Why hasn’t Labour had a female leader?

As of yesterday, it is certain that, for the second time in history, the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will be a woman. What’s more, it is certain that, for the second time in history, the woman in question will be a Conservative. It is true that having a female Prime Minister is not in and of itself beneficial to women: Andrea Leadsom wants to scrap maternity pay for employees of the smallest businesses and Theresa May has been criticised for ‘allowing state-sanctioned abuse of women‘ at a detention centre. However, those of us on the left must ask why the Labour Party has been unable to elect a female leader in over 100 years of its history.

The most obvious reason for this is in the origins of the party. Labour grew out of industrial trade unionism and remained largely wedded to this until the 1980s. Granted, the party’s leaders were rarely drawn from this stock, but it cannot be denied that working-class industrial communities made up the primary constituency of the party during this period, and this was reflected in the policy priorities and internal demographics of the Labour Party. Startlingly, it was not until 1987 that Labour managed to elect over 20 female MPs – up from a low of 10 in 1983. It is undeniable that the culture of industrial trade unionism was inherently patriarchal and conservative in its nature, as was the makeup of many of the communities represented by this movement.

This is not to say that everyone who was part of the labour movement before the 90s was some kind of sexist brute, or that Labour didn’t achieve some great things for women – such as the Equal Pay Act. However, it is true that this masculine atmosphere both deterred and impeded women in seeking to rise up higher in the party. It is one of the most established social facts that people are more likely to choose someone who is similar to them when hiring or picking successors, so it is no surprise that male-dominated CLPs returned a male-dominated selection of MPs, who in turn choose a male-dominated top team.

However, there is a second, more subtle reason for Labour’s historical inability to elect a female leader. We are collectivists and idealists, whereas the Tories are individualists and pragmatists. In themselves, there is nothing wrong with collectivism or idealism, but they have the downside of creating a cultish tribalism. Desires for innovation and concerns about how the party operates are often brushed aside with calls for ‘solidarity’ and ‘unity’. This has become very apparent in recent weeks with the so-called ‘Labour Coup’, but any feminist. LGBT or race activist on the left will be able to recount how they have been told how their concerns are secondary to ‘the struggle’ and raising them is at best divisive and at worst subversive. This is the stifling conservatism that so often comes out of collectivism.

The reason this makes it even harder for a woman to be elected leader of Labour is that collective movements always need a strong central figure to unify around. You don’t need me to tell you that the attributes people desire in a strong leader – determined, authoritative, rational – are seen as masculine whereas ‘weak’ traits are seen as feminine. Because of these deeply ingrained attitudes, men have a huge headstart when it comes to being elected to represent the aims of a collective, and then the tribal mindset makes it even more difficult for a woman to challenge them – as we have seen with the torrents of violent and misogynistic verbal abuse directed at female MPs.

In contrast, the Tories worship the individual, and therefore when someone appears who has the ruthlessness and will to force their ideas through, they get to the top. There’s no question that misogynistic attitudes are more prevalent on the right than the left, but when a Thatcher or a May comes along, the Tories know who’s going to best prosecute their interests.

There will always be excuses for why Labour has not elected a woman, but excuses is all they are. You cannot seriously look at our most recent three leaders and conclude that they were all ‘the best person for the job’ at the time. Likewise, you cannot pretend that someone with the moral and intellectual weight of Yvette Cooper was a weaker candidate than Andy Burnham and deserved to come third. The fact is Labour is built on a masculine culture, and our collectivist methods in pursuing dogmatic idealism lend themselves to a tribal politics where who can shout the loudest and impose themselves upon others wins.

This is not to say that the Labour Party has not achieved excellent things for men and women, nor that its roots somehow invalidate them. Likewise, it is not saying that we are the only political party with a ‘woman problem’. What it is saying, though, is that it’s time we recognise the obstacles that hold us back from being a party where women have as good a shot as reaching the time as men. I’m damned if I know quite how we do this, but I do know that, out of the 5 people who I think could lead us to victory at the next election, 3 of them are women, and we have a better array of female talent on our benches than ever before. Electing a female leader won’t end our problems, but it would give the signal to our members that it is possible, and that there is another way of doing politics. It’s high time we did so.


