Jess Phillips and her colleagues are stooping to new lows by misusing feminism to attack Jeremy Corbyn argues Lindsey German
Labour has a leader who is fully committed to women’s equality, who has always campaigned in support of reproductive rights, equal pay and in opposition to male violence. He has stood on picket lines with cleaners and nurses, has campaigned for the rights of women from Iran to Mexico.
Yet some of Jeremy Corbyn’s fiercest critics within his own party are a small group of feminist women MPs, determined to paint him as an unreconstructed misogynist, concerned only with traditional male dominated Labour and trade union policies.
Leader of the pack is Jess Philips, elected last year as MP for Birmingham Yardley, and darling of the right-wing media. Always keen to feed her self-proclaimed ambition, she is widely interviewed in the media, who seem to hang on her every word. Her latest interview in the Observer is full of empty boasts and self-promotion, greeted with breathless adulation by the interviewer.
Apart from her absolute certainty that Labour will not win the next election, she attacks Jeremy Corbyn for not appointing enough women to his shadow cabinet, even though it is majority women. Not in important enough positions for Ms Philips, whose ambition leads her to covet the role of Home Secretary. Well, perhaps.
Now she and Harriet Harman MP are criticising Jeremy for remarks he made at Goldsmiths college last week in support of the decriminalisation of prostitution. Both women denounced his view on Twitter and we are told by authoritative sources (i.e. lobby journalists) that he will be attacked on the question at the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party tonight.
It’s puzzling to know why. Labour does not yet have a position on this question and there are different individual views among MPs and party members. Among feminists, there is also sharp division on this question. He is surely entitled to his opinion on a question where the left is genuinely divided.
The Channel 4 journalist Cathy Newman (who famously tweeted that she had been turned away from a mosque when actually she had gone to the wrong one) raised this issue in an interview with Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy, a feminist who last weekend organised a march against sexual harassment and violence in her constituency. Newman also asked whether such harassment was more common from Middle Eastern or North African men.
In a country where two women a week die as the result of domestic violence, the vast majority of it carried out by white British men, it was a narrow line of questioning, and one that Creasy to be fair rejected.
On International Women's Day, it is worth considering the limitations of this sort of feminism. In separating out the questions of sexual violence and oppression from all other sorts of women’s oppression, it ensures that objections to that oppression remain at the level of moral outrage, not developing into a wider systemic challenge to the structures of oppression within capitalism. It reduces acts of violence to individual choices or characteristics of certain groups of men, rather than seeing them as endorsed and exacerbated by wider society and the position of women within it.
Meanwhile exploitation, war, institutional racism and sexism, all take second place. Feminism becomes an individual lifestyle choice. There is a reason those on the left rejected feminists such as Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall in the leadership contest and voted so overwhelmingly for Jeremy Corbyn.
They didn’t want a leader who said they were feminist but then ignored the real problems of women and the system change needed to deal with those problems. Feminism and socialism are not lifestyle choices, but ideas that can help in changing the world. On that, Philips doesn’t have too much to say.