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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Mayer

Resist polarisation. Embrace complexity. Speech to the Women's Equality Party conference, Nov 2023

In late October, I fell on the towpath next to the Regent's Canal in London, breaking my wrist. A woman ignored me as I called out to her in pain. A cyclist dinged his bell at me as if I were deliberately sprawled in his path. After that, everyone I encountered acted with care and generosity, including a father and daughter who stopped and waited with me until an ambulance came, the paramedics, a young couple in A&E who made a cradle for my arm with their sweaters, and a neighbour who came to the hospital to help me. In other words, the overwhelming majority acted with humanity.

That seems a fair representation of the wider world, though looking at it right now you could be forgiven for thinking the opposite. I tried to address a little of what is going on, and why, in a speech to the Women's Equality Party conference last weekend. My injury prevented me from attending in person, but I spoke via Zoom instead. Here is a transcript.

"The personal is political so I’d like to tell you a story about my family.

My step-grandfather changed his name when he emigrated to the United States. Leopold Rosenberg had fled from the Nazis and feared, quite correctly, that no matter where he went, antisemitism would follow. What he didn’t get right was how to make his name sound less Jewish. I knew him as “Grandpa Leo”, but the new surname he chose was Roberg.

Leo, his brother Georg and Georg’s wife Anna, had escaped from Austria over the Alps—yes, like in The Sound of Music. They then faced the dilemma that the film omits: how to find a safe haven. At that time, Britain, the US and other countries imposed tight quotas on Jewish refugees and in some cases interned those they did accept. In May 1939, Britain also dramatically limited Jewish immigration to Palestine which it controlled, stranding many European Jews to await their fate.

Georg and Anna arrived in Palestine ahead of this crackdown. There had been Jews in that part of the world since the early Iron Age, but Georg and Anna had no links to the region. They didn’t want to live there—they just wanted to live. They spent the following years in a homeless shelter in Haifa, and as soon as the second world war ended, began applying to return to their real home, Austria.

Thing is, it wasn’t easy to leave Palestine. Zionist leaders aimed to grow the Jewish population as fast as possible, and the various authorities managing post-war Europe dragged their heels. Finally, in 1947, Georg and Anna retrieved the Austrian citizenship that the Nazis had stripped from them and made their own way to Vienna to start a new life without any money or possessions, because those too had been plundered.

As I said, the personal is political but I’m not telling this story because I want you to understand me better or in support of a particular “side” or position. I am telling you this to explain why Sandi Toksvig and I co-founded this party, and to help think about the role of the party in a turbulent world.

What the story of Leo and Georg and Anna reveals is that details matter, complexity matters.

Oh, there are simple lessons to draw too. Fascism in all its forms is an unalloyed evil and Naziism exercised evil on a monumental scale, industrialising the extermination of Jews and dissidents and gay people and the disabled and Roma and other minorities.

Hatred is the tool of fascism. All fascists find scapegoats, weaponise hatreds.

This is where the complexity creeps in. Some fascists masquerade as democrats, use and abuse democratic systems; some others position themselves as freedom fighters.

The history and current realities of the Middle East are furiously complicated. In recent weeks, some of you have probably condemned Israel as a colonial project and you’re not wrong. Its creation owed as much to French and British competition in the region as to any sustained support for Zionism on either part. The chaotic end of the British Mandate heralded the Nakba and seven decades of flaring conflicts.

None of this begins to excuse Hamas’s atrocities, just as those atrocities neither liberate Israel from its duties to protect Palestinian civilians much less rain down ordnance on them while blocking routes to safety and humanitarian aid. None of this justifies the Israeli state’s long and miserable oppression of the Palestinian people.

What is the solution? Certainly not more violence that itself becomes the trigger for violence. As for those calling for the dissolution of Israel, where are millions of Jews, many of North African, Middle Eastern and Indian rather than European descent—and many pro-Palestinian and deeply opposed to the current government—supposed to go? Peaceful, equal coexistence should be the goal, but how distant this looks amid oceans of grief and blood and not least while other nations from Iran to Saudi Arabia, Russia to China and of course the Western powers pursue their own agendas and hang the consequences. There are no easy answers.

How does any of this relate to our party and our conference?

Well, Sandi and I set up this party because we foresaw the resurgence of the politics of hatred across the globe including in the countries of the United Kingdom. Right here, right now, populists hold sway in Westminster, incompetent and profoundly corrupt. More than that, they are enthusiastically rolling back the rights and protections so hard-won for women and minorities. They are cracking down on protest while proclaiming their passion for free speech. They are attacking the judiciary, journalists, anyone who might see and curb their misrule. This is a dark and familiar playbook.

They are demonising migrants whose stories obviously resonate with me, an immigrant to this country, the child of immigrants to this country.

