As we approach a vital general election for the human rights and safety of sex workers the measures being presented by the parties in a policy area which seems - surprisingly, one might think - to transcend traditional left-right divides are more complex than ever. To someone not well-versed in the politics of sex work, it might seem like the so-called 'great moving left show' and the rise in prominence of the three left-wing female-led parties would be good news for a heavily stigmatised group. Lefties like to give a voice to marginalised people and back unpopular policies, right? If only the reality was so simple: throw conservative moral judgement and radical feminist dogma into the mix and actual research or evidence seems to be forgotten.
As it stands, only the Lib Dems and the Greens have publicly stated a position on this issue, both opposing further criminalisation, but the full picture is more complex. Several senior Liberal Democrats are said to favour further criminalisation and perhaps the most high profile Green Party Politician, MP Caroline Lucas, is a vocal supporter of the failed Swedish Model and defines all sex work always as 'violence against women' - problematic, one might think, on those frequent occasions when women aren't involved at all in commercial sex exchanges. No consistent message either from the SNP who blocked measures to criminalise buying sex in Scotland but preside over a Scottish Government which defines sex work as inherently violent.
Policy on controversial issues is often more clearly defined for the larger, more disciplined parties but that's not the case in this area. At national policy level the Tories have largely been silent on the issue and have, whilst in power, maintained the rather unsatisfactory status quo. Yet, they have funded initiatives focused on harm reduction rather than ideology (like National Ugly Mugs) and some Tories have made notable positive contributions to the debate such as Crispin Blunt MP and Andrew Boff AM.
The official Labour position is to 'review the evidence' but End Demand, which advocates for the Swedish Model, has secured high-level meetings with Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper. Also, figures like Fiona Mactaggart MP, who championed the authoritarian Policing and Crime Act 2009 which made it virtually impossible for sex workers to work together and had such a catastrophic impact on the safety of indoor sex workers, continues on her moral crusade. She has been joined more recently by fellow Labour crusaders Mary Honeyball MEP and Rhoda Grant MSP who proposed further criminalisation in the EU and the Scottish Parliaments respectively. Yet, it's not all moral authoritarianism for Labour. John McDonnell led the charge in Parliament against Fiona Mactaggart's underhand attempt to sneak in a ban on purchasing sex through the backdoor by attaching it to another piece of legislation.
There are so few politicians from across the political spectrum willing to speak out on this issue that courageous and independently-minded MPs like John McDonnell can make a real difference. So, if the human rights and safety of sex workers is a factor which might affect the way you vote, don't simply assume that a candidate from a broadly liberal party is in favour of policy based on evidence, safety and human rights. In fact, as we have learned from the Liberal Democrats and Greens, your local candidate could have views diametrically opposed to their own party on this issue. It is said that the measure of a nation is how they treat the vulnerable and while many sex workers are not vulnerable, they face entrenched stigma on an almost daily basis. Perhaps at this election the measure of a political party, and indeed a candidate, should be how they think our country should treat the stigmatised. Vote wisely.