Jeremy Corbyn’s statement in favour of the decriminalisation of prostitution last week once again brought the wrath of the Parliamentary Labour Party against him. The right-wing majority amongst female Labour MPs saw their opportunity to hypocritically strike another blow against Corbyn. The evidence is clear that these MPs have supported and continue to support policies directly in contradiction with the interests of working class women.
The issue itself gives rises to a lot of heated statements, but amounts to little in practice. It is clear that the issue of prostitution will not be resolved either by decriminalisation or by banning. It is an issue that stems from inequality, poverty and deprivation, not from this or that government policy. Prostitution stems from class society, and will only be abolished with the overthrow of capitalist society.
Parliament and prostitution
Bourgeois politicians, always pretending to be the paragons of virtue and morality, are some of the best customers of sex workers. Male and female; adult and child: all kinds of prostitution is practiced semi-openly in Parliaments. The scandals surrounding paedophilia in the Tory Party are hardly an exception. The Jeffrey Epstein scandal included both Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew, the son of the British Queen. Chancellor George Osborne has been pictured taking cocaine with a sex worker, and the Swedish King has been involved in multiple scandals involving prostitutes, including one where the Swedish Foreign Office complained about being tasked with supplying prostitutes for his trips. Strasbourg has become known as a hub of prostitution because of the presence of the European Parliament in the city - the same Parliament that recently voted overwhelmingly in favour of criminalising the buying of sex. The pious speeches of politicians against prostitution and the social ills therefrom are nothing but rank hypocrisy meant to rally votes. These politicians know full well that they will never be subject to the laws they introduce.
Similarly, the so-called “Swedish model”, which made buying of sex illegal, as opposed to selling sex, only served to get rid of “curb-crawling”. Although the change in the law undoubtedly has reduced publicly visible prostitution and reduced the number of men admitting to having seen prostitutes (who would expect otherwise), there is no reliable evidence that it has actually had any significant impact on the level of prostitution in general.
Corbyn’s critics are led by a group of right-wing female MPs, including the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, who supports the “Swedish” or “Nordic model”. These women are always very keen to put themselves forward as champions of women and even claim to be wanting to help sex workers. But in reality the policies they advocate drive women into prostitution, not the other way around.
The British Parliamentary Labour Party has over the past few decades increased the number of women in its ranks significantly. The percentage of Labour MPs that are women has risen from 9% in the late 80s to 29% today. However, this was done partly on the basis of all-women shortlists, imposing right-wing female careerists on constituencies. The New Labour clique co-opted the right-wing of the women’s movement with promises of careers and positions in the party. This top-down candidate selection created a situation in which the female Labour MPs were significantly to the right of their male counterparts.
One of the first, and most controversial, measures that the Blair government introduced was a cut in single parent benefit, which obviously disproportionately affects women. This policy was fronted by none other than Harriet Harman, ironically as the first ever “Minister for Women”. In the vote, only 9 female Labour MPs voted against, which was 9% of the total, whereas among the male labour MPs 38, or 12%, voted against.
Once the policy was passed, Harman was sacked, although she returned to the government in 2001. In government, she supported the introduction of tuition fees, the war in Iraq, privatisation programmes, etc. As acting leader of the Labour Party, she attempted to cajole the party into supporting the draconian Welfare Reform Bill in June 2015. She was defeated and had to settle for an abstention. Corbyn and his supporters voted against.
Careerism vs class struggle
In the same mould is new Labour MP Jess Phillips, who openly declares that she only became a local councillor in order to become an MP, and makes no secret of the fact that she’s aiming for the top. She’s an unashamedly careerist politician, who has been part of carrying out some of the most draconian local government cuts in Britain, reducing the Birmingham Council workforce from 20,000 to 7,000. Here is another fine champion of women. Like Harman, she abstained on the Welfare Reform Bill.
The outcome of the all-women shortlist was a Labour group in Parliament where women were more likely to vote for attacks on women than men were. No wonder that the past decades has seen a fall of 18% in women’s participation in general elections (1992-2010), particularly among young women.
One can only wonder what these so-called feminists would have said to the mother on the BBC’s “Question Time” who tearfully demanded answers from the Tory minister Amber Rudd, another “feminist”, about the cuts to her tax credits.
A large number of women in prostitution are either single mothers or students (1 in 20 students), precisely the groups that have been driven into poverty by successive attacks, first from New Labour and then the Tories and Lib Dems. If one was serious about fighting prostitution, this is where one would start: social housing, affordable student accommodation, scrapping tuition fees and reversing privatisation and cuts in the public sector. In the last analysis, however, as long as class society remains, so will prostitution; only a socialist transformation of society can finally resolve the situation for working class women.
The so-called feminism of these politicians amounts to nothing more than simply more jobs for their female peers. Their demands are for more (right-wing) women MPs, more women local councillors, more women in business, more women in boardrooms etc. These MPs faithfully represent a layer of bourgeois women, but have nothing but scorn for working class women.
In the Labour leadership election, women, and particularly young women, were far more likely to support Corbyn than any of the women candidates. They clearly understand that working class women are best served by socialist policies, not bourgeois careerism.