Should Labour MPs unite around Corbyn?

If you’re as much of a sadomasochist as me and spend a good deal of your time watching the demise of the Labour Party British politics team on Twitter, you will have noticed this invariable refrain from the defenders of the Corbyn ‘project’: ‘It’s time to unite around Jeremy’. According to them, all our fears of unelectability and decades in the electoral wasteland are unfounded. All we need to do is ‘get behind the leader’ and ‘oppose the Tories’ and all will be well. The exact terms of what it means to ‘unite and take on the Tories’ is never precisely specified, but given the usual context these words are uttered in, it basically means ‘Shut up and agree with whatever Corbyn says and shout it as loud as you can’. I must confess I have no love whatsoever for Corbyn or his ‘project’, but it seems obvious to me that, even from an objective point of view, this position is bankrupt.

To start with, many of Labour’s MPs were elected in the 97-10 period while running on a New Labour platform. Deny it all you will, but the fact is a good deal of these MPs were elected *because* of this platform, not in spite of it. For them to turn around now and renounce all they had stood for in the past would not only be dishonest to those who elected them, it would be electoral suicide. Not only would they lose their seats at the next election, but the Tories would forever have the attack line that, no matter what Labour MPs say, no matter how much you think you can trust them with economic or national security, they are only waiting for the right leader to come along to show their true colours. With a large portion of the Corbyn-supporting membership already regarded by most as thuggish anti-Semites, MPs bending to their will would finish us for good.

Secondly, I must ask the question: unite behind what? The thing that has disappointed me almost more than anything else about Corbyn’s premiership is I’ve barely seen a single policy come out of it. While I in no way wanted Corbyn to be elected, the old Tony Benn loving Marxist in me was at least hoping for a bit of full-throated, left-wing opposition to ease our collapse into irrelevance. I envisaged we’d get a passionate defence of welfare spending, a mixed economy, social housing, progressive taxation etc. Did we get that? Did we bollocks. We got a man who refused to capitalise on Iain Duncan Smith’s departure, hasn’t advanced any alternative vision for government and when Welsh steel was collapsing decided to start *another* debate about Trident. To be frank, all ‘unity’ would seem to amount to is agreeing to scrap Trident and then every week getting together for a Freudian celebration of Corbyn’s huge ‘mandate’.

But there is something more maddening about these constant calls for unity; namely, it exposes an inherent flaw in Corbynista logic. Every time you try and engage with a Corbyn supporter you will be told incessantly how the public are sick of ‘careerist politicians’ and ‘Blairites’ (read: anyone but Corbyn and McDonnell), and are crying out for a ‘left-wing alternative’. Let’s imagine there isn’t mountains of evidence to the contrary, and take them at their word. If the public are indeed sick of these ‘establishment politicians’ in the PLP, then why on earth would Corbyn be helped by them uniting behind him? Surely such endorsements could only show him to be as much a corrupt establishment figure as all the rest? Quite the opposite of wanting unity, he should want his colleagues to hate him, as it would show him to be the genuine alternative that everyone is crying out for.

Or of course, we are left with the other alternative (read: reality). The public aren’t sick of ‘establishment careerists’ and they aren’t demanding a ‘left-wing alternative’. The reason they don’t like Corbyn is because they don’t like him, and would much rather listen to someone like Chuka Umunna or Stella Creasy. It is this reality that shows the bankruptcy of the Corbynites’ position. They know full-well the public do not desire the ‘new politics’ Corbyn is proposing, and they know full-well that even if they did, Corbyn is not an inspiring enough character to deliver it.

It is for this reason that so many of Corbyn’s acolytes are driven to acts of online violence, intimidation and conspiracy. It is a truism that insecurity in one’s beliefs leads to people lashing out at the world rather than confronting their fears. Going out, knocking on doors and meeting people who disagree with you is all too much work when you could just go to a rally with people who share your beliefs or call everyone who disagrees with you a traitor. Why bother constructing a platform that appeals to the wider public and takes into account the nuances of globalisation and moral grey areas when you can just declare everyone who doesn’t realise the truth you’re speaking to be part of some vast conspiracy?

