections….this is a general election!” Well, yes but also very much no. Let me explain.

We know voters are moving around more than they ever have. We know people’s level of satisfaction with politics and politicians is at a record low. Ripe pickings for populist movements from the left and right. But also, as we have seen, ripe pickings for fledgling local movements to take advantage of long-standing and deep dissatisfaction with local political control. And also, crucially, reason for the two main parties to believe that dissatisfaction with local council control “could” play part in a voter’s decision pathway in a general election.

Perhaps the popularity or otherwise of local council control is a form of reassurance for people thinking of switching parties. Many voters, after all, have spent the last two years providing us with rich data to show which councils they are dissatisfied with and how they are therefore choosing to vote. If they are dissatisfied with the local Labour or Conservative council, does it interact with how likely they are to switch? Let’s assume more voters than ever before are prepared to switch. They’ll have rich local evidence for the effectiveness, or otherwise, of their council.

So, in Bolton for example, the Labour council was voted down in 2019 and a Conservative council recently took control for the first time since Margaret Thatcher in No 10. If local people are broadly satisfied with that outcome, does it make them more or less likely to vote Conservative in a general election?

I’m not saying on its own it defines seats. I’m just suggesting that I expect those places with deeply unpopular local councils to be more difficult for candidates representing the controlling party. And vice versa, easier territory for their opponents to get a hearing.

Remember also that the timing of a winter election allows six months to have passed since the local elections in May. Enough time for new council leaders to enjoy a honeymoon period, but not enough time for disillusion to set in. Enough time for councils to make good on campaign promises perhaps; tidy up a few parks, and so on. Enough time for those councils that benefitted from the unpopularity of the previous council to show voters that the world hasn’t ended necessarily. That, for instance, going from Labour control to Conservative control, or vice-versa hasn’t been as bad as they may have feared.

Consider also the reverse of this interaction. What if you’re in a broadly popular local council area? Perhaps an area where the controlling party has a good local track record, and in which it’s easier to point to such success as a mechanism through which people are reminded of the good work that party does. The same is true for any party; good local government matters in that it ‘may’ underpin traditional loyalties which are perhaps ready to be lost by voters wary of all politicians.

And then, finally, consider spillover effects. What if, for example, you live in a council area dominated by one party, and that party has just been kicked out next door and replaced by another party, and the world doesn’t appear to have ended? Are you going to settle for the council you have, which you’re dissatisfied with, or are you going to do the same? More importantly, in this election, are you going to consider voting for, for example, the Conservatives as unthinkable, or take a punt because where you live they’ve voted Labour for decades and don’t much think it’s got you anywhere?

I’m not at all suggesting this interaction between local council control and voting intention in the general election will be decisive. Despite all of the above movements away from the two main parties, people may still swing in behind their traditional loyalties. But I’m at least suggesting that it may be more important than anyone is currently suggesting. And for that reason, it’s in my suite of factors to include in my election analysis.

Ian Warren is a co-founder of the Centre for Towns and the director of Election Data. This article previously appeared on Medium.


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Revealed: why Labour’s Waspi policy won’t benefit poorer pensioners

Women who currently receive pension credit and other benefits would have these benefits cut in response to their compensation payouts.

Labour’s policy to compensate older women for changes to the state pension age will benefit the poorest pensioners far less than richer ones — and may not benefit them at all.

In a dramatic post-manifesto announcement, the party committed £58bn in compensation to women born between 1950 and 1960 for the impact of the 1995 Pensions Act, which raised the female state pension age from 60 to 65 — it has since been raised again, to 66 — a policy that affects 2.6 million women in the UK. The commitment was welcomed by “Waspi” (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaigners, who argue they were given inadequate notice of the pension age changes and were in some cases left destitute. The pledge has also reportedly been well received on the doorstep during the election campaign.