The personal is political.

Back in 2015, Sandi and I saw the old mainstream parties of the UK contorting themselves in response to the growth of ugly populism. The old parties could have advocated for the benefits of migration, for humanity. Instead, they often tried to out-UKIP UKIP.

So, we thought, what if we show them that feminism is a vote-winner? Will they become more feminist to neutralise us? The answer, as you will know, is yes.

Wherever WE’ve run, they’ve fielded women against us, stolen our policies, dressed in our colours. This party has made change happen, over and over. But our power to do that is waning. One reason is a narrative that in understanding “anything but Tories” to mean “Labour is the only alternative” squeezes out the vital contribution of smaller parties. Another, entangled reason is the confected War on Woke enthusiastically prosecuted not just by populist politicians but by a swathe of the media. Journalism is essential to democracy and yet we are increasingly seeing the opposite of journalism, media turned against democracy, media as a vehicle for disinformation.

So yes, this speech is not typical for a party conference. Where’s the tickertape? Where’s the celebration?

Well, I do want to inspire you—but with a sense of urgency. This is not a dress rehearsal. Positive change is still possible but so is terrible, convulsive change. Irretrievable climate change, irremediable losses of rights and livelihoods and actual lives.

Our party has done so much to confront this situation, but WE are also battered. The pandemic hit women and minorities hardest. Austerity and the cost-of-living crisis are loading unbearable pressures on to those same demographics. Those demographics who make up the majority of our members, our lifeblood.

And the Culture Wars affect us in serious ways.

Our ability to influence mainstream politics is becoming more limited. There are ever fewer reasonable MPs left in the Conservative party, ever greater numbers of foam-flecked populists.

Meanwhile Labour, as you know, is so determined to win the next election that they are ditching key equality measures lest these attract accusations of wokeness or fiscal incontinence. They’ve rowed back on childcare, wealth tax, on replacing universal credit, scrapping the two-child cap, and on green pledges. Some of us will doubtless vote for Labour candidates, maybe even canvass for them in constituencies where WE are not running, but WE also need to keep challenging them to do far better.

It is always good to fight elections. WE change hearts and minds on the doorstep, irrespective of whether those people end up voting for us. But it isn’t enough.

WE campaign outside election periods too of course, not only highlighting inequality but helping to combat it, whether violence against women and girls, misogyny in the police and other institutions, or where intersections including race, disability and gender feed through in damaging ways such as higher mortality rates in childbirth or during the pandemic.

But campaigning isn’t enough.

WE have to do more.

And the starting point for that work is WE ourselves. The personal is political and all politics is personal.

It isn’t enough to call out injustice if we fail to propose remedies or if the remedies we propose would exchange one injustice for another.

The Women’s Equality Party has always understood that opening up politics to the widest possible range of backgrounds and experiences isn’t just a matter of social justice. It’s the only way to achieve a politics that actually works for the majority. Right now, politics is still a club, more so than before, with the Tories having banished fairer voting systems from the few electoral contests in England that used them and disenfranchising marginalised voters by introducing unnecessary voter ID. Meanwhile the economic crisis makes political participation ever more difficult for low- and no-income people.

Those of us who are privileged enough to be activists need to do more, more campaigning, more movement-building, more carrying the twin messages of existential danger and the huge prize that our policies and politics promises: that all should thrive, no matter who they are.

And there’s one way all of us, even those whose participation is limited by lack of time or money or health, can also make a difference:

Hold on to those few things that are simple, that no lives are worth less than others, that hatred breeds hatred, that equality offers nothing but upsides.

And accept that most issues, like life, are complex. Rights do sometimes come into conflict—that doesn’t mean people have to. You don’t always have to choose sides—if such sides exist at all. Some groups and beliefs are implacable, unappeasable, but many supposed “sides” turn out to be hard only at the core or are political and media constructs. What does exist and is undermining feminism and equality movements everywhere—and making space for fascism and extremism—is polarisation, often pitting one disadvantaged group against another, boosted by those confected Culture Wars and the unseen architecture of social media.

In recent years some of the people I most admire, passionate people, great people, otherwise brilliant activists, have told me they cannot bring themselves to engage with people with whom they profoundly disagree. There have to be red lines, they say. True enough.

But whether it’s a movement you want to build, potential conflicts of rights you want to reconcile, or a peace process you want to advance, at some point you have to sit down with people whose views are opposed to yours. You have to chip away at the space between you.

You do not have to embrace your opponents, but it’s essential that you embrace complexity.

It is essential that you—that WE—do everything possible to fight for a better future.

The world is marching towards a precipice. It is down to all of us to help forge a route to safety.

A route to humanity. A route to equality."

Comedy pain face, serious subject. Screenshot from Zoom

Words ©Catherine Mayer 2023

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