It is this deep-rooted insecurity that fuels the movement around Corbyn, and the bitter irony is this is why they want to capture the Labour Party. They know that the only hope of having anyone but themselves pay any attention whatsoever to their views is by taking control of a pre-existing ‘establishment’ party, and having got halfway there, they will fight tooth-and-nail to seize it for good. For the good of our party, our country, and our politics at large, we must do everything we can to stop them.

Ignore those saying otherwise, Britain will vote Remain

‘Brexit’ and Cameron’s renegotiation of Britain’s  deal with the EU have dominated the news cycle for a good week now, and this has been accompanied by plenty of chatter in the commentariat about the prospects for the ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ sides. If you are keeping track of this – believe me, there are better things to do – you would be forgiven for thinking this referendum is genuinely up-in-the-air. Ignore them. It isn’t.

To start with, Cameron’s so-called ‘renegotiation’ is an utter farce. All it addresses is the largely invented problem of migrants draining the welfare state. Countless studies have shown that it is not our welfare state which draws migrants to the UK, but instead our relative wealth, opportunities and, crucially, English being our first language. While I have no problem with British natives being first-in-line to receive welfare, the renegotiation does nothing to address the real problems of the EU. From the left, it doesn’t tackle the institution’s consistent bias towards privatisation and austerity, as we have seen in Greece, Italy and Portugal. From the right, it doesn’t repatriate powers over much of our law-making ability, and, in general, it does nothing to address the lack of proper democracy, accountability, the power of lobbyists or increasing federalism. But none of this matters, and here are the reasons why:

  1. The Leave Campaign:                                                                                       The main risk for the leave campaign was that they were always going to perceived as a lunatic fringe full of ‘little-Englanders’ and conspiracists. The Brexit campaign has responded to this with a spectacular lack of self-awareness, and filled the movement with just that. Prominent figureheads are Nigel Farage, the climate-change denying Nigel Lawson and, as of yesterday, George Galloway. The only credible and fairly well-known names backing the campaign are Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith,  Kate Hoey and Frank Field, but even the latter two aren’t major enough to carry real clout and are seen as on the fringe of their respective parties. Perception matters hugely, and no one wants to be seen as a narrow-minded, slightly weird racist due to their stance on the EU. This is made even more pertinent by the relative strength of the In campaign. They can pick up plenty of votes simply by saying, ‘Do you want to be here with all the major party leaders, business people and celebrities, or over there with George Galloway lapping milk from your hands?’
  2. It’s about loss aversion, stupid:                                                                 Even if the Leave campaign weren’t a bit of a mess, I would have no doubt that we would vote to remain. If there is one thing that decides elections, it is uncertainty and the fear it causes. So often in politics, people lose sight of this simple fact and start analysing every facet of the opposing sides’ arguments, but this is nearly always a waste of time. It was obvious to any serious observer of the Scottish referendum Better Together would win as soon as it became clear the Yes campaign didn’t have a plan for an alternative currency. People hold what they know dear to them, especially in a modern world gripped by uncertainty.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   This observation was clearly documented by Kahneman & Tversky with their 1979 theory of loss aversion. Put simply, Kahneman and Tversky argued that people feel twice as much psychological hurt in losing something than they do pleasure in gaining something. When looked at through this prism, it is obvious that we will vote to stay, especially because the gains of leaving are speculative. Possible losses are trade, economic security and influence and national security. All of these are concrete, and translate into people’s fears for their jobs and lives. Possible gains, on the other hand, are speculative trade agreements with ‘the rest of the world’ and repatriating legal powers which few people understand anyway. Control over borders will be the only thing seen as a gain by many, but this will not be enough to trump the fears of the majority concerning economic well-being.
A cartoon mocking the ‘Out’ campaign in 1975. Little has changed today. (Credit to @Jacob4MK for the find)

Bourgeois burghers living in bergs

When you examine the names of towns in the United Kingdom, what will strike you is the amount of them which end in some variant of ‘burg’; Middlesbrough, Edinburgh, Scarborough and Glastonbury are but a few of such towns. The reason for its ubiquity is that it simply means ‘fortified place’. However, it is not until you look into the history of this word that you realise quite how widespread it is and the social assumptions it reflects.

