Let me tell you, no one is a biglier Civilization player than me. People always say to me – they say, Sarah, you are the most terrific Civilization player, the best. Some haters have said that this is not true and that Sarah is a very bad Civilization player but let me tell you, that is FAKE NEWS. FAKE NEWS, PEOPLE. We’re going to Make Civilization Great Again. Say it with me. MAKE CIVILIZATION GREAT AGAIN. We’re going to get rid of all those crooked politicians like Montezuma and Catherine de Medici (very nasty woman). We’re going to put the bigliest and most smart man of all in charge. We’re going to play Civilization as Donald Trump.
Over the weekend, the Sunday Times reported on a consultation on the gender recognition bill that will be published in the autumn.
At the moment, gender recognition certificates (GRCs) are governed by the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. This requires that those who are over 18 and wishing to change their legally recognised gender should do the following: have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, have lived in their “acquired gender” for at least two years, and intend to live in the acquired gender for the rest of their lives. Applications cost £140 (with means-tested assistance for those on a low income or receiving certain benefits), and are assessed by the Gender Recognition Panel.
The new law would remove the two years requirement and the stipulation of a dysphoria diagnosis. Instead, applicants would only need to make a statutory declaration that they intend to live in their acquired gender until death. The aim, according to minister for women and equalities Justine Greening, is to “streamline and demedicalise” the process.
It’s worth laying out the current law in detail because I’m not convinced that even those at the vanguard of the argument necessarily know what they’re seeking to reform. Jeremy Corbyn, for example, said that the 2004 Act “forces [trans people] to undergo invasive medical tests”. It does not.
But regardless of whether politicians understand what they’re reforming, there is cross-party agreement at the highest level on the reform of GRCs, with both Corbyn and Theresa May having endorsed it (it was also a Labour manifesto commitment). There seems to me to be little appetite within Westminster for criticising the programme, and it is very likely to become law. Apart from anything else, it is – to be cynical – a cheap form of progressivism. Investing in NHS services for trans people is expensive. “Streamlining” the GRC process could even lead to a few civil service redundancies.
The consensus is that the 2004 Act is outdated, and new legislation would be a fitting way to mark 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. (Incidentally, the Abortion Act is also 50 this year, making it 37 years older than the Gender Recognition Act. The medical and social conditions of women’s lives have changed drastically since 1967; why the Abortion Act is not seen as similarly in urgent need of reform is one of those puzzles that perhaps only God or feminism can answer.)
I’ve written fairly extensively on the conflicts of interest I think self-declaration of gender could cause, and Helen Lewis has set them out relating to this particular reform in an excellently clear post at the Statesman. The issues break down into three sections: monitoring (how does self-identification change the way we can measure discrimination according to sex), services (how does self-identification change the way we deliver sex-segregated services), and cultural (the most nebulous category, dealing with how we collectively understand gender).
Many things are known to divide starkly along the lines of sex. For example: men are paid more for equivalent work than women (the wage gap), women do more unpaid household labour than men (wifework), and men commit the vast majority of violent crime (male violence). Will a move to self-identification injure our ability to measure sex-based discrimination?
Trans people are a small population, so their presence as outliers is unlikely to dilute large-scale effects. For example: in 2014, the highest-paid woman CEO was Martine Rothblatt, a transwoman who freely conceded that spending half her life male meant that her experience was not parallel to most women’s. But even Greenblatt’s extraordinary wealth did not amount to a blip in the overall fact of the wage gap.
More refined samples will see greater distortion: for example, sex offenders are a tiny proportion of both the female and the trans populations, but counting transwomen who commit sexual offences as female for the purposes of monitoring will significantly increase both the number of “female offenders” and the kinds of offences they commit. (See, for example, the cases of Davina Ayrton or Jasmine Hill.)
One critical question for me is whether the reformed bill will include provisions to ensure we can still capture the reality of sex discrimination and gendered violence.
The fact of male violence is the rationale for most sex-segregated services. For example: a few weeks ago I took part in a panel on women and mental health, where a key theme that emerged was the distress caused to women previously traumatised by male violence when male practitioners are given authority over them (which authority will involve physical restraints).
The prevalence of (male) voyeurism and unwanted sexual contact (by men) means women have made the case for separate wards, prisons and refuges. But it’s not just about violence: sometimes it’s simply a question of volume, as with the conversion of toilets to “gender neutral”. Because in practice only those with penises can use urinals, “gender neutral” toilets in practice means giving male patrons access to both stalls and urinals while women only have access to stalls, which are now in even greater demand. The end result, when this was tried at the Barbican, was huge queues for women. Similarly, men physically outperform women in most sports. If male athletes identifying as women start to displace female athletes, will female elite sports be able to survive?
