Frank Field: some home truths on Labour’s ‘equalities agenda’?

On Thursday 2nd May, The Spectator published a fascinating interview conducted by Isabel Hardman with Frank Field in which Field ranged freely and controversially across subjects including welfare, immigration and the EU, the ‘Living Wage’, his role advising the current Government – and unions (“We won’t win the election because of the unions, we’ll win it in spite of them”).

Field talked of personalities, including Gordon Brown (who “never really understood anything, let alone the economy”), Ed Miliband (“should just take a few more risks”) and Jon Cruddas (who “has got the job of saving us”).

He also made some barbed comments about Labour’s loss of working class women voters, linking it explicitly to the “equalities agenda” pursued by the party under the aegis of deputy leader Harriet Harman – something which I have been critical about here and elsewhere.

Field said:

“Why has our vote collapsed amongst working class women? Because they do not relate to the equalities agenda the Labour party pushes.

“We could just start by saying what I’ve said and apologise for what we’ve done for that group up to now. I mean, our vote has almost collapsed amongst this group. It used to be one of our biggest groups. What the hell do these focus groups tell us or are they so snapshot that they don’t look over time about where we have steered the party?”

As I said in On Patriarchy (Part 2), I question whether Labour is capable of tackling these issues in its internal research, precisely because of the intellectual and material investments that have been made in the equalities agenda. Any results suggesting negative consequences as Field suggests would put the reputations and careers of powerful people on the line and throw what is a highly convoluted system of quotas, preferences and favouritisms into crisis. It would challenge the current essence of the Labour Party as an institution.

Looking at some polling data from IPSOS MORI, Field certainly seems to have a point on the numbers at least. In the 2010 General Election, just 25% of skilled working class (C2) women voted Labour – a lesser proportion than from C1 and  AB (lower, middle and upper middle classes), and down 15% compared to 2005 (13% lower than 1992). In contrast, 33% of men of the same C2 class voted Labour, a 6% decline since 2005 and 9% down on 1992.

There does seem to be a particular problem between Labour and working class women, though it would seem to be part of a more general problem with working class voters in general.

To approach the question why without detailed survey data, we have to rely on conjecture and piecing different bits of circumstantial evidence together. However, as long as we accept that Labour’s approach to female equality is typical of the dominant feminist approach – which I think is incontrovertible – Field’s point seems to hold firm.

This can be seen in the big disjuncture that exists in this country between dominant feminism and women as a whole. As I have pointed out before here, only 14% of 1,300 women who took part in a study by Netmums called themselves feminist, with lesser enthusiasm amongst young women (just 9% of those aged 25 to 29 identified with it and only 8% of those aged 20 to 24).

Meanwhile last year the feminist website The F Word published an article by Pavan Amara in which she said, “out of 38 women who identified as working-class and were interviewed for this article, all [my emphasis] agreed with the statement that working-class women's voices were not adequately heard within mainstream feminism. Some still considered themselves feminists, others refused to identify as feminists because of a perceived glass ceiling of class and education within the movement itself.”

One of those interviewed said: 

“I remember once me and a friend from the same area rocked up [to a feminist event] in mini-skirts, high heels and red lipstick. We went because we felt strongly about women's place in society, but as soon as we walked in they stood there gawping at us like 'Why are you here?'

"We were instantly made to feel unwelcome, but we dressed like that because that's what all the other girls in our area were wearing at the time. They spoke to us like we wouldn't understand the political issues they were talking about, and we didn't really know the vocabulary they were using anyway.

"We tried another one in Liverpool, but felt totally fish out of water there as well. Even when we were deciding where to meet, me and my friend said down the pub over a few pints, and they looked at us with horror.”

That comment about being made to feel unwelcome is something which I think is particularly pertinent, since making people unwelcome is something that I think the Left specialises in. While proclaiming diversity, we often display a strict ideological rectitude that works to exclude all but a narrow band of fellow travellers who generally come from similar social backgrounds.

The convoluted over-theorised structures of ‘privilege’ talked of by feminists are a classic example of this.

It does not have to be this way though. Recently, I had something of a ‘Hallelujah’ moment reading an article written in 1992 by the feminist writers Caroline Knowles and Shamila Mercer – since it reveals how some feminists were making some of the same arguments as I have recently, but 20 years ago.