‘Burg’ itself derives the Proto-Indo-European word bhergh, which means ‘high’. This word led to various derivatives referring to hills, forts and fortified places in general, and is also the root of the English ‘barrow’, as in Tolkein’s ‘The Barrow Downs’. As you might have guessed, Proto-Indo-European forms the root of nearly every European language, and as such you can find cognates for bhergh across the continent. As well as the English variants mentioned above, we have Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Bergen and Svendborg to name but a few. Similarly, Italian has borgo, which typically describes the built-up area outside of the old town, and its diminutive, borghetto, is from where we get the word ‘ghetto’. As you may have already guessed, the word iceberg is from the same root, simply meaning ‘ice mountain’.

It is fairly obvious that a word referring to fortification would crop up frequently in the names of our towns, but not so obvious that it would end up forming the basis of one of our most evocative words that refers to class – bourgeois. The word simply means ‘one who dwells in a town’, and came into fashion in the 1700s. Philosopher Jean Jacques-Rousseau, who despaired of the ‘effeminate’ and privileged lifestyle of the city as opposed to that of his ‘noble savages’, was particularly instrumental in shaping the word’s meaning to one of cosy and aloof living. The same etymology is found in the Dutch burgher, which came to refer to the wealthy merchant class in the Dutch trading cities, and even in the English ‘burgess’, one of the first words used to describe an elected representative.

In contrast to these wealthy city dwellers, we have the hated and mocked rural ‘peasants’. Peasant derives from the French paysan, which comes from pays (country) and ultimately the Latin pagus (also meaning country). It is from this same Latin word that ‘pagan’ derives, the early Church despairing of those who dwelt in the country and still worshipped the ‘old gods’. (It should be noted that ‘pheasant’ has no relation to any of this, and means ‘bird from the River Phasis’.) It is fascinating to see how this innocent suffix has ended up embodying one of the biggest divides in all modern nations – the gap between the ‘cultured’ metropolitans and the ‘backwards’ country folk.

On Brocialism

One of the most unsightly sights on Twitter is also one of the most frequent. What I speak of, of course, is mobs of keyboard warriors descending on individuals for committing some imagined transgression. Whether it be Cybernats attacking ‘traitorous unionists’, UKIP voters abusing ‘liebour pedos’ or Corbynistas berating ‘neoliberal, blairite warmongers blood on your hands!’, the Twitter keyboard warrior rarely fails to conform to a very specific set of characteristics. Namely, adopting a pseudonym, not having their face in their profile picture and overuse of the crying laughing face emoji. They will also either have dreadful spelling and grammar or use lots of complex lexis – which would make them appear intelligent if it weren’t so apparent that they had no idea of its meaning. However, recently it has become more and more apparent that there is another key characteristic of such people.

When I first saw the term ‘brocialism’ about two years ago, I was skeptical. Plenty of buzzwords get bandied around on Twitter, and as a general rule you should ignore 80% of them. Similarly, I am always wary of any catch-all generalisations, due to their tendency to homogenize people and obscure nuance. However, when you look at where the abuse on Twitter comes from and the way in which it manifests, it is quite obvious that there is a pattern. Almost without fail, the abuse comes from men who then retweet any responses they get to call down ‘the boys’ to attack the offender. Furthermore, this abuse is disproportionately directed at women – especially young women. Finally, the dynamic between these ‘brocialists’ is resplendent with the awkward, feverish homoeroticism that is always present in groups of straight men who are insecure in their masculinity.

The reality of this is self-evident, but why should this pattern manifest? In my view, it is mostly down to two factors: a) the cultish mentality of these groups and b) the ultimate weakness of their positions. Earlier, I mentioned Cybernats  and Corbynistas. They are both cultists. They have a fanatical devotion to an abstract concept – nationalism or ‘real’ socialism – and their dear leaders. They are also on the fringes of political thought, and as such any perceived slight towards them is magnified a thousand fold. It is in this tribalism that we find the reason for the makeup of these Twitter abusers being largely male. They view their spokespersons as something of ‘pack leaders’, and as such rally to defend them whenever they are threatened. These leaders tend to be male, such is the makeup of our society, and even when they are not – in the case of Nicola Sturgeon – the most vocal supporters online – such as WingsOverScotland – always are.

