The leading Labour women may want to bolster their own media image by claiming they stand for all women but the reality is that they do anything but.
News broke this week that Jess Phillips has played a central role in replacing Dawn Butler as chair of of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party. It appears Butler’s crime is to be seen as not being in opposition to Corbyn but there is a pattern emerging behind the behaviour of Phillips. It was a job that Phillips has cited as a “dream” but it draws serious questions over the nature of her feminism. Butler did not have to be ousted in such a way and the vast plethora of positions within parliament meant Phillips did not have to target one of the few women of colour who actually held any kind of influence.
While Phillips has claimed to support more women in parliament, and to champion women’s causes and representation, her political movements arguably have focused upon targeting against the women of colour within Labour. The questions which linger over the replacing of Butler grow in strength due to the fact that Phillips had a public falling out with Diane Abbott last year, telling the now Shadow Secretary for State of Health to “fuck off”. Trying to silence a woman of colour from political discourse is an act of misogynoir from a woman who claims to want to make louder the voice of women in politics. Evolve Politics contacted Phillips’s office to request a clarification on whether she can assure members that the representation of women of colour would not be sacrificed at the expense of white women within Labour but a response has not been forthcoming.
Phillips, however, is not the only one who has been called into question with the Labour Party itself doing little to soothe suspicions over the silencing of women of colour. One member suspects she was suspended from the Labour Party in response to a tweet (which did not contain any abuse) asking Phillips for a clarification on whether she had any issues with women of colour.
The lack of transparency behind Labour’s suspension policy means that many users are left to simply guess at what behaviour they could have committed that may have led to such action. It is a method which suits Labour; it makes suspensions far harder to challenge but given a time when Labour are struggling to win any support, being as transparent as possible (particularly to marginalised voters) would seem imperative.
When no abusive tweets have been sent, and the last interaction with Labour was asking for an MP to make clear whether their feminist commitment extends to women of colour, the result for Labour is the idea that it will ban members simply for raising serious questions regarding the PLP and its attitude towards race. It does nothing to show that Labour is the party for working class people when it demonstrates such evasiveness with regards to racism.
The brand of feminism that Phillips offers is not only weighted against women of colour. Phillips has publicly backed criminalising those who pay to hire sex workers, despite overwhelming evidence as well as testimony from sex workers themselves that the Nordic Model actually puts their lives in danger and that it is decriminalising sex work that keeps sex workers safe. After much research, Amnesty International fully backs the decriminalisation of sex work as the evidence overwhelmingly supports that it is the only route that helps protect sex workers. Still, there is the prevailing attitude among many non sex working feminists that they know better than the sex workers themselves.
— Jess Phillips MP (@jessphillips) July 12, 2016
Harman too has attacked Corbyn for wishing to decriminalise sex work and has even denied that it is an industry. The implication is that white middle class women are just as out of touch with the realities for working class sex workers than the white middle class parliamentarian men they work alongside. Phillips went so far as to insist that Corbyn supported violence against women and lamented that it “had to be this man”.
Her attacks on a man that has been praised for listening to sex workers, indicates that perhaps the only voice Phillips wishes to hear is her own and not those of women – particularly with regards to working class women, sex working women and women of colour.
Phillips also seems to contradict herself, giving one rule for those she does not support and another for herself. She has (rightly) called into focus abusive messages being received by Labour members however, she has also engaged in violent language herself by declaring that she would “knife” Jeremy Corbyn.
Her hypocrisy is further added to when she outrageously compared Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party as akin to experiencing domestic violence and yet she has remained silent on the violent misogynistic language Owen Smith has engaged in repeatedly. Smith compared the Coalition government in 2010 to domestic violence and more recently stated that he wanted to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”. Smith deliberately used the image of May’s signature high heels to target her femininity and yet Phillips, and white Labour feminists, have been silent on these incidents of dangerous language by the man they support.
Within her piece to the Financial Times, Phillips drew upon her experience working for a women’s charity (Women’s Aid).
In my previous job at a domestic abuse charity, I spent years telling women in harmful relationships to leave.
However, her role was as a business development manager and therefore it is unclear how much interaction she would have undertaken with service users given that her focus was directed towards the growth of the charity. Furthermore, it is unusual for any support charity to actively be able to tell service users what to do. Their services are formulated around disseminating information (which would include how to leave an abusive relationship) and offering support over any decision they make, but the decision must be up to each individual and free from influence or pressure. It’s a guideline policy that many support services will adhere to, not just out of ethics for respecting the autonomy of service users but also so as not to lessen any legal case against an abusive partner. Any defence argument could potentially be made that the partner was not violent (or as abusive as claimed) and that the charity had put undue pressure on the survivor to leave and it was therefore not of their own accord. It is unclear whether Women’s Aid’s policy differentiates from the norm, although they have been approached for comment but have not responded.
Serious questions must be asked of the leading Labour feminists about which women they actually are committed to. If working class women, sex working women and marginalised women of colour cannot count on Labour MPs to offer solidarity and support then the Labour feminists have failed in their remit. It is vital that women, particularly those most oppressed, are represented and fought for within parliament but the evidence suggests that is far from the reality. Labour MPs cannot in good conscience claim to stand up for women while trampling over their rights.
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