However, Labour confirmed for this report that the compensation payouts will be treated as state pension income for tax and benefits purposes. This means that women born in the 1950s who currently receive benefits such as pension credit will have them cut in response to their compensation payouts — leaving them little or no better off as a result. Meanwhile, higher-income women will have their compensation subjected to income tax, but will still gain substantially.

Tom Waters, a research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, says that “women who would benefit from this policy are less likely to be towards the bottom of the income distribution — about 16 per cent of them are in the bottom fifth — and they’re more likely to be around the middle.

“And for those of them who are on lower incomes, quite a few of them might see some or even all of the gain that they get from this policy withdrawn through lower entitlements to pension credit.”

Under Labour’s plans, women born in the 1950s would receive around £15,000 in compensation on average, with the highest payouts reaching £31,000. Labour would split the compensation into five annual payments, which “will be treated in the same way that the missed state pension income would have been treated for tax and benefit purposes,” according to a party statement.

When benefit claimants’ income rises, their benefit payments usually fall in response, to reflect their reduced need for welfare support. Some benefits are withdrawn pound-for-pound — for every pound of higher income, a pound is withdrawn from benefit payments. Pension credit, which is paid to poorer pensioners, is one such benefit. It guarantees claimants a specified minimum income — if someone’s pension and other income is below a certain amount, pension credit tops it up to that level. If their pension income rises, the top-up falls pound-for-pound, as less of it is needed to reach the guaranteed level.

As a result, 1950s-born women on pension credit will find their benefit cut by a pound for every pound in Waspi compensation they receive, until they reach the guaranteed amount. The impact could be worst for low-income women born between 1950 and 1953. Some receive a basic state pension of £6,718 a year. For those living alone with low incomes and savings, pension credit tops this up to at least £8,697 — a benefit payment of £1,979.

As a result, if their annual Waspi compensation is below £1,979, it will be entirely cancelled out by withdrawn pension credit, meaning they gain nothing from it. If their Waspi compensation is above £1,979, they will gain financially, but also lose entitlement to pension credit and the numerous other benefits that come with it, including maximum housing benefit and council tax benefit, cold weather payments and warm home discounts.

The impact could be heaviest on those with disabilities. The severe disability premium raises the pension credit guaranteed income level to £12,121 — well above the basic state pension. This makes it likelier that their entire Waspi compensation will be cancelled out by withdrawn pension credit.

Theresa May, who was born in 1956, will do well out of Labour’s proposals. Severely disabled pensioners on low incomes may gain nothing at all.

“Once they get into retirement, if they’re receiving [Waspi compensation] every year for five years, that would to some degree wipe out eligibility for means-tested benefits,” says Daniela Silcock, head of policy research at the Pensions Policy Institute.

Under Labour’s plans, women born in the late 1950s will start receiving compensation before they reach the state pension age. Those on Universal Credit are therefore also likely to have their benefit withdrawn pound-for-pound in response to the compensation payouts — although if their raised income renders them ineligible for Universal Credit, they will be released from the troubled benefit’s jobsearch requirements and sanctions regime.

Labour rejects the claim that its policy is regressive, as the payments will be subject to progressive income tax rates. Nor is the policy necessarily intended to be redistributive; Labour hasn’t proposed raising pension credit in its manifesto either. However, because its £58bn estimated cost does not factor in the money recouped in taxation and withdrawn benefits, Labour could protect recipients from having their benefits withdrawn without having to go over the £58bn figure.

“I would imagine that they’ve come up with this policy and are trying to think of ways it could work,” said Silcock. “Once they actually sit down and look at the details they might think that another way would be better.”

A Labour Party spokesperson said: “Redressing the historic wrong of women having their pensions stolen by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is the right thing to do.”

Chaminda Jayanetti is a freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian, the Observer and Private Eye

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Jeremy Corbyn poses with WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaigners in Renishaw on 25 November 2019 in Derbyshire.
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From the front lines of a feminist disrupter campaign

The Women’s Equality Party knows it doesn’t have much hope of gaining a seat on 12 December, so it is instead campaigning with a focus on ending gender-based violence. But can women compete with Brexit?