How will gender self-identification interact with sex-segregated services? Will prisons and refuges be able to discriminate between good-faith and bad-faith claims? As trans activists rightly point out, transwomen should not be held responsible for crimes committed by men posing as transwomen (for example, Christopher Hambrook, who claimed to be a transwoman in order to access a Toronto women’s refuge where he raped residents). Will the new law on GRCs allow providers to make that distinction?
We should also remember that for some women, a transwoman will not be an appropriate service provider: for example, a woman with severe mental health problems will not be in a situation to assess the gender identity of the person restraining her who appears to all intents and purposes to be male. Will the new law on GRCs be framed to protect the discretion currently allowed to single-sex services?
One problem with this, of course, is that we can only measure the impact on services if we have the monitoring data. If statistics cease to capture natal sex, we will lose the ability to assess the impact of the new gender recognition law on one critical axis.
This is perhaps the most important part to me, but the hardest to measure and so arguably the least relevant to a question of law. But: as self-identification of gender is adopted, will politically engaged women accept the idea that gender is an identity and reject the idea of themselves as bonded by the condition of being female in a patriarchal society? Will patriarchy have any meaning when a billionaire CEO or an individual who has committed violence against women is able to reveal that they “identified as” female all along? Will we continue to question issues such as “pinkification” and other forms of socialised stereotyping, or will we become even more accepting of gender stereotypes as a natural outcrop of an inherent internal identity? Like I said: nebulous. But important.
Until the law is actually framed, we don’t know how it will approach these issues; and until it’s enacted, we don’t know how it will affect them in practice. I might be 100 per cent wrong about all of this. Part of the point of setting this down is to give myself a measure against which to check my judgement over the next two, five, ten years. (Although obviously, I’ll only know I’m wrong if agencies carry on collecting the relevant data.) Nevertheless: for politicians to dismiss feminist concerns at this stage is to leave women’s rights in an intensely precarious position.
Labour has an abuse problem. Or it has a problem with stories about abuse, which are exaggerated for partisan reasons then publicised by a hostile right-wing media. Or it doesn’t have a problem with abuse, which is the problem, because abuse is tolerated and tacitly encouraged from the very top of the party. Tell me which of these positions you hold, and there’s a good chance I’ll be able to work out your political orientation: Labour moderate, Corbyn loyalist, or Conservative supporter. Regardless, by this point the words “abuse” and “Labour” have appeared in conjunction often enough to demand some kind of response, whether you think that response should be to expose and ostracise the perpetrators, or to debunk the charges and defend the accused.
For the habitually embattled left, the sudden interest of Theresa May and the Mail in exposing political invective is highly suspect. Many on the left have questioned whether the incidents defined as abuse truly merit the tag, and where they accept that abuse exists, they have argued against defining it as a specifically left-wing issue. To this strand, “Labour abuse” is a smear tactic being exploited by the right and the centre to malign Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. They are absolutely right that viciousness in politics did not begin in 2017. Nor did it begin in 2016, when Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered outside her constituency office by the far-right extremist Thomas Mair, although at the time that felt like the end of the world to me.
When she was killed, I wasn’t particularly aware of or invested in Cox. That would change as I heard the tributes from those who knew and worked with her, and spent time reading her speeches; but before I felt a personal loss, I felt the extraordinary violence of an MP assassinated in the course of the unglamorous and essential business of representative democracy. It seemed that the febrile hostility of the referendum campaign had reached a breaking point – “breaking point”, of course, was the slogan on the hideous anti-migrant poster Nigel Farage had unveiled that morning – and nothing could be the same after this.
That afternoon, I was watching my daughter perform in a school concert celebrating migration – a coincidence which seemed horribly excessive, but then not a coincidence at all really, because surely the EU referendum had inspired the concert theme as well as inspiring the poisonous mind of Mair. I was sitting next to another mum who I didn’t know particularly well, who listened kindly when I explained why I was crying and held my hand. Normally I would feel humiliated crying in public, but you can make an exception at the end of the world.
Except of course the world doesn’t end: it just reshapes itself to accommodate the new truth. I thought in 2016 that the new truth might be a rejection of violent and dehumanising rhetoric across politics. Instead, the new truth is that brutality and abuse are a part of our political lives, a bright edge against the skin of our institutions. In November, a Mail headline declared senior judges “enemies of the people”; in April, it urged May to “crush the saboteurs”. The verdict in Mair’s trial, which made explicit the connection between his politics and his violence, was slipped in far from the front page.
