For the past six months I have dedicated myself to a project aimed at breaking apart the endemic discrimination, prejudice, and, frankly, boredom that characterises so much of mainstream political life. The Momentum office in London deals with the organisation’s admin, press, events and community organising – and it could not be more different to the archetype of a political office. It is run by a diverse range of hard-working, dedicated volunteers and three paid members of staff. Their average age cannot be more than 22.
Momentum, locally and nationally, tries to reach out to people. Across the country people are putting on concerts for Corbyn, poetry readings, coffee mornings. Mothers and fathers are meeting to discuss politics at play centres. People are organising football matches that are followed by discussions on the north-south divide or sexism and racism within football. Local people are organising to protect their local libraries and hospitals from Tory cuts.
In the office, we try to create an environment that reflects that new politics. However stressful and difficult things get, the office is a safe, happy and creative place. As a young woman of 19, I am respected: I can express my thoughts, debate my values, act on my ideas. We hold women’s brunches to support each other and nobody minds when I dance in the staff room when I get too stressed. The office is open to anyone – we don’t mind who you are, as long as you want to help. The Momentum office isn’t perfect (what office is?) but we do our best to make it inclusive, loving, participatory and diverse.
It isn’t supposed to be this way – as I learned when I came face to face with Caroline Flint MP on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last week. I wanted to talk about how the culture of the Labour Party stifles women’s voices, how the gender pay gap is widening, how new junior doctors’ contracts and cuts to nurses’ bursaries disproportionality effect women, and how cuts to women’s refuges mean that women in danger are being turned away in their hour of need. And I wanted to argue that Jeremy Corbyn’s policies of ending austerity, universal childcare, and investment in public services will help women.
Caroline Flint didn’t. She berated me, not only during the programme but before and after we were on air. She told me that my movement was violent, and that, as a woman, I should not be a part of group whose members abuse and threaten women MPs. She looked at me, a young activist, and simply saw a proxy for the trolls – none of them, as far as we know, Momentum members – who send death threats on Twitter.
That attitude tells you two things about the people who are so keen to unseat Corbyn and declare that his supporters are unanimously sexist. Firstly, they are utterly focused on a narrow narrative around the bullying of MPs by activists – and they are determined to use it, and the gendered aspect of it, to pursue a vendetta against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. Secondly, when it comes to the real environment for young women in Labour, their protests against bullying only go so far. If they know you’re in Momentum, berating you, deliberately misunderstanding your beliefs and denying you time to speak is just fine.
Last week, Caroline Flint endorsed Owen Smith for the Labour leadership. I don’t blame Owen Smith for Flint’s patronising treatment of me, any more than it would be reasonable to blame him for the numerous death threats directed at Jeremy Corbyn, or to blame Jeremy Corbyn for death threats against Labour MPs. Like mass movements, parliamentary parties are difficult to control. Hundreds of thousands (or in the PLP’s case, hundreds) of people are engaging in politics – and many are hurt and angry about the way they have been treated by society. Some resort to shouting people down, to being disingenuous, or to threats and abuse – and all that has to be tackled.
On the other hand, I do blame Owen Smith for that time he told Leanne Wood that she was only on Question Time because of her gender. Or that time he said, during the Coalition government, that the Lib Dems would “file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the makeup”. Or his use of violent, gendered “political rhetoric” last week about “smashing” Theresa May “back on her heels”.
When Corbyn’s critics try to paint Momentum as bullies, they are throwing bricks in a very fragile glass house. Their real aim, all too often, is not to tackle abuse – which, of course, we must – but to avoid a political argument about sexism which they know they are losing.
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