With Westminster in turmoil over the recent sexual assault scandals, Iris Kaye-Smith, current co-chair of OULC, talks about her experiences with sexism in OULC and her hopes for a cultural change in Oxford’s student political societies.
I remember being a fresher in Oxford University Labour Club, sat in a college bar with some older members after a meeting. One guy, a prominent activist in the grassroots organisation Momentum, was telling me that one of his OULC rivals was being investigated by his college for allegedly sexually assaulting a female peer.
This, in and of itself, was chilling – I was a sheltered eighteen-year-old, still under the impression that assault and harassment were uncommon occurrences, that it didn’t happen here, that the perpetrators were the easily recognisable kind of older men who pushed up against you in clubs, not people you knew, not members of the student wings of progressive, left-wing political parties.
But what disturbed me further, and has stayed with me since, was the undisguised glee in the voice and expression of the guy telling me about the incident, smirking as if it was any other piece of gossip. The assault of a fellow student meant nothing to him. This information was nothing more than a stick with which to beat a political opponent.
So, I wasn’t surprised when other women in Young Labour also warned me about this man, who took such barefaced delight in the knowledge that someone he didn’t like had been accused of rape. I wasn’t surprised when other women told me about being bullied and harassed by him at Labour events. I wasn’t surprised when, at a black tie dinner, he’d joked that one of the club’s former women’s officers was “only ever good for one thing.” What still surprises me is the sheer scale of hypocrisy on the left.
The ‘Weinstein effect’ hit Westminster last week, with a number of high profile allegations emerging about MPs on both sides of the chamber. Labour’s Clive Lewis and Kelvin Hopkins have both been accused of inappropriate conduct with women, while Labour activist Bex Bailey has spoken out about being told to stay silent when she was assaulted by a party official in 2011. It’s clear that Labour is far from being immune to the misogynistic attitudes that pervade our society and our culture.
It’s worth noting that as recently as a few months ago, such uncomfortable conversations could not be had in the Labour party without them becoming the battlegrounds of a factional war. It’s true that the general election seems to have patched up some of the divisions, or at least papered over the cracks. But it’s still not clear whether a Labour party member can call out abusive or prejudiced behaviour of another Labour party member, without it being taken as a judgement on wherever the latter’s internal sympathies lie. Basically, if someone’s harassing other members, whether physically or with hateful rhetoric, whether or not you condemn them should not hinge on whether they support Jeremy Corbyn or they don’t. But all too frequently, this has been the case.
It is still the opinion of many (it has to be said, older) men on the left that feminism is a bourgeois ideology that aims to divide the proletariat on gender-based lines, and feminist activism a deliberate distraction from ‘proper’ socialism. Others would say that we have come far enough, that 45% of the Parliamentary Labour Party is female, and women’s groups within the party serve a purely ceremonial purpose. But the problems women face in politics are far from solved, whether it’s serious sexual assault, snide comments, men taking credit for women’s work, or speaking over women in debates about women’s rights. It would be insulting to victims of sexual assault for me to equate all of these things in terms of how damaging they can be, but they all stem from the same cause – misogyny and male entitlement.
In our own small club in Oxford, generations of women have worked hard to change a political culture that treats the freedom of half the population as a peripheral issue. It took several successive women’s officers to make the case for getting rid of OUCA-style alcohol-fuelled debating events from the term card – going to a couple of these events as a fresher, I typically found myself one of three or four women in a room full of braying public schoolboys. Constitutional changes to reserve committee positions and at least one co-chair position for a woman has done a lot to tip the balance of representation in OULC leadership, and this has had a positive effect on making women feel more welcome in the club. I would like to think that any woman at Oxford could come to an OULC event without fear of being harassed by another member, let alone a committee officer. But OULC exists within a wider political culture at Oxford, one that is overwhelmingly masculine, and while many men in OULC are decent, good people, there is something of a blind spot about this issue. I have ‘comrades’ who call themselves feminists in their twitter bios, but throw around words like ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ as terms of abuse; who have listened patiently to me when I talk about sexism in the Labour party, but also repeatedly groped me when they’re drunk; who say they have no idea why women feel intimidated in student politics, but shout women down in meetings, and laugh at rape jokes in the pub afterwards.
All men, and especially ones who claim to be in favour of equality, need to take a good look in the mirror after recent events. If any good can come of this, it will force us to take sexism seriously, not as a rhetorical device, or a point-scoring system, but as a phenomenon that exists on pretty much every level of our culture, and which is a poison in our movement. If we want to show the courage of our conviction that socialism can give us justice and equality, we will start with our own conduct and attitudes. And if Oxford student politics really is producing the leaders of tomorrow, I hope, for all our sakes, we re-examine its culture.