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Tube strikers and feminist socialism

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What stories can we tell about poverty in the UK? As prices rise and wages stagnate, a new era of industrial action may turn up some new ones. The second Tube Cleaners’ Strike this week is a flashpoint for a city and a country sick to its stomach of scraping by or stumbling over whilst the rich get richer under New Labour.
We are sick of market-licking policy promising us jam tomorrow; for a generation, now, we’ve been waiting for Thatcher’s economic reforms to trickle down and lift the rest of us out of squalor, as we were promised they would.

But now the bubble has burst, and it’s the poor who are taking the fall for the City. The recipients of Income Support in London who rode in with their discounted travel cards to vote Ken Livingstone out of City Hall are now feeling the pinch after Johnson cut that benefit, in one of his first acts as Mayor. The slashing of the 10p tax bracket will leave 5.3 million households worse off even after new tax credits have been accounted for. And with wages across the board failing to rise in line with inflation, Alasdair Darling’s plea that we all ‘tighten our belts’ rings hollowly in the ears of those not earning an MP’s salary of £62,000 plus expenses.

And when we’re talking about poverty, we are often talking about women. The Tube Cleaners have brought home the fact that a large majority of those in low-paid, undervalued work are women and immigrants, and that a staggering 22% of women live on persistent low incomes as opposed to 14% of men; as such, feminism and neo-socialism go hand in hand in the 21st century, as the struggles of women and workers for equal rights cross the no-man’s-land of cultural apartheid Saint Polly’s column this week gets to the heart of the issue:

‘Society can’t do without cleaners, carers, caterers and classroom assistants. These are not “starter jobs”, nor can they be filled for ever by migrants. Is it OK to pay below what Rowntree shows is minimum decency, so long as they are all proven to lack potential? Those jobs are fair only if people who do them have a respectfully decent salary that puts them at the heart and not the margins of society – and if the social ladder is short enough for children to move with ease. Consider this as low-paid public-sector workers strike against below-inflation rises, while prices surge.

So I spent Saturday morning watching the sun rise over North London, sharing damp cigarettes and talking cunt and suffering with some astounding women. One of us, who had been a socialist-feminist activist in the 1980s, turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘but we lost. Your lot have to carry the torch, now, because we lost under Thatcher and now we’ve lost under Labour.’ When everyone else had finally gone to bed, I found myself lapping at a cold instant coffee and thinking: was that really what happened? Did we lose? Or is it just that we haven’t won yet?

This is an exciting time in UK politics. As America ostensibly swings to the left, we’re careering to the right at breakneck speed with no thought for the handful of massive achievements we can chalk up even to this disappointing Labour stewardship. Education and healthcare spending have soared. We’re just about to feel the real benefits of SureStart. But in 2008, we still live in a world where boys from the City win million-pound bonuses streets away from some of the poorest and most deprived children in Europe; where women’s struggles and workers struggles run against brick walls of political intransigence as the boomtimes fizzle out. It should be hard, but it shouldn’t have to be this hard.


In response to all the uproar around BlogNation and various debates on the future of blogging on the left: yes. Leftist blogs are increasingly important. We’re important for women, and we’re important for the liberal agenda, and we need to get a lot better at coalition-building very quickly, and a spell in opposition may well send us back to Politics 2.0 school. A lot of very good people are working hard to make sure we hit the ground running. Now, can we please rein in
the meta-analysis and get back to the agenda?


About Laurie Penny

Author, journalist, social justice bard.

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