But perhaps I’m wrong to emphasise novelty here. MPs have always received death threats, and indeed frequently been subject to attacks, sometimes fatally. During the Troubles, of course – but then the Troubles were long over. Perhaps I should have felt the same intimations of apocalypse in 2000, when Robert Ashman murdered Andrew Pennington, who was acting as an assistant to Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones, the target of the attack – but then Ashman did not seem to be politically motivated (he was, however, reportedly abusive to his wife and daughters, which is typical of men who commit acts of terrorism).
Then in 2010, Labour MP Stephen Timms was stabbed by Roshonara Choudhry, a 21-year-old student who, having been radicalised online, sought to kill Timms for supporting the Iraq war – but Timms didn’t die, so I felt relief and then allowed myself to forget it. Maybe it was easier to forget because at the time I was closest to the anti-war left, and being against war meant seeing myself as part of the forces of goodness arrayed against a murderous, oil-expropriating evil. To find myself on the same “side” as someone who stabbed an MP in the stomach was hardly an affirmation of my ethical stance.
But the murder of Cox was an explicitly political assassination which achieved its fatal ends, and I think this had two consequences: firstly, politicians feel more alert to the substance in the death threats and intimidating communications they receive; and secondly, those people issuing the threats have a ready example to make their terrorising intent concrete. Cox has become a grotesque shorthand. When Nimco Ali was campaigning as a WEP candidate in the 2017 election, she received a threat signed “Jo Cox”; Stella Creasy MP was told “hopefully you will join that woman Cox”; Cox was a theme, too, in death threats against Karin Smyth MP. And when Angela Eagle challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership shortly after the EU referendum, her Facebook tributes to Jo Cox were hijacked by Corbyn supporters, who flooded the comments with “#voteCorbyn” messages.
Was that threatening or merely cruel? Had I been in Eagle’s position, I’d certainly have found it frightening – the implication that all these people are against you, tied to the raw and personal loss of a colleague to political violence. But those making the comments, I imagine, would deny that any threat was intended, so perhaps it was “merely cruel”. How cruel? An act of coordinated trolling that negated Eagle’s intimate grief and reasonable fears. (Eagle also received at least one explicit death threat, from a Corbyn supporter named Steven King, as well as slurs about her lesbianism.) A cruelty, in short, that amounted to a denial that Eagle had emotions, or that those emotions merited the dignity of recognition; a cruelty that was explicitly dehumanising.
Cruelty has a conflicted place in the Corbyn project. His first speech to conference as leader, on 29 September 2015, included his famous invocation of a “kinder, gentler politics.” But he made this speech at least partly in response to the abuse of female candidates during the 2015 leadership campaign (something which Yvette Cooper had highlighted three days earlier, in her own speech to the women’s conference); and he also used a formulation that was conspicuously neutral about who was doing the abusing, and who was being abused. During the campaign, Corbyn-supporting figures including the MP Rushanara Ali and John Prescott had accused Labour moderates of being abusive themselves towards Corbyn’s base by characterising them as zealots, fools and entryists. “Kinder, gentler politics,” then, could sound like a very different proposition depending on which ears it landed on.
To those who had been targeted by Corbyn’s most aggressive supporters, it suggested a leader acknowledging the problem and directing his followers to lay off; but to Corbyn supporters who saw themselves as the victims of a smear campaign by a lofty PLP, it was validation, and a sign that Corbyn would not tolerate attacks on his loyal footsoldiers. As political rhetoric, it was in a major sense useless, because everyone who heard it believed it was an instruction to their opponents and not to themselves. But it was also useful, because (and I am not claiming this was intentional, but it was the effect) it distanced Corbyn himself from the issue of abuse without alienating his base.
This, by the way, is a consistent trend in Corbyn’s interventions on abuse: when asked to comment on a specific form (for example, misogynist attacks on women MPs or anti-Semitism within the Labour Party), he has often responded in universal terms (condemning “all abuse”, or commissioning an inquiry into “antisemitism and other forms of racism”). While formally taking a stance against abuse and bullying, such answers subtly negate the criticism of structural biases against specific groups within Labour. Corbyn’s supporters are not implicated in “all abuse” or in “other forms of racism”: rolling such broad frameworks into the responses serves only to dilute the original complaints.
Corbyn’s associates and supporters have not, it must be acknowledged, shown a universal commitment to either kindness or gentleness. There is, for one thing, the debatable matter of the “kindness and gentleness” of the members of Hamas and Hezbollah whom Corbyn welcomed as “friends”. Then there’s long-term Corbyn ally and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who is what people call a “bruiser” because bully sounds like such an ugly word for a politician: in 2015, he was accused of saying “lynch the bitch” with reference to Conservative MP Esther McVey (his unimpressive defence was that he was simply repeating someone else’s words, and that the B-word in question was actually “bastard”).