In a self-defeating yet smug turn of phrase, the Women’s Equality Party says one of its goals is to no longer be necessary. Having a member of parliament would be nice, sure, but “the ultimate dream is that we no longer need to exist, because it’s all done,” says Sandi Toksvig, the Great British Bake-Off star who co-founded the political start-up in 2015. 

When equality for women is achieved, so the logic goes, the party’s raison d’être will have disappeared. In the meantime, though, there is the small matter of a general election – and in a first-past-the-post system stacked against smaller parties, WEP has opted for an unusual strategy. Zooming in on one of its seven core objectives, it is focusing its limited resources on ending violence against women and girls.

The approach, which party leader Mandu Reid describes as “guerilla”, has been two-fold. The party is fielding three candidates – all survivors of domestic abuse – in seats where former MPs have been the subject of unresolved allegations of sexual harassment and assault. All three men deny the allegations. In Luton North, where Serena Laidley is standing, Labour’s investigation into former MP Kelvin Hopkins, now retired, has not concluded. In Bury South, where Gemma Evans is standing, former Labour MP Ivan Lewis is now running as an independent. Eljai Morais is standing in Dover, where Charlie Elphicke was the Conservative MP. His wife, Natalie, is now the Conservative candidate. Another two WEP candidates stood aside in the Cities of London and Westminster and Sheffield Hallam, with the party endorsing the Liberal Democrats in those seats because they committed to key WEP policies in their manifesto. Those seats also saw Conservative MP Mark Field – who was filmed manhandling a female climate protester in June – and former Labour MP Jared O’Mara – who had faced sexual misconduct allegations – stand down. 

“We wanted to influence those who hold real power, zooming in on where they fall short on women and using our leverage to give them an option to do better and do right by women,” says Reid, who is the first black leader of a political party in the UK. At the same time, the WEP, which allows members to belong to other parties, has crossed the boundary lines of tribal politics to support Rosie Duffield, the lone Labour MP in Kent, herself the survivor of an abusive relationship. “We are at the vanguard of demonstrating how small parties can make a difference,” says Reid. “I wouldn’t be surprised if other parties copy us, but a better option would be electoral reform.”  

On Sunday, WEP activists joined Labour canvassers in Canterbury to drum up support for Duffield, who is defending a majority of 187. In the centre of town, Christmas muzak booming from the nearby Christmas Market, around 100 people gathered for a speedy pre-canvassing rally between a Dorothy Perkins and Cote Brasserie. Alongside the “Re-elect Rosie” banners, the Labour rosettes, the “Canterbury for Rosie” and “Remain for Rosie” badges was the odd badge with “Vote Labia”, a WEP slogan.  

“I wish I hadn’t worn heels,” said Duffield, as she stood on a slatted bench to address an adoring crowd. Alongside Duffield, Reid, Toskvig, and her co-founder, the journalist and author Catherine Mayer, tried to fire things up on a chilly morning. Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, also made an appearance, declaring she was “beginning the part of this rally which is known as the small round women for Rosie”.

The WEP says this was the first time it has officially canvassed for another party’s candidate. Not only did they support Duffield because of her “astonishing speech” in parliament in October on coercive control, says Toksvig, but because she has spoken out against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and voted against austerity. “The things she stands for are the very things we want to see represented in parliament,” she says. This election has “totally been portrayed to the whole country as this polarised debate between two of the worst leaders we have ever had in the history of this country, and as if that’s it. There are other ways in which we can do this. This is the new way of doing it.” 

“Because women are dying,” chief of staff Hannah Peaker says when asked why the party is focusing on this particular issue, in this particular election. “Women are dying at rates that could be stopped right now. Women have done everything that was asked of them. The reporting is up, ‘Me Too’ happened, everyone spoke out, then there was the backlash and now we have cut back on services so, so far that there is no support for them and conviction rates are falling.”

