Labour has fallen in with the wrong kind of feminist

The novelist Doris Lessing has been called a ‘feminist icon’ but had some withering words for modern-day feminists before she died last year.

At the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2001, she said: “What I really can't stand about the feminist revolution is that it produced some of the smuggest, most unselfcritical people the world has ever seen. They are horrible."

She added: "It is time we began to ask who are these women who continually rubbish men. The most stupid, ill-educated and nasty woman can rubbish the nicest, kindest and most intelligent man and no one protests.

"Men seem to be so cowed that they can't fight back, and it is time they did."

I have had my fair share of shouty abuse from feminist mobs online and can certainly sympathise with what Lessing says, even though I would pull away from calling all of these people ‘awful’; indeed they are often perfectly pleasant when separated from this side of their politics. It is often better to judge words and actions alone without getting on to the whole person.

Nevertheless, they can certainly test you with those words. Probably the most harrowing moment I have had was when one girl from a particularly angry ‘pile-in’ mob on Twitter said she wanted to throw a knife in my face for saying I thought the feminist ideology of ‘patriarchy’ was “nonsense”. When I told her how I felt about this she apologised and we got on decently enough after that; it also turned out she was only a teenager, at school. But it was indicative of the sort of angry hostility that is common from certain feminist types who you might expect to find only on the margins of our politics.

So imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I read that my wannabe knife-throwing assailant, Lili Evans, founder of the Twitter Feminist Youth Army and now sixteen years old, had been given a platform by Labour’s shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper to speak at a conference on improving the criminal justice system to help women.

Actually, I was not in the least surprised.

Ever since I re-joined Labour after the 2010 election, the party’s approach to gender politics has concerned me. For a start Labour generally uses the word ‘equality’ in an Orwellian sense, not to describe equality but rather with securing exclusive, preferred rights for women, while giving free reign to some pretty aggressive anti-male rhetoric. But the culture of barely allowing any criticism or critique of this approach is if anything more disturbing, reflecting the authoritarian instincts of many of these activists and a weakness of values in the party.

Another speaker at Yvette Cooper’s Women’s Safety Conference was Caroline Criado-Perez, who came to prominence with her successful campaign to put a woman’s face on a banknote and suffered some nasty online abuse for it. This draws our sympathy and admiration, but Criado-Perez’s politics should make us extremely wary. Along with Lili Evans and many others in and around the higher echelons of the Labour Party, she is in to the idea of universal female oppression in a big way, and I mean big.

Check out for example this (apologies for being rather long) passage, which is typical of her views and those of her fellow travellers (from a post entitled ‘It’s My Job To Educate You’):

As a woman, I am oppressed on the basis of my gender. I am paid less than men for the same work. My emotions and body are deemed problematic. I am expected to conform to behaviours that I don’t want to – but blamed for being weak when I do. I am expected to spend reams of time and money to fit into an oppressive and completely unachievable standard of beauty, do serious damage to myself with unwearable shoes and clothes – and mocked and belittled if I do. I face the daily reality of sexual harassment, the threat of rape, being disbelieved when I talk about my trauma, when I talk about sexual violence committed against me, and of course, when I talk about my oppression.

Now we shouldn’t belittle or doubt any personal oppression that Criado-Perez has experienced in her own life, but the casual universalization of these things and the contempt for factual evidence takes the breath away. She has also built up a track record of being appallingly rude to people who honestly disagree with her bizarre theories. I find myself questioning the judgement of Yvette Cooper and the wider Labour movement that these are people they (or, I guess I should say, we) are looking to take advice from.

Now the headline policy that has arisen from Cooper’s consultations is a proposal to ban community resolutions in cases of domestic violence against women [Correction: should read 'domestic abuse']. She went on to Radio 4’s Today Programme to explain it and, as Cathy Newman, an admirer of Cooper’s, said, “swiftly came unstuck”.

On the programme, Garry Shewan, Assistant Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, pointed out that community resolutions are only used in less than 1 per cent out of a staggering one million annual domestic abuse cases, are generally used only in cases not involving violence, and when the victim wishes not to prosecute. He used the example of a broken wing-mirror as an example. Cooper’s outrage that these resolutions had seen a threefold increase in two to three years (to 6,861 in 2012/2013) looked rather silly.

Later on she made a decent little political speech, saying: 

This is about the Government, which has actually turned its back on violence against women. Prosecutions and convictions for rape and domestic violence and child sex offences have gone down substantially in the last three years at a time when the number of offences being reported to the police has increased.”

This deserves attention and investigation, but it sounded rather hollow after her grasp of basic numbers and police practice had been found so wanting.

To me, this seems to show a couple of things. Firstly, that Labour’s old instinct to micro-manage and control from the centre rather than devolve powers (as it has been talking about recently) remains very much alive. And secondly, that this is most apparent when it comes to pleasing the base. Within Labour’s base of committed activists, the feminist tendency now stands alongside (and indeed within) the unions in terms of clout and influence. It needs some 'red meat' to chew on.

But there is more. In her earlier article, Cooper said she thinks all boys should grow up as ‘confident feminists’ (something I wouldn’t have had a problem with a few years ago, but do now - now that I know what I do about contemporary feminism). In amongst all the noise that the campaigners generate she doesn’t seem to realise what a minority pursuit feminism is, even among women – let alone men. 

