Sunday, January 11, 2009

The misogyny of New Labour

Again, New Labour trades women for votes... I've been meaning to write about this for some time.

One issue that us feminists must get our myriad acts together on this year is the legal status of prostitution.

In the coming weeks, Jacqui Smith - a politically-expedient goody two-shoes, if there ever was one - provides us with a golden opportunity to unite in favour of keeping all aspects of prostitution legal (and I DON'T include include kidnapping, trafficking, or rape in that catch-all, as you'll see at the end of this piece*).

As many of you will know (debate has raged on a range of great feminist blogs and at the marvellous Shiraz Socialist, where you'll find a comprehensive background) Smith's 2009 wheeze is to squeeze further votes out of the righteous arm of the voting public by tightening prostitution laws at the next readings of the Policing and Crime Bill. Sex workers themselves are opposed to Smith's proposals - they believe, rightly, that criminalising sex work will exclude them from police help, legal recourse and support, and society itself.

It's the flagrant dismissal of women that gets so many of us: women are utterly expendable in New Labour eyes. The English Collective of Prostitutes and the International Union of Sex Workers reported that they weren't even contacted by the Home Office about Smith's proposals.

No surprises there. Sex workers' liberal views on their own working conditions add nothing to Smith's blatantly conservative agenda: tis thus that Smith will be forever happy to throw them to the hounds. This Labour government is prepared to sacrifice all manner of women's rights and protections on the centre-ground altar at which it so slavishly worships.

Smith's proposals include banning anyone (read men) from paying for sex with people (women) who are working for someone else's gain - prostitutes who work for pimps, or who have been trafficked into the trade, and so on.

Smith's frothy - and appallingly unsubstantiated - argument is that the changes will 'make men think twice' about paying for sex with prostitutes - or at least, I guess, will compel men to make sure the girl they've chosen for the evening signs a consent form, or shows an employment contract, current immigration papers, and unforced enthusiasm for the job at hand.

Roll in Smith's proposals to give councils better powers to close down brothels, and make kerb-crawling punishable as a first offence, and you have priggish New Labour at its anti-women, anti-liberal, middle-ground-seeking best. By her own admission, the only reason Smith didn't pursue a full ban on prostitution was that the polls didn't stack up in favour of such a move (I took this to mean that the numbers showed - perversely for Smith - that the Daily Mail-reading middle-roaders who find kerb-crawling distasteful weren't so prepared to dismiss the idea of nights out in warm brothels. In other words, New Labour found that there's prostitution, and there's prostitution, in the conservative electoral mind).

I keep expecting more from Labour. God knows why. This is the same charming party that apparently thought it acceptable to swap debate on better abortion rights for DUP votes on 42 days' detention. It is the same party that so recently, and easily, scuppered the hopes of Northern Ireland women for legal abortion - a once in a lifetime (literally) chance to amend the Abortion Act in favour of women. This is the government that so passionately promotes privatisation of public services, and the horrific impact on women's salaries and working conditions that the private sector inevitably brings.

Which takes me back to my original point - a dialogue needs to be had with feminists who play into the hands of this anti-women government. The marvellous Unity had an excellent piece last year on concerns that a small group of right-leaning feminists had commandeered the review of prostitution law that Smith based her proposals on.

The good news about legal prostitution is ignored by those who find it inconvenient. I draw your attention to the New Zealand experiment: prostitution was decriminalised there several years ago, and a recent detailed review was very encouraging - sex workers report feeling safer, women feel that they can call the police and expect a response if they’re in trouble, and the NZ Prostitutes’ Collective is even talking about employment contracts and proper employment protections for women in the sex trade.

There have been attempts dismiss the New Zealand results (and the southern hemisphere) as irrelevant to a UK comparison - but not by prostitutes' collectives and liberal lawmakers. NZPC founder Catherine Healy was a keynote speaker at a recent House of Commons debate on decriminalising (as was Swedish collective spokesperson Pye Jakobson, and workers themselves describe the New Zealand experience in glowing terms.

*It does not follow that feminists who support the notion of a legal sex trade are indifferent to the crimes that can take place around it - or think, somehow, that protection for victims of those crimes runs second to the rights of sex workers who choose their trade. It is simply that feminists who support a legal sex trade believe that there is nothing to be gained from pushing the trade underground, and know that sex workers say the same thing.

Trafficking is a problem of poverty and too-tough immigration law. And how is the government handling these problems? - well, by slashing the budget for human trafficking investigations and shutting down its leading dedicated police human trafficking unit.

Labour isn't for girls.