Which UK political party cares more about women: Labour or the Conservatives? If I’d been told five years ago that I would even be thinking of asking that question, I’d have thought it was a joke.
As a lifelong Labour voter and supporter, who has found herself disillusioned and dismayed with the party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, I have been hopeful that socialist men will finally recognise the dire need to tackle sexual and domestic violence towards women and girls as a major priority. I have been bitterly disappointed.
I will never vote Conservative, because as a feminist campaigner I believe that for all women to be liberated it is necessary to understand and work to dismantle the endemic inequality that exists within every facet of society. The Tories have a terrible track record in terms of funding services for women escaping violent relationships and giving a damn about women at the bottom of the pile, preferring to focus on the “glass ceiling”, which affects about 5 per cent of the most privileged women.
Despite having failed to elect a female leader in 118 years, probably most would still say Labour is the party that cares most about women, and understandably. It is not for nothing that Labour feels like a more comfortable place if you are female.
Under Tony Blair, some female-friendly (as opposed to hard-hitting feminist) policies were introduced, such as national minimum wage, tax credits, childcare strategy, increased child benefit, increased public sector spending, same sex adoption rights, and Sure Start children’s centres.
The criminal justice system also was given a shakedown during this period: for example, the provocation defence for domestic homicide was scrapped, which had previously allowed some men who killed female partners to claim they had been “provoked” into killing as a result of her alleged infidelity, or “nagging”.
These are hard-won changes. So it is with a heavy heart that I have watched Labour concede whole swathes of feminist ground to the Tories over the last few years. If anyone at Labour HQ has noticed, no one seems to care. Some of it undoubtedly has more than a hint of virtue signalling. But something much more profound is going on.
Under Blair, women-only shortlists were introduced in order to address some of the massive imbalances in the House of Commons, but Corbyn has decided that the only criteria for being included on such shortlists is self-identification. In my view, this renders the initiative null and void.
Labour is supposed to be the party of socialism, and to recognise structural inequality. What better example of desperation, poverty, and indignity is there than the sex trade? And yet in 2016, Jeremy Corbyn said, during a talk at Goldsmiths University, that he is in favour of blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade. “Let’s do things a bit differently and in a more civilised way,” he said.
While I would hope that anyone with any sense would support the decriminalisation of the women (and men) selling sex, socialists, both male and female, should recognise that the global sex trade is a dumping ground for care leavers, childhood sexual abuse victims, girls and women of colour and from indigenous communities, and women subjected to domestic violence.
The last thing we should be doing is removing all criminal penalties from brothel owners, pimps and punters, as Corbyn and many other men on the left are in favour of doing.
In 2015, John McDonnell sponsored a laughably ideological report from a group that would like to see prostitution completely decriminalised. Decriminalisation is another way of saying: open season on women’s bodies. Like the Netherlands, where women suffer the indignity of standing in window brothels so men can select which ones they consider worthy to buy. Only a small number of courageous Labour Party women speak out against this crazy position, such as Thangam Debbonaire and Naz Shah.
On the other hand, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission is currently carrying out an inquiry into prostitution and the law. This is a fairly mainstream Tory group with MPs from all wings of the party. As part of this inquiry, I today spoke in a debate in parliament on the motion: “Should men have the right to buy sex?”, moderated by Baroness Fiona Hodgson.
This inquiry is streets ahead of anything else that has happened in parliament for ages.
The Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry last year effectively collapsed after its chair was found to be paying for sex himself. Other previous efforts have all got stuck trying to sift the contradictory evidence from other jurisdictions.
My opponent, Dr Belinda Brooks Gordon, argued that “disabled men, and returning war heroes, should be allowed to buy sex”, the implication being that these men, “can’t get a real date”. I argued that there is no such thing as a “right” to sex, and that it is a classic neoliberal argument.
This inquiry is asking crucial questions. In a previous hearing, sex trade survivors were asked: “What does it mean to freely enter prostitution?”, and “When does prostitution become exploitative?” Yes, yes, yes.
When women’s bodies are being rented for orgasm, when women are routinely abused, even killed. When women in poor countries are being told to sell themselves out of poverty, we need to ask ourselves if the decision to advertise their flesh as consumable is a just one.