Jeremy Corbyn: Labour’s gift to British women?

Jeremy Corbyn's Working with Women policy document has been well received by feminists, but the silence on the intersectionality of religious fundamentalism and women’s oppression, and on prostitution, raises questions.

Rahila Gupta
9 August 2015
Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a rally

Photo: Joe Reynolds / DemotixLet me declare my interest from the get-go: I am one of those ‘naughty people’ either on the Trotskyite left or the Telegraph right deluded or malign enough to engineer a split in the Labour party and consign it to years of wilderness. I have paid my £3 and become a registered supporter of the Labour party (12 August is last day for registration) so that I can vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Commentators who welcomed the one member, one vote change in Labour party regulations as a way of breaking the block union vote are now complaining that the new rules are allowing people to buy a vote.  They can’t have it both ways!

I also do not fit the demographic of the young voter, not by a long stretch. It is true that I did not expect Corbyn to win enough nominations, and when he did, I did not expect this huge surge in popularity which makes his leadership of the Labour Party a growing possibility.  Corbyn did not expect to come this far either. These low expectations themselves have been held against us as evidence of incompetence – when there is a completely obvious alternative explanation.  Any narrative that challenges austerity, talks about renationalisation or redistribution of wealth is damned for being hopelessly out of touch with reality. The truth is that we did not dare to dream that we had as many fellow-travellers as can now be seen above the parapet.

At the end of July, Corbyn launched Working with Women, an excellent document which cannot be faulted for the policies it proposes on a range of issues from free universal child care to the drive against austerity to ending violence against women. However the silences and gaps are worth further scrutiny. Whilst the document mentions the importance of proper funding of specialist BME women’s services in preventing and dealing with violence against women – very welcome in view of the recent trend of replacing specialist services with generic services provided by depoliticised organisations like large housing associations – and points to ‘the intersectionality of the impact of the cuts on them’, it does not mention the intersectionality of religious fundamentalism and women’s oppression.

The Left's reluctance to challenge Islamism especially on women and sexual minorities – an  attitude seemingly shared by Corbyn in his uncritical support of Hamas and Hezbollah – has been a longstanding problem and I have written about it extensively on 50:50, most recently here.  Corbyn has already been extensively lambasted in the mainstream media for referring to Hamas as his ‘friends’.  Corbyn has described Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic movement in Israel, as ‘a very honoured citizen’. This is the same Salah who has made anti-semitic remarks, has described homosexuality as a crime and is dismissive of honour crimes, blaming feminists for doing nothing to ‘prevent the murder of family honor itself’. It is on the basis of these kind of alliances struck up by Corbyn that websites like Leftfootforward will not support his bid for leadership of Labour although they recognise that he is the only candidate prepared to part company from the ‘suffocating consensus that there is no alternative to neo-liberalism.’

This is a very real and difficult dilemma. This blind spot on the left has been the bane of women’s lives and a significant focus of my campaigning and writing. However, can we extrapolate from this that Corbyn is anti-semitic, anti-gay or anti-women’s rights? No. On gay rights, Corbyn has said that he would be prepared to challenge countries on their record by making sure that the human rights clauses on trade agreements were enforced or there would be economic and diplomatic consequences. The Jewish community is, of course, wary of Corbyn not just because of his ‘friendship’ with the likes of Hamas and Salah but also because his pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist stance is sometimes conflated with anti-semitism. Corbyn’s manifesto on women’s rights should reassure us of the importance he places on that struggle. Indeed his document specifically mentions the importance of tackling FGM, forced marriage and child marriage, harmful cultural practices which are often justified by fundamentalist interpretations of religion.

If Corbyn is prepared to suspend diplomatic and trade ties with countries on the issue of gay rights, then surely it is not too much of a leap to expect him to use the same tools to defend women’s rights. On the C4 interview, when Corbyn was challenged to explain why he referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as friends, he argued that in order to bring about peace, ‘you have to talk to people with whom you may profoundly disagree’, a perfectly sensible strategy. The acknowledgement that he disagrees with them is the half-open door that we need to push against, try and make Corbyn join the dots and get him challenge them in the same way that he proposes to deal with the human rights abuses of trading partners.

There is another significant silence in Corbyn’s document – on prostitution – although his pro sex work views  and his long support for decriminalisation are being touted by the sex workers lobby. Like many on the left, he does not see it as a violence against women issue but as a trade union issue. Given that a majority of women in prostitution enter the trade as children, average age being 15, the sex industry provides unlimited opportunity for child abuse. As Corbyn has called for action against child sexual abuse by people in power in other contexts, is it just a matter of joining the dots again and drawing his attention to the fact that a thriving sex industry is going to remain a magnet for pimps to bring children into the business? The real reason that the sex work lobby is opposing the criminalisation of punters (also known as the Nordic Model), under cover of the argument that it will adversely affect the safety of women, is because it will lead to loss of business and cripple the industry. Gaye Dalton, an ex-sex worker, commenting on Alison Phipps's article makes this very point,  'The Nordic Model serves as the indirect persecution of sex workers by striving to destroy the market their livelihoods depend upon...' 

This has put off many feminists from voting for him. I am not seeking to diminish the importance of these issues. But I would like to pose the question – should a single issue become a deal breaker? If it isn’t a deal breaker, does it become a statement about the importance (or lack of) we attach to the issue? All our political decisions, at some level, are based on a conscious or unconscious hierarchy of injustices, a deeply unfashionable idea in our liberal and non-judgmental times. Should we take into account other aspects of Corbyn’s stated policy which will mitigate his stance on prostitution? If he has a chance to put his anti-austerity policies into practice, it is likely that fewer women would be driven to prostitution, for example. His recognition of the need to tackle the particular vulnerability of women asylum seekers, many of whom stave off hunger and homelessness by selling sex, could also limit recruits to the sex industry. 

It would be unrealistic to expect total agreement with any political agenda. On balance, Corbyn’s is the best on offer. What’s more, his presence in the Labour leadership battle and the way in which it has galvanised the British public has made politics more exciting than I can remember in a long time.


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