Suzanne Moore, please don’t start a feminist party

written for The Telegraph, 11 July 2014

Soraya Post, leader of the Swedish National Initiative

Soraya Post, leader of the Swedish National Initiative

I tend to be pretty keen on all things Swedish. As Fraser Nelson has documented over the years, the radical independence of Sweden’s school system still has the rest of the world scrabbling to reproduce it, libertarian finance minister Anders Borg indulges in “punk tax-cutting” (now sadly without his trademark ponytail), and then there’s Swedish Midsummer, when the nation erupts, as one, in a riotous fertility festival. If you went down to Hyde Park a couple of weeks ago, you’d have found yourself amid a throng of merry young Swedes, moshing around a traditional maypole, wholesome garlands around their hair and strong vodka in their hands. If that isn’t enticing enough a vision of Sweden for you, you’re probably more of a Saga Norén fan.

But over in the Guardian, Suzanne Moore wants to import the one bad idea Sweden’s ever had. Fruitcake political parties always grab the headlines, and although it only has one MEP, Sweden’s “Feminist Party” has garnered plenty of attention. Moore is dead right that feminism has rarely been as popular or as energetic as in the digital age (because #bringbackourgirls worked so well). And she’s right that “the energy of a new generation of feminism dissipates because it is not anchored to any political structure”. So, she wonders, “Can this energy coagulate into a single political entity?” And that’s where the whole idea turns in on itself.

Feminism never has, and never should be, a homogeneous movement. What unites us is very simple: a belief that gender shouldn’t limit people’s life chances, and yet does, constantly, far more than merely through the laws of nature. This is the true tyranny of low expectations: just as much for the man who is told it’s unnatural to put fatherhood first, as it is for the women who’s subtly yet repeatedly told at school that physics is for boys. To be allies, we need to agree on the basic problems, but we don’t need to agree on the solutions. If anything, we need to gloriously, joyously disagree, where disagreement is debate and challenge to received wisdom and tired campaign slogans.

This makes it easy to caricature: a disagreement between two feminists is a cat fight, while a disagreement between two members of the Fabians is a strategic difference of approach.  Moore’s feminism is very different from mine: she sees the feminist cause as “dismantling neo-liberalism” and combating “the false doctrine of austerity”. My feminism is directly tied to a commitment to meritocracy and individual flourishing: Michael Gove wants every working-class child in the country to have a shot at Oxford, I want my generation of young women to have a shot at being mentored by the boss, and not be overlooked because we look less like traditional CEOs than the boys whom we beat hollow at A-Level ten years ago. What’s important is that Moore and I both acknowledge each other as feminists in good faith – it’s not a cat-fight if you recognise you’re both asking the right questions. But if her grand new feminist party kicks off by nationalising private property, I’m hardly going to be able to sign up.

There is, in fact, a party dedicated to “dismantling neo-liberalism” and combating austerity. It’s called the Labour Party. And for years, it has been the strategy of women like Harriet Harman to insist that to be a feminist, you must be a member of the Labour Party. Small wonder, then, that plenty of Tories have absorbed it too – nothing has done more to make female Tories feel uncomfortable raising issues of gender than the fear of being written off as pinkos in disguise. Even I was surprised by the number of Tory MPs who told me how much they agreed with Harman’s speech this week – then swore me to secrecy.

When one major party claims to have an exclusive grip on one community, it’s not long before the other parties give up competing for it.  Hence – let’s be frank – the complete disregard large sections of the Tory party showed for the black community in the Eighties. Moore’s vision of a major feminist party in Parliament is a trivial fantasy, but what makes it a nightmare for me is a glimpse of a world in which feminists don’t bother to join the real parties.

Are there problems for women in Parliament? Yes. Was Harman’s speech somewhat self-serving? As Isabel Hardman makes clear, probably yes.  There was no requirement for Gordon Brown to make her deputy prime minister – although it’s striking that of the two recent acting leaders of the Labour Party, both Harman and Margaret Beckett, were female. As with our maternal, powerless, constitutional monarch, we don’t seem to have any doubts about a woman’s competence when it’s behind the scenes and all about keeping the peace rather than the flashy stuff. Nah – Damian McBride (Gordon Brown’s defender in chief – what a life!) says it must be coincidence.

But Harman made one undeniably good point. She still seethed at the idea of being ordered to attend a dinner organised by Brown’s wife for other leaders’ wives at the G20 summit – and why not? There’s nothing as humiliating for a career woman as being sent to sit with one’s colleagues’ wives on the back of the bus – even if the other option is not being senior enough for the trip at all. McBride, reminds us that the event was not only aimed at international arm candy, but also included Britain’s “leading women”, which is presumably why Brown’s mother-in-law, and the convict Naomi Campbell, were dragged along. But McBride is typical of a worldview that sees “PM’s wife” and “leading woman” as essentially the same – a world which describes Kate Middleton as the leading success story of our time.

Harman and Theresa May will always belong in different parties. But they both deal every day with men who still expect the political women they meet to be baking the charity cookies. Suzanne, if you’re serious about structural feminism in Parliament, don’t waste your time trying to build a feminist party. Ban official outings for political wives instead.