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Labour owes women actual feminism

Starmer should oppose the two child benefit cap

Artillery Row

Like many a feminist whose politics leans to the left, I have found my relationship with the Labour Party becoming increasingly difficult. It’s like a boyfriend who treats you terribly but knows you’ll stay because what else can you do? You’ve only got one other option, and he’s worse.

So you swallow your pride and suck it up. Yes, it’s the party that pretends not to know what a woman is, the party that ignores the hounding of female MPs within its own ranks, the party that rejects and humiliates veteran campaigners against male violence against women. At least it’s not the party that is hellbent on plunging some of the most vulnerable women — whatever you call them — further into poverty. At least it’s not the party of the rape clause.

At least, that’s what I have felt. I know that for some women, “they’re not the Tories” has long ceased to be enough of a reason to offer their support. The hashtag #LabourLosingWomen has been used by left-wing feminists to express their dismay and frustration at the party’s embrace of trans activism, its refusal to recognise the salience of biological sex, and its complicity in the bullying of women who express even the slightest concern about the erosion of women’s boundaries.

Labour didn’t set out to indulge in vicious classism

Naturally, any woman who uses this hashtag will be demonised all the more. Failure to support the party, even when its MPs are calling you a dinosaur and demanding your expulsion, will merely be added to your list of sins. After all, aren’t they the goodies, the politicians towards whom any true feminist would gravitate? There you are, worrying about the term “pregnant people” and who gets access to single-sex hospital wards whilst the entire NHS is falling apart! Where are your priorities, hate-filled terf?

It’s fair to say the past decade has been a gift to “progressive” misogynists, with any objections to their increasingly absurd demands (penetrable female bodies as a human right! Rentable wombs for all! The people formerly known as women to be reclassified as non-prostate owners!) dismissed as an indulgence women can ill-afford. The right’s excesses have become a stick with which to beat recalcitrant left-wing women. We are reminded, constantly, that if we don’t like it here, there’s always “the other side”, where we are hated even more.

Should we continue to complain, we will be accused of having swapped sides already. There is, it seems, some contorted logic whereby if we’re not happy to let Owen Jones, Paris Lees and Billy Bragg lecture us on what women are, this means we’re actual Nazis who don’t care about racism, child poverty, global heating or any of the other things only people who call vaginas “bonus holes” are now permitted to care about.

The whole situation is deeply unfair. Every woman who has stuck by Labour throughout it all, on the basis that the harms done to women by Tory policies outweigh those done by left-wing misogyny, deserves an enormous amount of credit. It’s not that the latter harms are in any way trivial. Some of the most disadvantaged women, especially those in refuges and prisons, have been betrayed by MPs taking a slogan (which I suspect they didn’t think meant all that much to begin with) to its logical conclusion. The difference, though, always seemed to me that Labour didn’t set out to indulge in vicious classism and misogyny. It ended up doing it accidentally, having painted itself into a corner via the illogicality of sex denialism and the emotional blackmail of trans activists. It’s still not great, but it doesn’t express the same degree of vindictiveness as when the harm is intentional. It offers a glimmer of hope.

I thought this, until I discovered that should Labour be elected, Keir Starmer has no intention of scrapping the two-child benefit cap introduced by the Conservatives. This policy, introduced in 2017, means that low-income households cannot claim child tax credits or the child element of universal credit for any child born after their second. The only exemption is for a child deemed to have been conceived “through rape or whilst in a coercive or controlling relationship”.

Objecting to this policy is bread and butter feminism

The policy is every bit as spiteful and cruel as it appeared when it was first announced. A recently published study has shown it to have had no impact on employment uptake or fertility rates amongst poorer families. It has been effective only in pushing them further into poverty. It feeds the myth that larger families are lazy, irresponsible and parasitical, at least when they are not wealthy. In addition to children, the people it hurts the most are low-income women, who make up the majority of part-time, low-paid workers and unpaid carers. No penis owner will be filling in the “support for a child conceived without your consent” form.

Objecting to this policy is bread and butter feminism. The betrayal of trust from Starmer is particularly galling given that he has seen fit to lecture feminists on kindness and not pandering to the right. All the talk of empathy and compromise made it feel as though there was a deal — an unfair deal, but a deal all the same. Feminists might be treated with disrespect — we might be the ones called cruel, selfish, in league with the worst of the worst — but Labour will not continue with economic policies that have harmed women and children the most. Yet Starmer’s current talk of growth very strongly implies that after over a decade of austerity, with policies that UN inspector Philip Alston claimed could have been drawn up by “a group of misogynists”, women should not get their hopes up. What’s done is done, ladies. The public service cuts have been made, the extra work offloaded onto you. The invisibility of female labour would make any backtracking look profligate.

The right have tried very hard to benefit from an opposition that is too cowardly to recognise basic human biology, but feminists have mostly resisted this charm offensive. Rather than view this as an opportunity for reflection on the own goal they created, some on the left have treated this as their chance to stick the knife into feminism, positively gleeful about the way in which their own extremism has allowed them to compare feminists to far-right activists (don’t both groups believe in material reality?). Starmer has attempted to remain aloof from such skirmishes. Then, when this failed, he sought to patronise with “both sides” platitudes. Feminists have always known he will never give us the apology we deserve, but we may have expected something back in terms of policy.

After all, members of his party have insisted that they are the good people and that we are hateful. We have put up with years of being told we are not “proper” feminists and don’t care about “the real issues”. We have been encouraged to believe that accepting insults, threats and false accusations constitutes some form of loyalty test, proof that we’ll suffer anything for the greater good. What if there is no greater good? What if the choice isn’t between intentional misogynists and accidental ones? What if we end up with both?

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