On the point of abuse from Corbyn supporters, the standard defence is that he can’t be held responsible for everyone who is drawn to him. (The other defence is to deny everything. Yes, there are still brick truthers out there.) Yet at what point do we look at, say, the homophobic and misogynist abuse aimed at Angela Eagle by Corbyn supporters, or the anti-Semitic and misogynist abuse aimed at Luciana Berger by Corbyn supporters, or the harassment of Yvette Cooper (including the publication of a surreptitiously taken photo of her on a train) by Corbyn supporters, and say: this is a trend, and one that doesn’t seem to be matched by followers of any other politician? “Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade,” as outraged Isabella says in Measure for Measure when she realises her whoring brother Claudio is trying to prostitute her to save his own life.
Some Corbyn supporters have even been quite explicit about the fact that abuse is a “trade”, or at any rate, a tactic. This is from an article on the Corbyn-supporting website New Socialist called “Pragmatics for Pragmatists”, about the irony-couched language of insults that Corbyn’s online fans have adopted to barrack centrists:
“Why would you call someone a ‘melt’? Because it is hilarious. Because insulting those who condescend you [sic] is exhilarating. Because you are following a Stalinist tactic of linguistic dehumanisation of your opponent. Many answers have been proposed. Another one might be, ‘why does it matter?’. Only the latter is totally and unambiguously useless. Language is always important. Language is not just who we are, it is what gives us a fabric in which to be ourselves, and be with others, in conflict or in solidarity.”
Dehumanisation of opponents, then, is an explicit object of this abuse. So too is forming intra-Corbynite links: saying “salt the slug” establishes an us-against-them, where “we” are doing the “salting” and “they” are the slugs. This is simply a banal description of how language represents in-group and out-group relationships, but it’s interesting to see it acknowledged so frankly from a pro-Corbyn perspective. Abusive language dehumanises, and the dehumanisation licences further abuse, or as you might put it, “the melts were asking for it”. (How were they asking for it? By being melts, of course: it’s a perfectly sealed system.)
The fact that “slug” and “melt” sound essentially silly is a benefit: you’ve already got the jump on your opponent if they have to start out by trying to wrestle the conversation into seriousness. As Sartre wrote of anti-Semitism: “Never believe that anti‐Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.”
Intimidating and disconcerting your opponents works. Eagle dropped out of the leadership challenge: it is hard to believe that the vandalism of her office and the homophobic and misogynistic abuse she received did not play into this decision, or that members of the PLP did not regard her victimisation as a mark of weakness when they were assessing the relative merits of candidates. And here, depressingly, we see how men as a class benefit from attacks on women as a class, because while Owen Smith did not commit or condone the abuse of Eagle, and as far as I know there’s no evidence that his supporters participated, Eagle’s withdrawal under pressure from harassment left the field open to him. When women are stigmatised, men prosper by default.
Before the general election, I interviewed Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire, who told me that abuse was “absolutely” deterring women candidates. Speaking out against abuse, then, would seem to be the obvious course. It isn’t: it can simply paint a target on you, as happened to Cooper after her recent speech to the Fabians. “Lots of women, including myself, have had abuse for reporting abuse,” explained Debbonaire. Perhaps equally painfully, she added, increasing awareness of abuse may only help to intensify its effects: “I don’t really like talking about harassment because I don’t want to put women off.” Exposing the problem without working towards a solution is in the interests of the abusers, not the victims – which is one reason to be suspicious of those (often male) commentators who lasciviously document the harassment they say Corbyn should be held accountable for, without asking those targeted for an opinion on what ought to be done.
Abuse circumscribes the kind of speech that is permitted. “Isn’t the greatest freedom in the world the freedom to be wrong?” asked Chris Krause in her novel I Love Dick. One of the major themes of the apologias and debunkings of Labour’s abuse problem that have come from the left is that certain groups (centrists, feminists, Jews) have it coming to them because they have been “wrong” (about Corbyn, about trans rights, about Israel), and their wrongness has incited “legitimate anger”. The pressure for anyone in a vulnerable group then becomes to disassociate oneself from the “wrong” attitude. This is how former Corbyn advisor Joshua Simons described being Jewish in the intensely anti-Israel atmosphere of the leader’s office: “As a Jew, I had a special obligation to criticise Israel’s settlement policy, but when I did, it was never quite believed.” When you have no freedom to be wrong, you are always on sufferance.