With a line of women having left politics as this election started citing abuse and threats, three years after the murder of Jo Cox, violence against and abuse of women has become an issue in today’s politics. Despite the salience, however, is this cutting through on the doorstep? The Labour Party would not allow the New Statesman to accompany any canvassers on Sunday, but activists from both parties said that ending violence against women wasn’t exactly coming up. “We are focusing on Rosie,” says Tabitha Morton, who was the WEP’s candidate for the 2017 Liverpool mayoral election and now heads More United, another political start-up. “I’ve obviously got my WEP badge on but the point of being here is not to talk about our party, it’s to get a brilliant woman elected.”

In any case, a major challenge for WEP in getting its message across is that most voters haven’t ever heard of it. Despite having 35,000 members across 75 branches, and even getting a local councillor elected in Cheshire’s Congleton East this year, “we are still at the name recognition stage,” says Reid. 

Brexit was the most common issue on the doorstep, activists said. Duffield is an outspoken advocate for Remain in a party whose leadership will not say whether or not it backs leaving the EU. “The narratives in this one are quite confused and you are seeing that on the doorstep here,” says Mayer. “So you are meeting people who are both saying they are voting for Rosie and that they aren’t voting for Rosie because they either think that she will stop Brexit or she won’t. It is confused and polarised.”

Still, Mayer says abuse of women does resonate, adding that some voters are shocked for instance that, under the Recall Act 2015, MPs cannot face recall by constituents unless they are facing a custodial sentence. This means, party activists argue, that voters can recall an MP for “fiddling expenses” but have no recourse in cases where MPs are accused of sexual assault or harassment. “There are many more things that we stand for than the issues of eradicating violence and abuse against women, but that is a huge issue and it’s the one that we can really cut through in this campaign.”

Duffield clearly appreciates the cross-party support. “We absolutely have to work with this party on so many things, particularly for women,” she says in a Cafe Nero after the rally, eager to tuck into a hot chocolate with whipped cream. “I bore everyone to death with this in my speeches, but we are women first then we are party political, and that is an absolute truth in parliament. You know that the minute you are there…I’ve even had conversations with Priti Patel in the ladies’ loo which weren’t that hostile. You find common ground, you just do, you just talk about ‘isn’t this crap’ or ‘why is everybody being so sexist’, or whatever. You find common ground.”

The MP says she tries to push a women’s agenda. “The problem is being the only Kent non-Tory I’ve got to do everything so it’s not as much as I’d like to.” Is Labour the best party for women? “We haven’t done brilliantly, have we, with some of the men who are accused of certain things and not necessarily been dealt with, that’s been a bit of a disappointment, I have to be honest,” she says. “We need to do better, and the more women we get in the better we will do.” She adds that “no major party has done enough for women.” 

The Women’s Equality Party wants to see women’s issues running “like a golden thread” through policy, says Toksvig. But isn’t there a danger that the very existence of a party focused on women risks perpetuating the sidelining of women? “I think it’s exactly the opposite,” says Mayer. “When we founded the party the very first question we got asked was why don’t you just be the equality party and everyone kept trying to change it. It’s like no women are always at the back of the queue. We need to be there because the other parties aren’t doing it.”

Part of the problem, surely, is that despite “Me Too”, despite the fact that abuse and threats against women MP’s came up as the election began, the electorate just doesn’t care enough. And so, women remain a side issue. 

“They always have been, darling, and so far that hasn’t changed,” says Toksvig. “We also need male champions, we need the boys to come on side with this.” So is a male WEP candidate part of the answer? “No, I’m not saying that you have to have a penis in order for people to listen, although I will say that anybody, any human being, who wants to stand up for these things is welcome.”

Alona Ferber

Author: Alona Ferber | Source

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