Tribalism isn’t only observed in men by any means, but it does manifest in a specific way with males. One only has to observe football fans to see how quickly affronts to the chosen tribe of men can incite violence. On the internet, as there are no bottles or traffic cones to be thrown, this takes the form of abuse. The reason this abuse is disproportionately directed towards young women is that these men want to prove their worth to their fellow ‘soldiers’ by winning battles, and sexist assumptions tell them that young women are stupid, out-of-their depth and weak, therefore making them easy scalps. If you want evidence of this, just observe how quickly brocialists resort to using patronising terms like ‘love’ and ‘dear’. I guarantee you it will be within 8 tweets.

As I mentioned, the other reason for this abuse is the inherent weakness of the above parties’ positions. It is a truism that when people realise their argument is bankrupt, they resort to violence. The fascists knew their ideas of racial purity had no basis in science, the Church knew they had no answer to the first rationalists, so rather than argue with their opponents, they killed them. In the modern world, when you have no faith in your argument, you no-platform your opponent, deselect them, or abuse them online. The arguments of the SNP are based on a nationalistic pipe dream, and the idea that Corbyn would ever get elected or has any semblance of a coherent policy platform which would benefit the nation is so laughable I won’t even address it. But the faithful also know this, and rather than face the horrible knowledge that they are wrong, they group together, howl, beat their chests and throw excrement. This is the face of modern brocialism, and Christ, is it ugly to behold.

No, Stephen Crabb, Secularism is not to blame for ISIS

In a recent speech to the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb, asserted that ‘hard-edged’ secularism in the UK was partly to blame for ‘aiding and abetting’ extremism. His reasoning is that this secularism ‘delegitimises’ religious faith through ‘suspicion, fear and ridicule’, pushing this faith to the fringes of society. According to Crabb, it therefore follows that, ‘if you push faith to the margins, then to the margins and into the shadows faith will be outworked’.

Crabb is a committed and conservative Christian, being one of the Tory MPs who voted against gay marriage two years ago. It is therefore not surprising that he would seek to pin religious fundamentalism on anything but religion. Yet it is still worth looking at his arguments, if only to show how flawed and groundless they really are.

To start with, Crabb makes the assertion that Islam, is ‘ridiculed’ and ‘delegitimised’. But where is the evidence for this? I would suggest that Islam, as a system of a beliefs, is far more insulated from criticism than Christianity, with scrutiny being written off as ‘Islamophobic’. Obviously, it is true that Muslims themselves face racism and suspicion which Christians do not have to face, but this is an entirely different issue to ‘hard-edged secularism’. Loud-mouthed racists and far-right groups such as the EDL and Britain First are hardly the inheritors of Spinoza and Hume, and in fact frequently proclaim that Britain is a ‘Christian country’, and that we should defend Christianity against Islam.

Such racism is grotesque, moronic and completely unacceptable, but it bears no relation to the criticism of Islam as a set of beliefs. Indeed, criticism of Islam as a religion is rarely tolerated. We do not need to cast our minds back far to remember how many made apologies for the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, declaring that the cartoons were ‘offensive’, ‘Islamophobic’ and should not have been published, yet the cartoons mocking the Papacy and Christianity came under no such attack. Christianity is ruthlessly parodied, mocked and criticised by comedians, television and film and by wide swathes of authors and intellectuals. It is absolutely correct that it should be, but can you imagine Islam being treated in the same way? Of course you can’t.

Similarly, excuses are made for radical and conservative Islam that would never be made for Christianity. When the Iranian ex-Muslim and secularist, Maryam Namazie, attempted to give a talk at Goldsmiths University, members of its Islamic Society attempted to use tactics of intimidation to shut the talk down. Far from condemning this naked intimidation of a woman, Goldsmiths Feminist Society ‘stood in solidarity‘ with those attempting to shut down the talk. Warwick University banned Maryam from speaking altogether until pressure forced them to back down. Sharia courts which ‘lock married women into captivity‘, face little-to-no criticism from the left or the feminist movement. In contrast, LGBT+ rights group Stonewall frequently hand out the ‘bigot of the year’ award to prominent Christians in the Church and in politics, and criticism of Christianity by secular speakers is never censored by universities.