In their essay, ‘Feminism and Antiracism: An Exploration of the Political Possibilities’, Knowles and Mercer offer some welcome clarity which contrasts nicely with the customary ideological contortions of ‘patriarchy’ and what is now called 'intersectionality’ (in yet another of those gurningly-awful academic assaults on the English language).

Intersectionality is meant to integrate the various different forms of ‘oppression’ based on race, gender, sexuality, class and whatever other categories you can think of as ‘interlocking matrices of oppression’ that are fundamentally inter-related as part of an unjust social system.

Knowles and Mercer have little time for such inventions.

They say: 

“We ... argue that there is no general relationship between race and gender ... there are no inevitable or permanent relationships between groups of people organized in political discourse (constituencies) and political interests and positions. Women are not inevitably oppressed by men or capitalism. Oppression is not inevitable. It is a set of detailed practices which can be challenged by feminist politics.”

Knowles and Mercer take on the dominant feminist politics of their day for not accounting for racial differences but they also (perhaps bravely) take on the dominant antiracist politics of their day for viewing racism as an indivisible phenomenon which “collapses colonial domination, slavery and contemporary racism”.

Their main point is that to oppose racism or sexism, talking about vague structures like patriarchy and colonialism achieves little:

[Apologies for the length of the following quotation but I think publishing it in full is relevant and worthwhile]

Capitalism, colonialism and patriarchal social systems are frequently identified as producing inherent race and gender inequalities which, in various ways, serve the needs of the systems they perpetuate. The grim inevitability of sexism and racism is the message of these accounts which deal with ‘state racism’ and ‘institutional sexism’. Opposition to these general ‘isms’ is necessarily all-embracing, reaching beyond the manifestations of the problem to the structures of the system itself. Thus, ultimately, all forms of struggle are focused on capitalism and its political organization, the ‘state’. But when, as we are suggesting, racism and sexism are viewed as a series of effects which do not have a single cause, a different kind of politics is established. There is no need to accept these inequalities as inevitable or to develop strategies which strike at the very root of capitalist and patriarchal relations. We need only to identify the practices and procedures throughout a range of social institutions (some of which may belong to what is referred to as the ‘state’ and others of which may not) which have the effect of producing racial and gender disadvantage. These can then be monitored and challenged by feminists and antiracists. The advantage of our approach over the ones we criticize is that it allows small-scale direct political challenges to the concrete practices which produce race and gender inequalities. We argue strongly for a deconstructionist approach to any notion of oppression which is used to account for the position of women and black people. We do not wish to participate simply in the elaboration of accounts of our own oppression. Neither do we wish to celebrate that oppression with meetings and rallies. We prefer a mode of politics which engages with the details of the oppression and which is capable of ending it.”

Like I say, reading this was for me something of a ‘Hallelujah’ moment, albeit marred somewhat by the rather depressing thought of how the debate has not moved on in 20 years, since their critique is as relevant to feminist politics now as it was in 1992.

Labour’s equalities agenda is stuck in this place, buried in convoluted theoretical and organisational structures that practice exclusion and alienation while proclaiming inclusion and empowerment. Frank Field is right, but whether Labour will even be prepared to confront these issues openly and honestly looks a distant prospect at present. 

I hope I am wrong though, as indeed I do with many things.


  1. It's a shame that working class women have deserted Labour to this extent - particularly when so many must have benefited from Working Tax Credits - and I'm grateful to the author for bringing it up.

    I'm afraid I couldn't read the entire piece but I wonder if the equalities agenda was the whole story. Labour shed votes among all working class people and it is not difficult to see why: agency work regulations, lack of union activity and mass immigration (which, while i deplore xenophobia, DID have an impact on wages and employment because THAT was its intention).

    I know fear that the Tories' divide and rule agenda over welfare will encourage people to vote for policies which could damage them in the future.

    (I post on Labourlist as Philsopinion)

  2. Hi Philip, yes I think I would agree with you on all your points - indeed I've written a bit about unions and immigration (though not so much from a purely working class perspective) here. Sorry I haven't got the time to say more, but thanks for the comment. Ben.

  3. How long does it take for comments to appear?


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