Embedded in the idea of justified abuse (which is then categorised as non-abusive, because justified) is the idea of “punching up”: aggression aimed at someone deemed “privileged” in comparison to the aggressor is seen as a legitimate expression of class fury. But not every oppressed class gets the same dispensation. As Phoebe Maltz Bovy has noted in her book The Perils of “Privilege”, both Jews and women – despite what one might think was incontrovertible evidence of oppression experienced by both groups over millennia – are seen as characterised by advantage, not disadvantage, in contemporary leftist discourse.
In the case of gender, there seems to be a connection here to intersectionality theory. As originally formulated by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in her paper “Mapping the Margins”, intersectionality describes the way varied oppressions can intersect on one person, with a particular focus on the way black women can be excluded both from a feminism characterised by majority white interests, and anti-racist movements that naturalise male dominance. Somehow, as this idea was popularised within the left, it drifted from being a correct assertion that many women do not only experience oppression as women, to being a claim that women are not oppressed as women – which is a fundamentally anti-feminist position. Or as Bovy writes: “Being someone who ‘merely’ experiences misogyny has gotten recast as a position not just of relative advantage (as is completely accurate), but of objective, tippy-top privilege.”
For Jews, of course, the origin of the “privilege” charge on the left tends to stem from assertions that Israel is a uniquely powerful entity which must be condemned (or even destroyed, as in one of the memes which Labour MP Naz Shah rightly apologised for sharing). This is entwined with quasi-Marxist conspiracist claims about the wealth of the Rothschilds or George Soros, who are said to act as corrupting supranational influences on politics. As Bovy points out: “The belief that Jews are unusually privileged is not a fringe strain or obscure facet of anti-Semitism. It is anti-Semitism.” Neither being female nor being Jewish is sufficient to claim the benefit of “punching up”. And because the only way to atone for privilege is to “check” it, both women and Jews are required to scrupulously disown their own collective politics in order to wholly belong on the left.
There’s also a place for MPs and the media within the “punching” framework currently adopted by the left. Both are seen as “privileged” groups, and treated with extraordinary hostility. If you want to see the kind of regard the media is held in, simply search one of the alt-left blogs (say, Skwarkbox or the Canary) for Laura Kuenssberg’s name. Meanwhile, in discussions of the “McDonnell amendment” (a proposed change to leadership contest rules, which would lower the threshold of nominations for leadership candidates from 15 per cent of the PLP to 5 per cent), a recurring theme of proponents is that diminishing the “gatekeeping” function of MPs would be a good thing, because MPs are distrusted as careerists and reactionaries.
The only exception to this loathing of MPs is made for Corbyn, and those considered loyal to him. And here it’s worth pointing out that Corbyn’s support behaves less like a typical party faction, and more like a fandom, with an intense emotional attachment to their leader and a furious drive to defend and protect him. Watching people pressing up against barricades to touch him, or even just see him, the thing I’m reminded most of is footage of tween girls losing it over One Direction. The only thing close to the intensity of hatred shown towards “enemies” of Corbyn is the maenad-like pursuit of, say, Perrie from Little Mix when she was blamed for Zayn leaving 1D. The Corbyn fandom, like any decent fandom, even has its own argot, as discussed above: he’s the “absolute boy”, beset by the “slugs” and “melts”.
The kind of abuse that “counts” is of course political. The Mail’s interest in left-wing abuse is a transparent attempt to discredit Corbyn. The left’s rebuttals are, conversely, an effort to protect Corbyn – and at the same time, discredit those they see as centrists who would use left-wing abuse to undermine the Labour Party leader. (Curiously, Corbyn-supporting columnist Owen Jones never wrote about the harassment of Angela Eagle, despite the fact that his twin interests in Labour politics and gay rights would appear to make attacks on a lesbian candidate for Labour leader an irresistible subject matter.) Many centrists who are now exercised about anti-Semitism in Labour would do well to ask why Ken Livingstone was not expelled from the party under Tony Blair, or even why Corbyn himself was permitted to remain a member while consorting with groups who held explicitly genocidal intentions towards Jews.
But regardless of who chooses to see abuse, and who chooses not to, it exists. The left holds no monopoly on hate, but what it does have right now is an explosive combination of factors: fandom-like devotion to a leader, an investment in the frameworks of “privilege” and “punching up” that licences extreme viciousness towards designated groups, a deliberate embrace of “unseriousness” which detaches the left from even nominal respect for civil norms, and lastly, a consistent failure of the current leadership to condemn abuse committed by its own base.
The cross-party nature of abuse is often used as an argument against focusing on the left-wing problem. This is strange thinking: the inability of violence to stay inside the factional lines should make us more, not less, alarmed. Thomas Mair stabbed and shot Jo Cox in his right-wing fury, then Steven King’s left-wing rage inspired him to tell Eagle “next time you see me I’ll be with a real gun or knife cutting your life to an end”. King’s defence was that he was “letting off steam”. After all, within the Direction of Punching Framework of Aggression, he can be understood as the maligned party, a shop worker expressing his understandable anger against a powerful woman who was trying to frustrate a beloved representative of the working class. Hate has been welcomed into politics, dignified with theory, given a home.
