On 25 November 2018 former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard appeared on the BBC global news channel’s 100 Women series. On the show’s website, Gillard was described as having ‘used her experience to help advance women and girls around the world through the promotion of education and leadership’. Obviously the women she’d ‘helped’ didn’t include the refugees she attempted to dump on Malaysia, or those refugee women and children imprisoned in the internment camps Gillard had re-opened on Manus Island and Nauru. In a similar vein, John Pilger notes ‘the views…gathered from remarkable, despairing, eloquent Indigenous women of Gillard and her “feminism” are mostly unknown or ignored or dismissed in this country’, reflecting the fact that, under Gillard’s regime, Indigenous youth incarceration occurred ‘at five times the rate of black South Africans during the apartheid era’. And this is only part of the picture. Gillard’s government also cut benefits to single parents, predominantly hurting working-class single mothers. In this respect Gillard’s rise to PM was as much a positive impact on women’s structural marginalisation as Barack Obama’s ‘Oh dear me’ performative hand wringing in relation to America’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ human rights crisis was on racism.
In Britain the equivalent to Gillard has been the former deputy leader of the Labour Party and similarly self-proclaimed feminist Harriet Harman. Harman voted for the Iraq War, for further air strikes in Iraq in 2014, for air strikes on Syrian territory and for a no fly-zone over Libya that ultimately led to Hillary Clinton’s brutal conquest of the country—Clinton, like Harman, describes/markets herself as a feminist. It scarcely needs to be said, and in contrast to Harman’s/Clinton’s politics, that central to feminist debates has been a mixed peace activist/academic tradition—including early figures like Jane Adams, Ruth Adler, Vera Brittain and Betty Reardon through organisations like Women Strike for Peace (WSP) and current activists like Medea Benjamin—that has been in existence almost as long as there has been militarism and imperialism.
Harman, like Gillard, presided over cuts to the lone-parent benefit, again adversely affecting working-class women. Even within the corporate media, Peter Kosminsky’s BBC Drama department production The Project (2002) situated the Harman benefit-cut announcement as the climactic moment when Labour’s traditional support realised they had been betrayed by neoliberal entryism. This attack on benefits for lone mothers flew in the face of feminist traditions. The issue of support for women in society—particularly for their unpaid work—has been central since before the International Wages for Housework campaigns of the early 1970s, initiated by such feminist figures as Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici, Brigitte Galtier and Selma James. This has subsequently broadened into a campaign that demands economic recognition of women’s disproportionate unpaid labour as society’s carers that is free from means testing. Consequently, the Wages for Housework movement has provided the foundation for subsequent global Guaranteed Minimum Income campaigns. Contrary to the debates stimulated by this feminist egalitarian tradition, thanks to ‘feminists’ like Harman, Britain now gives more economic support to individual temporary foster parents than it does to help lone mothers keep their children with them. It is not surprising then that those women members of neoliberal elites who bomb, wound and harm the life chances of other women and their children are pejoratively referred to in the United Kingdom as ‘femicrats’, ‘femocrats’ in Australia.
Globally, free-speech campaigners and anti-war and anti-imperialist activists have been outraged by the British police seizure of Julian Assange from his position of sanctuary within the Ecuadorean embassy. In retaliation for WikiLeaks past critical journalism, the United States immediately applied for Assange’s extradition on ‘hacking’ charges. In a transparent public-relations attempt to overwrite this outrage, seventy British MPs wrote to the Home Secretary demanding that Sweden first be given the opportunity to extradite Assange for alleged past sex offences. This petition was organised by two politicians from the femocrat formation—Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips. Bringing an alleged sex offender before a court would be fine in principle, but in this instance it was hypocritically inconsistent on a number of levels. At the time of the petition no such case existed, as Assange had previously been interviewed by visiting Swedish police and the investigation against him dropped. There was also the issue of the curious selectivity on the issue of sexist abuse by the femocrat elite, in particular, the deliberate blind eye turned to neoliberal political figures who had more obviously been accused of offences against women.
Brendan Cox was the husband of murdered MP Jo Cox and is a prominent neoliberal UK third-sector technocrat. He and his wife were friends with Phillips, who petitioned against Assange. In the face of a returning socialist tradition, the media often used Cox’s subsequent bereaved status to augment his new Blair-type neoliberal golden-boy public persona. Yet in 2015, a year before his wife’s death, a number of women colleagues at Save the Children where he worked made complaints about his inappropriate behaviour and threatened to go public when nothing was done. One such allegation was that Cox pinned a co-worker to a wall by her throat while telling her ‘I want to fuck you’. Cox left the organisation before being subjected to scrutiny on this and other allegations. However, another woman, a senior US official who met him at a Harvard University event, made similar allegations against him, ‘of grabbing her by the hips, pulling her hair, and forcing his thumb into her mouth’ ‘in a sexual way’. In contrast to Assange’s treatment, and despite a social-media furore, for nearly three years there was largely a media blackout on the story. At last, in February 2018, a right-wing tabloid broke the embargo and reported the allegations, and other news organisations had to follow suit. Finally, ‘Cox apologised for the “hurt and offence” caused by his past behaviour’ and announced he was withdrawing from public life. Philips played down events, stating ‘You have to show how you’re going to change the way you are in the future and I think Brendan, more so than many I’ve seen in this area, is actually trying to do that’. Other femocrats made similar conciliatory noises.