She and the Labour mainstream don’t want to face up to the fact that this ‘movement’ is not particularly admired beyond the political activist community of the left. In a survey by Netmums, only one in seven women in Britain were happy to describe themselves as feminist. As it concluded, “The study starkly shows modern women feel traditional Feminism is no longer a label they feel proud to wear - it is seen as aggressive, divisive and doesn't take into account their personal circumstances.” 

The recent appearance of the popular ‘meme’ #WomenAgainstFeminism hasn’t come out of nowhere.

Better kinds of feminist are out there of course, but they are not nearly as well plugged in to the sprawling network of institutions, campaign groups and interest groups that make up the wider political architecture of the left. They are rather marginalised, but this probably also reflects a relative lack of motivation. There are certainly battles left for feminism to fight, and the culture of domestic violence is one of them, but the big battles of feminism are now largely won.

The worst of feminist politics as espoused by the ideologues privileges group rights while denying even a voice to the ‘other’ group – on account of ‘male privilege’. This is simple authoritarian behaviour, based on an idea of exclusive authority. It is not a politics any of us should be indulging or embracing. Unfortunately however, that is precisely what Labour is doing: the extreme has become mainstream.

For more on this and similar topics, see Identity politics and the left page.


  1. Hi Ben,I was wondering if you would agree with me that it makes you wonder what some of Labour's so called feminists would make of a genuine feminist such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali who is well known for been outspoken supporter of atheism and women's rights or would they snub her due to her vocal criticism of Islam?

    1. Hi Damien. I can't really say, and it's a big bunch of people, but I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be sympathetic.

      They do tend to stay away from challenging confrontations though, sticking to generally blaming 'patriarchal society', having a go at The Sun for Page 3 etc - relatively easy causes that won't offend any of the other interest groups.

      However there is a drive which Yvette Cooper has mentioned (to her credit) to target FGM and forced marriage abuse, partly throught the appointment of a women's commissioner as an overseer, pushing authorities to intervene.

      Generally though, the feminist movement prospers by not offending other groups and important individuals within the wider Labour movement. They play the game very well.

  2. I am somewhat sympathetic to your concerns, although I can't see myself using the hashtag #WomenAgainstFeminism. I heard a woman use the phrase (or some very close equivalent) 'very male' as an expression of derision the other day, and found that quite irritating.

  3. Which elements of the Criado-Perez quote do you find so problematic in universal and factual terms?

    1. Most of it really. It's all written in the passive voice so there's no agency involved - just a passive victim being attacked by...we don't know. We know there are societal forces out there, and we all get dragged down by them - and perhaps women more than men.

      But, to her, there is no respite and no peace for any woman. The world is a hostile place, an enemy even, something that determines everything within it in a negative way all the time. It's a horrible, dystopian view of the world and people. There is some truth in it, no doubt, but thankfully there is another side.

    2. I can't identify with the bit you quote, or indeed with most of what she says in the post. She might more usefully have written an entire post about the sexual abuse facing asylum seekers as that seems a substantive issue.

    3. Interesting you should mention passivity. I see the same passivity in AHA's writing; in her case, the problematic dimension is religion. As an Atheist pandering to the Christian Right, she doesn't have an effective talking stand even intrinsically, much less as a rational critic of Islam.

      Actually, there's a potentially fruitful connection between the gender and religion issues. Religion provides us with two allegorical extremes: Mohammed, who thought so highly of sex that he married a child. And Jesus, who thought so lowly of sex that he refused to even touch Mary Magdalen. A dialectic between these two prophets would provide progressive discussion on gender relations, while also helping to bring religion into the realm of philosophy where it belongs and out of the abyss of blind faith and obedience.

  4. The nail from which hangs the proclamation of equality has long since been driven into the wall, but the hammer wielders desire a wall entirely penetrated by nails. Crumbling plaster does not deter them, in fact they welcome it and will continue to the very brick. For them, the bonded walls of our society signify oppression.

  5. Identity politics divides society into rival interest groups that are defined by personal characteristics like race, gender and sexuality. This means that it cannot recognise any distinction between the personal and the political, so identity politics activists tend to interpret any criticism of their political views as a personal attack. That's one reason why they are so aggressive.

    A second reason is that identity politics can easily slide into biological determinism. If political identity is a product of personal experience and your experiences are largely determined by innate physical characteristics then nobody can ever really change sides without being reborn in a different body. But if that's true then all efforts at compromise or persuasion are a waste of time because someone from the other side will always remain "the other". There can only be an endless struggle for dominance.

    Thirdly, if the personal is political then everything is political. Every word, thought and action is laden with political significance. Therefore activists must constantly scrutinise everything they say and do for hidden ideological meanings. They must live in a state of heightened alertness that puts them under constant psychological pressure. The more dedicated and conscientious they are the greater the pressure they will put themselves under. After a while they will start to see hidden meanings in everything.

    But identity politics also assumes that society is divided into the privileged and the oppressed. So activists who have learnt to find political meanings in everything will also start to find evidence of oppression in everything. They will become acutely conscious of the fact that in everyday life they are surrounded by members of the oppressor class. This constant sense of danger will make them even more alert, so the signs of injustice and oppression will seem even more vivid, which will put them under even more stress. They'll be ready to explode with rage at the slightest provocation.

    The logic of identity politics naturally leads to paranoid thinking.

    1. Fine points Andrew, and very nicely explained.


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