It can be hard to keep track of what qualifies as Legitimate Feminist Business (LFB), but here is a rough-and-ready test that you can use. Step one: be female. Step two: publicly criticise the thing that you think might be sexism. Step three: wait and see if you get abuse for it, and if yes, congratulate yourself on having correctly identified some LFB. Or as Lewis’s Law, formulated by the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis, more elegantly puts it: “The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.”
Unfortunately, the abuse you’re now dealing with might well distract and depress you so much that addressing the LFB will drift into the remote realms of unlikelihood – indeed, at least half the purpose of anti-feminist harassment is to grind feminists down past the point of doing anything – but there you go. At least you get the satisfaction of knowing you were right.
Right now, for example, Yvette Cooper should be feeling the warm glow of vindication. On Saturday, the Labour MP gave a speech to the Fabian Society which in part addressed the issue of online abuse, including that targeted at women of all political affiliations. As soon as it was reported, she was being called “bully”, “bitch”, “Tory” and “saboteur”, accused of using the abuse issue to attack Corbyn and charged with having failed to defend Diane Abbott. The abuse didn’t all come from the left, but a lot of it did.
Before 10pm last Thursday night, the DUP was a shambles of a party whose leader Arlene Foster was responsible for the cash-for-ash scandal which has cost an estimated £490m and caused the collapse of power sharing in Northern Ireland. The moment the exit poll was in, it became one of the biggest forces in British politics as the prospect of the party entering into a confidence-and-supply arrangement to support a minority Tory government took hold.
And not long after that, senior politicians were making it clear that the DUP’s regressive social agenda would be staying in Stormont. Same sex marriages remain unrecognised in Northern Ireland, and the 1967 Abortion Act (which permits abortion under certain conditions in England, Scotland and Wales) still doesn’t apply there. The DUP has blocked legislative efforts at liberalisation on both counts.
Over the weekend Ruth Davidson, the Conservative’s leader in Scotland, demanded – and got – assurances from Theresa May that LGBT rights would not be up for debate. Soon after, Jeremy Corbyn gave an interview in which he declared: “LGBT rights are human rights. They must not be sold out by Theresa May and the Conservatives as they try to cling to power with the DUP.”
And as for abortion…
Well actually, as for abortion, there’s been a bellowing silence at the senior levels of politics. Corbyn’s formulation echoed Hillary Clinton’s famous formulation that “women’s right are human rights”, but there have been no specific words of assurance for the humans who are women and whose right to safe, legal abortion is routinely placed under threat at Westminster.
I always try to be nice to canvassers, even the ones from the Green Party (sorry, Greens). I do this for the same reason I’ve never been canvassing myself, despite having been a Labour member for a few years now: I can’t imagine anything more appalling than knocking on door after door to be told where to stick it. But there are, incredibly, people who volunteer themselves for this social horror. Without coercion or payment, thousands and thousands of Labour activists stomp out the pavements in seats where every vote counts and in seats where they barely have a hope of making a difference. They do it for the party.
It’s extraordinary enough that candidates put themselves through elections. (In April, I spoke to one Labour MP who casually told me they were still paying down debts from the 2015 campaign, and now facing the possibility of being unemployed in seven weeks.) But at least for them there’s the possibility, however slim, of a seat in parliament at the end of it. The foot soldiers, though – for the foot soldiers, the only incentive is loyalty and the thrill of the fight (such thrills being hard to come by when you’re getting up at 5:30am to run dawn leaflet drops). And they still do it.
It was a couple of weeks ago, the first time I felt it. An odd twinge of… compassion? Sympathy? No, pity. And the object was Theresa May.
Less than two months ago, May was supposed to the Tories’ biggest asset. In all the campaign materials, her name and face dominated, with the words “Conservative Party” sneaking in at the bottom in tiny print. The Spectator drew her as an iron-clad icon, alongside A N Wilson breathlessly declaring a phenomenon called “Maymania”. “Mummy sweeps onwards, borne in heavenly chariots, floating above painted clouds,” he wrote – “mummy” being a nickname for May among activists. It’s a sentence that sounded fairly insane at the time and utterly deranged now.
May didn’t have to call an election, and she shouldn’t have. She bet national stability (and her party’s fortunes) on the public loving her personal brand, and has found out that twitchily reciting empty three-word slogans isn’t the magic charisma tree she thought. The “iron lady mark two” mythologising has been melted down in no time at all, with former staffers coming forward with damning stories about May’s susceptibility to the toxic influence of her key advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. Whatever in May looked decisive and commanding at the start of the election, now looks antsy and autocratic.