The blind eye turned to Cox is not unique. In 2010 neoliberal knight and Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese spent twenty hours in a cell, having struck his teenage stepdaughter in the head. Despite having previously fronted a ‘violence in the home will not be tolerated’ domestic-violence strategy, he was supported by his femocrat colleagues and quietly reinstated as leader. He is still council leader to this day, as the city newspaper has permitted no subsequent mention of the incident. Similarly, while an MP, Simon Danczuk had rape allegations made against him, and spent two nights in a Spanish jail following an incident that hospitalised his ex-wife. He also sex-texted a teenage job applicant—something that after a very lengthy investigation resulted in his deselection as a Labour candidate. Danczuk was a prominent critic of Jeremy Corbyn. No one in the establishment bothered with petitions against him, nor in the short term were the allegations allowed to dent his sideline career as a newspaper columnist.
If in the femocrat universe only some people’s alleged sexism is to be strategically targeted, it is also true that only some people qualify as victims. Certainly there’s never been a parliamentary petition to bring to justice those politicians responsible for civilian deaths—including those of many women—in the course of actions taken under the new imperialism. There’s not been a parliamentary petition even in regard to specific incidents such as the Baghdad massacre of civilians, including two Reuters journalists, which was revealed by Chelsea Manning and Assange via WikiLeaks. There’s been no parliamentary furore even after it was revealed that torture went on under the Blair regime and that one of the victims—Fatima Bouchar—had been pregnant at the time of her rendition. To put this in perspective, it could have been demanded that the MPs—many of them women—with ‘collective cabinet responsibility’ for these practices should face some form of deselection process or career censure.
What is significant is that those petition organisers attempting to narrow the public focus and debate exclusively to issues of Assange’s sexual past are closely linked to the type of reprehensible practices and sites of vested interest upon which WikiLeaks shines a spotlight.
Petition organiser Stella Creasy has ‘(g)enerally voted for use of UK military forces in combat operations overseas’ and ‘against investigations into the Iraq war’. In the run-up to her vote to bomb Syria, Creasy smeared as an abuse of her and her staff a peace vigil outside her constituency office where Reverend Stephen Saxby and representatives of the local mosque led prayer. Phillips is being groomed by an intrusive corporate media as a ‘future leader’ neoliberal replacement for Corbyn. Yet she seems to have little connection to the traditions of Labour or to feminism—even though she uses the latter label as part of her personal political marketing. Historical Labour icon Beatrice Webb supported the cooperative movement, and championed trade unionism to the point of coining the phrase ‘collective bargaining’. Phillips, by comparison, does paid side work for Michael Ashcroft, the Conservative peer, former deputy Tory party chairman and party donor, and infamous offshore tax avoider. Phillips, like a number of her femocrat contemporaries, is an advocate of the Western imperialist agenda, which she spins as ‘intervention’. When Tory prime minister Theresa May ordered air strikes on Syria, Phillips boasted, ‘I regret that were wasn’t a parliamentary vote on this issue. But I wish to tell the prime minister and the house that she would have had my vote had I been asked to give it’. By contrast with Phillips’ agenda of Western expansionism, Sylvia Pankhurst, representing that deep feminist tradition of peace and female solidarity, has a memorial in her name in Addis Ababa and was made an honorary Ethiopian for her role in championing the country’s resistance against invading Italian fascist forces.
Many British femocrat neoliberals have not only harmed other women but entered politics content to market themselves as ‘Blair Babes’, having only recently jumped on the feminist bandwagon. They have often been supported in spinning a neoliberal agenda by middle-aged columnists who have similarly spent much of their careers beginning articles with the phrase ‘I’m not some sort of boring feminist, but…’ and have now been forced to brush the dust off their undergraduate notes on women’s issues.
In the meantime, a generation of young Britons is suffering the consequences of reduced funding for the educational opportunities, workplace protections and access to welfare their grandparents had decades ago. This has happened because the Labour Party has been infiltrated by neoliberal fake socialists and fake social democrats, of which the femocrat phenomenon is a manifestation. And this reflects a global problem that the corporate media have refused to scrutinise, and indeed have been willing participants in. The political corruption and imperialist crimes revealed by WikiLeaks is material to which the corporate media not only turns a blind eye but supports with propaganda. Unsubstantiated speculation on Assange’s sex life receives more coverage than a million dead Iraqis. Between media misdirection and femocrat outrage, Assange’s chance of a fair hearing based on evidence seems ever diminishing.