OPINION
11/01/2020 15:08 GMT | Updated 13/01/2020 08:59 GMT

In The Face Of Heightened Tensions, It Is Labour’s Responsibility To Stand Against Oppression

Labour needs a robust, independent system to deal with every complaint, and a culture where no one is exempt from accountability, writes Clive Lewis.

If I were to describe the past decade in one word, it would be: polarised.

Across the world, the far right has raised its ugly head. Neofascist movements effectively tapped into pre-existing prejudices and the anger caused by years of neoliberalism, austerity and deprivation. Governments formed or inspired by the radical right stirred hate and attacked the rights of women and minorities: whether that’s Jews, Muslims, migrants, Traveller communities and gay or transgender people. 

On the other hand, progressive movements grew: demanding the right to decide what to do with one’s body, to walk the streets without fear of rape or harassment, to not be discriminated against in the workplace, to love who you love and be true to who you are. In the streets, online, in parliaments and workplaces they made themselves heard, changing millions of minds and transforming conversations.  

These are the kind of movements I owe my political formation to. Over years and decades, I’ve had to unlearn ideas and behaviours that all of us were, in one way or another, socialised into. As a man I know I have much to learn for other equality movements and that this learning is a life-long journey.

My time as an MP has made me more aware of the power dynamics that exist in society: between men and women, between people of different backgrounds and ethnicities, between those in positions of power and those with very little of it. I know I have made mistakes, and I am grateful for those who both challenged me and gave me the space to grow.

A lot has been said since the election about the need to listen to voters - and we should. But we must lead as well. We need to meet people where they are, speak a language that everyone can understand, but not give an inch to racism, sexism and prejudice. Our party is at a critical juncture where we face a stark choice. Do we attempt to mimic right wing frames around migration and a distorted view of patriotism that contributes to the country becoming more xenophobic, isolationist and inward looking? Or do we champion the benefits of internationalism and build solidarity between our diverse communities through greater social and economic equality? Social conservatism means nothing short of turning back the clock on hard-won rights for women, LGBTQ communities and race equality and I will resist our party going down this route with every bone in my body.

Contrary to the picture that’s often painted, the working class does not just consist of socially conservative straight white men. It’s also the black Uber driver, the homeless transgender teenager, the migrant cleaner. If Labour doesn’t stand for them, it doesn’t stand for the working class. 

My feminist values are rooted in my socialist values. The number of women CEOs in Britain’s biggest companies is irrelevant if they pay their women workers poverty wages or discriminate against black employees.

Liberation and equality will never come from the top down but through organising from the ground up, and our Labour movement has a crucial role to play in fighting for it.

Its important that women and equalities issues aren’t viewed as stand-alone policy, considered only as an afterthought. All the key priorities of my campaign have gender equality running right through them.

BEN STANSALL via Getty Images
Labour MP Clive Lewis

My determination to make party democracy and grassroots organising a priority is driven by the desire to see Labour become more accessible and inclusive, moving away from the macho, adversarial politics that has dominated politics for too long. I want to make a clear break from old hierarchal, authoritarian modes of operation.

We know that women have overwhelmingly bore the brunt of the Tories austerity agenda, with women of colour being particularly impacted. Cuts to social care and public services mean that more often than not it is women who are expected to compensate for this extra work in their lives, usually unpaid. Our opposition to Tory austerity must highlight the fact that some sections of society have been hit much harder than others. We as a party must commit to addressing the intrinsic biases in economics and policy that organisations such as the Women’s Budget Group and the Runnymede Trust have been so expert in highlighting.

And women will be at the heart of Labour’s Green New Deal, tackling the disproportionate concentration of women in low-paid, poorly valued service sector roles and creating secure, equally paid, dignified green jobs fit for the future.

Fundamentally whether our party is led by a man or a woman matters little if our women activists continue to be bullied and harassed. I have been horrified seeing the amount of abuse my women colleagues receive on a daily basis, much more when they aren’t white. Labour needs a robust, independent system to deal with every complaint, and a culture where no one is exempt from accountability. Our commitment to equality must come before factional loyalties.

But to truly transform our party, and society, we can’t just rely on punishment and exclusion. Racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice don’t come down to a handful of bad eggs but are embedded in structures and systems that perpetuate prejudice and inequality. As Labour leader, I would actively engage with Jewish, BAME, LGBTQ and women’s groups to deliver a programme of political education and reform reaching every CLP.

On a national level, we need inclusive and holistic sex and relationships education in every school. We need to teach about the legacy of the Empire and the long history of struggles for freedom and equality. We need to end the hostile environment for migrants and the aggressive policing of black and Asian, specifically Muslim communities - and when these issues come up on the doorstep, we must be ready to defend our values, not change the topic.

In the face of heightened tensions and growing threats, it is Labour’s responsibility to stand against oppression. But to change the country, we must first be able to change ourselves.

Clive Lewis is the Labour MP for Norwich South and shadow treasury minister. He is currently running in the Labour leadership election.