Since May declared the 2017 general election, I’ve been routinely waking up stricken with fear for the Labour Party. Every morning, a different MP with an endangered majority would cycle through my thoughts – Rupa Huq! Kerrie McCarthy! Wes Streeting! Jess Phillips??!!!?? – until I held the panic down. My general emotional life felt not unlike constantly trying to catch balloons under a blanket on a very windy day.
When the exit polls came in as I was headed to the Bath count (I was acting as a counting agent for Labour), my first reflex was relief. My second was embarrassment at being wrong, again; but to be honest, I’m inured to my badness at political predictions now. Political writing is not fortune telling and anyone who puts their money where my mouth is, is frankly a fool to themselves.
I’m interested in why I’m so bad at predictions, though. People who are really into politics are at a weird disadvantage when it comes to understanding what’s going on in the country as a whole, because our experience of politics is so unlike most people’s. We know more, but what we know colours our perception in unrepresentative ways. Stephen Bush’s point, that elections are won and lost in the news blips that punctuate music radio and the headlines of the Six O’Clock News, is a really important one. So, here are some thoughts on where I was wrong:
I was wrong to think the public wouldn’t take to Corbyn
The things that formed my opinion about Corbyn are things that simply don’t break through to the electorate as a whole. They haven’t watched the excruciating Vice documentary or read the miserable accounts of his botched leadership. They’ve seen his sparkling campaign performances, and heard clear consistent policies.
None of Labour’s manifesto commitments were as antagonistic as the Tories’ attempts to bring back fox hunting, or the “dementia tax” – May’s decision to pick those fights now lying among the most bathetic rubble of her hubris (although, it’s strange times when using surplus capital to pay for old-age care is the bad Tory policy, and free food for middle-class kids is the good Labour one).
Another thing: I’d got used to assuming that the public had accepted austerity, but it’s only relatively recently that cuts have started to really affect a big demographic of voters. (For example: my main local library was threatened with movement to cheaper, inferior accommodation this year. People were not happy.) That matters, I think.
Corbyn was key to this success, but the whole party earned it
Labour’s gains this election are phenomenal, especially bearing in mind the “floor” that the local election results suggested. What changed? More Theresa May in public, for one thing: she nosedived astonishingly from being the Tories’ perceived main asset to being barely visible, cancelling appearances and looking deeply uncomfortable when she did show up. But also: more Corbyn, and Corbyn at his best.
I don’t know how far voters were voting for him as a potential PM, and how far they bought the line (used by many Labour candidates on the doorstep to defray anti-Corbyn sentiment) that Corbyn was so far behind, backing a Labour candidate did not risk putting him in Number 10. Either way, Corbyn was not the drag I feared he would be; he was an asset. But – and I think this is important – the electorate did not vote as Corbynites. Majorities went up regardless of an MP’s Corbyn-orientation.
Harriet Harman, hate figure of the hard left for reasons that are nonsense if you understand parliamentary procedure (see point above about knowing politics skewing your view): up. The Traitor Phillips of “stab him in the front” fame: up. Thangam Debbonaire, whose account of trying to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet while being treated for cancer was one of the most damning of the leadership contest: up. Failed challenger Owen Smith: up. Liz flipping Kendall: up. The party has a mandate to pull behind Corbyn. Equally, all MPs are owed the leaderships’ (and memberships’) support.
Corbyn got non-voters voting
I thought turnout would be down in this election; instead it was up. That’s something I’m very happy to have been wrong about. He also pulled in a young vote – although I’d like to see the “triumph of the youth” analysis cool its boots until the actual figures are in, because it’ll be interesting to see how much swing there was among older voters shaken up by the “dementia tax” stuff. Also, Labour seems to have been the main beneficiary of Ukip’s collapse, which again is not quite the demographic Corbynite dreams are made of.
Corbyn is a proper politician now
The election campaign wound out with Corbyn going to town on Theresa May over police cuts. That’s Corbyn, who has never previously given the impression of being a law-and-order candidate. More than that: his supporters, including those from the all-cops-are-bastards tendency, went with it. In other words, Corbyn – and Corbynites – have got the hang of opportunism. That’s good, because no one ever got anywhere in politics without playing the main chance. But it’s also another step away from the “different kind of politics” narrative.