Based on this, I would suggest that Islam is rarely subjected to ‘hard-edged secularism’ and ridicule, whereas Christianity is. However, we do not see a rise in Christian extremism or young Christians leaving the UK to fight for a new Christendom. This alone is almost enough to show that secularisation has no bearing on radicalisation.

We do not know enough about the causes of radicalisation yet, but it seems fairly clear that they usually stem from material conditions of social exclusion coupled with the allure of ideology. The racism from individuals and groups I mentioned earlier, coupled with disgusting, dog-whistle sensationalism from the right-wing press, such as the Sun‘s awful ‘1 in 5 British Muslims support ISIS’ claim’, are almost wholly responsible for the climate of fear and racism that many Muslims have to experience, not secularists who seek to challenge dogma and the hold it has over institutions. If Christians faced the same level of contempt and scaremongering from our society, I would suggest we would indeed see the rise of radical Christian groups.

I would to like conclude with a quick history lesson for Mr Crabb. At no point in human existence has the rise of secularism been met with a rise in religious violence. On the contrary, it is only secularism which has reigned in the awful tendency of religions to murder, torture and repress all those who oppose them. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 saw an end to the bloody Wars of Religion which saw 1/3 of the population of Central Europe lie dead, and was a secular treaty, granting the right of nations and their citizens to follow whichever religion they chose. The period of free, secular inquiry which followed cemented reason and human rights above dogma and despotism for the first time in European history. Since then, we have never seen European states go to war over who has the correct interpretation of the Bible, or launch crusades to recapture supposedly sites, or kill scientists and philosophers who questioned religious supremacy. It is not through protecting our views from criticism that we make progress towards human freedom and rights, but through submitting them to reason, enquiry and debate. So sorry, Stephen Crabb, but the UK does not need less secularism, it needs more.

Paris, moral one-upmanship and the self-righteous

Two days after the heinous crimes against humanity in Paris, Europe is still trying to come to terms with what this might mean for its future. I’m not going to add my voice to the mass of people talking about possible causes or how we should respond; firstly as this field is largely populated by victim-blamers, racists and denialists and secondly because I don’t wish to use such horror to make political points. What I do wish to comment on, however, is the unsavoury and downright distasteful phenomenon of people lambasting their fellows for caring about Paris but “not caring” about terrorist attacks further afield. I should clarify that I am not taking aim at people who are including attacks in Beirut, Baghdad etc in their messages of sympathy, but those who are specifically calling out people for showing their solidarity with only Paris. What makes this particularly grating is of all the people I have seen doing this, I have never seen a single one of them show their solidarity or sympathy for victims of terror further afield before the Paris attacks, but only now when they have a chance to use it to show their moral virtue.

While these comments may be purporting to be make some kind of grand statement about the person’s great humanity, they really are not. It’s a simple game of moral one-upmanship which is more than unedifying at such a tragic time. Not only is it distasteful, but the thinking behind it is completely flawed. When any event happens, great or tragic, there are two things that determine our response to it: proximity and precedence. We ask how close to our lives the event was and how unique. When tornadoes strike in Tornado Valley every year, we in the UK may be momentarily sad if we catch it on the news, but then we forget about it. Why? Because we don’t think this makes it any more likely that we will experience a natural disaster in Swindon, and in Tornado Valley tornadoes are, well, pretty frequent. Likewise this is the reason we do not mourn every road traffic death in the UK: the frequency of news makes it less pertinent. Unfortunately, terrorist horrors in the middle-east are common, and, although they are no less awful and heinous than the Paris attacks, we cannot pretend to be as shocked by news of them when they happen weekly rather than twice a decade.

This makes for a reality which, however sad, is still fact. The reason the attacks on Paris horrify us so much is that we have never seen a great European city attacked in such a way. As residents of peaceful countries, we do not expect to see our streets ripped apart by bullets and explosives. Likewise, Paris is only two hours away on the Eurostar, and Londoners who witnessed the atrocity of 7/7 are grimly reminded of the danger they still face. Granted, the fact that we do not have to worry constantly about such threats shows how lucky we are, and that we really should increase our efforts to do something about the horrible reality many have to face, but being more shocked and affected when the attacks are in a country geographically and culturally close to our own in no way calls our moral integrity into question.