The tabs don’t rule anymore (the replacement might be worse though)
The Sun, the Mail and the Express threw everything at Corbyn. It didn’t work. The question of how much front pages shift, rather than shadow, public opinion is an old one, but what’s important here is that Corbyn could rise above because the internet gives other ways to reach voters. Great! Except, those ways are substantially comprised of a Wild West of viral Facebook content that has all the partisanship of the right-wing tabloids (in the opposite direction) combined with non-existent reporting standards. That doesn’t feel like a massive win for democracy to me.
Some facts haven’t changed
Up until the YouGov polls, all the evidence said Corbyn was leading the party to general election disaster. But – for several reasons, some of which I’ve suggested above – the disaster didn’t come. Arguments about Corbyn’s electoral toxicity are over. Other issues, though, remain.
Being a tremendous campaigner is an undeniable positive during a campaign, but he also needs to lead in parliament. His track record there is unpromising. This time, MPs will be far more ready to fall in behind him: success relies on him being able to change his style too. (And, to be fair, there have been some good signs. Remember when Labour had that decent Easter recess recently?)
Corbyn’s approach on Brexit is not as much of a tautological shambles as May’s, but we still don’t actually know what Labour’s plan is. His shrugging ambivalence has served him fairly well so far: as angry as his indolence over the EU referendum makes me, I don’t think a pro-Remain Labour leader could have made these gains. But there is a limit to shrugging, especially now Corbyn is installed at the front of a resurgent opposition.
And then, for me, the big ones. Corbyn is still the guy who has batted away concerns about misogynistic and anti-Semitic abuse. He’s still problematic on Northern Ireland. As tempting as it is to hit back with “BUT THE TORIES AND THE DUP!”, the two things don’t cancel each other out: they make each other worse.
The easiest thing in the world at this point would be to to set aside those concerns and treat Corbyn as a normal, mainstream politician. What actually needs to happen is for Corbyn to show clearly that he gets why these are structural problems and cut off the associations that give succour to them. Not only to expel Livingstone from the party, but to create the conditions where a Livingstone incident can never happen again.
Already I’ve had conversations with Labour members who are slipping into the “well he’s not responsible for every nutter” and “Livingstone is stupid but not anti-Semitic, and anyway what about Islamophobia?” lines. Not good enough. Corbyn is specifically implicated in anti-Semitism. His support for Hamas and Hezbollah led the Daily fucking Stormer to endorse him (no I’m not going to link), and if you think that Murdoch backing Blair was damning, please have a bloody think on.
Most of my prediction errors come down to me rounding up the probabilities to fit my moral tolerances. I couldn’t bear the thought of Brexit, so I reasoned that Remain would benefit from an “incumbency effect”, even though that’s not a thing in referendums. The idea of President Trump made me wake up screaming, so I told myself the close polls would resolve into Clinton victory.
This time, it’s harder to get a handle on where my biases were: horrified at the prospect of Labour being decimated, for sure, but also terrified that a Corbyn success would normalise all his abhorrent associations. The party dodged the first magnificently. Now it has to take on the second.
The journey from the village of Cottesmore in the East Midlands county of Rutland to the town of Oakham is four miles. It takes about 40 minutes by bus, which runs only every two hours. I lived in Rutland until I was 18 and this bus was one of several things about the area that made leaving an absolute imperative. This time, though, I’m just visiting. To an outsider’s eye, the gently rolling farmland and wooded avenues we meander through are beautiful.
Signs for the Plough, the Wheatsheaf and the Fox and Hounds slide past: pub names that suggest an ideal of rustic England. As the bus collects its passengers, it fills up with chat: who didn’t make this journey last week because they were working late shifts, what’s been happening at the depot. Everyone really does seem to know everyone else but then there aren’t that many people to know in Rutland. As well as being England’s smallest county, this is also one of the most sparsely populated, with just 38,000 residents.
This extraordinary election has seen one horrible irony for women traded for another. At the start of the campaign, when Theresa May looked to turn her high personal ratings (lol) into an even higher Conservative majority (lololol), it seemed that the UK’s second female prime minister was going to bring about a depressing decline in female MPs: because only Labour has a substantial record of getting women into parliament (thank you, all-women shortlists), anything that hurts Labour hurts sexual equality on the benches.
Back when a 1930s style collapse seemed plausible (lololololol), names on the line included Jess Phillips and Thangam Debbonaire, among other redoubtable feminists who have brought their feminist politics into parliament. Well that didn’t happen. Instead, Labour’s surge saw Phillips add 10,000 votes to her majority; Debbonaire’s vote share went from 33.7 per cent to a dizzying 65.9 per cent.
Instead of losing women, Westminster gained a record intake of them. And the Tories lost, lost, lost (one final lol here). But this is where the next irony comes in, because the only way for the now-diminished Tories to form a government is for them to join a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. And a ruling coalition that includes the DUP is profoundly bad news for women.