[A note: this is a highly personal account. That doesn’t make it ‘bad politics’. Everyone could benefit from looking at their own experiences and why they are the way they are. Deal with it.]
The year the war in Iraq broke out, I got a leaflet through my door for the Scottish Socialist Party’s election campaign (that year they won loads of seats and everything was brilliant for a while). It featured a fake pizza carry out menu, just the kind of piss-ripping that only the left can get away with. I put it on my bedroom wall aged 13, and there it has stayed (surviving 6 house moves) for the past ten years. It’s corny as hell, and despite featuring a picture of one of the most vile men I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet, it’s remained on my wall I guess as a symbol that no matter what pish the left has flung at me over the years, I know I was and am involved for the right reasons. You may take my idealism, but you’ll never take my pizza leaflet.
I’ve been involved, one way or another, in the Scottish organised left since I was 16, and sometimes that feels like a life sentence. Often, it can be very difficult to pick apart the ways it’s affected me – I certainly wouldn’t be the person I am today without it, but is that a good or a bad thing? I’ve met some of the best people and done some of the most amazing things, things I’m incredibly proud of, and as we wind our way towards making big decisions about what kind of country we want to live in, I know that even if at times things have felt stagnant or hostile, we have done so much to drag Scotland to the left, and open up the kind of discussions that you just don’t see happening elsewhere. Scotland would not be the place it is, nor the place it has the potential to be, if the Scottish left (for all its innumerable flaws) hadn’t been kicking and flailing so persistently the way we have. But there have been many, MANY times when I’ve thought nothing would be kinder to myself than to pack it all in, live life for no one but myself, and never let another fucking lefty dweeb near me again. My mental health would certainly thank me for it, and I wonder often if my personal relationships would too.
When I first got involved I joined the SSP, which was still reeling from the recent attempt to destroy it by Tommy Sheridan and his gang of merry bawbags who had just left to form Solidarity. I probably don’t really need to explain the legacy of Tommy Sheridan these days, but as always, if you need to know – here and here are great places to start. Because Tommy’s behaviour had such a devastating effect, from the minute I stepped into the left I was surrounded by feminist rhetoric, people talking about the need to listen to women in the movement, and to change old, fusty, male ways of working. I really am so grateful for that, because I can see how much more difficult it’s been for friends who came from other political traditions to arrive at the same point, without that kind of political support around them. As time went on in the SSP, while the effort of women to improve things never faltered, there was an audible upswing in the grumbling of those who were resistant to deep change. Things fell apart a little, and then a lot, and I guess that form of organising is probably dead in the water for the foreseeable future. But make no mistake, we wouldn’t be here and talking about the future of the left, or how to improve it, were it not for the incredibly hard work of the women in the SSP. In the Scottish Socialist Youth in particular, I feel like I saw a kernel of what positive, feminist, left wing politics that actually gave a shit about the fate of the people that walk through our door could be like, even if we had our problems. SSY doesn’t exist any more though, and in what’s come since, we’ve had to learn a lot about working with people who come from different left traditions with different ways of working. In some cases we’ve found we have so much in common it’s laughable that we were ever separate. But in a lot of ways too it really shows starkly how far we have to go, because I still don’t see anywhere where effort has been made to attract back the people who have been let down and alienated by the left and in particular its dodginess around gender.
My formative childhood political experiences before I entered the world of the organised left were gay pride marches with my mums, Section 28, my trade union education teacher dad’s support for the firefighters strike, an attempt by Edinburgh Council to shut my school down, and of course the war in Iraq. It took years for me to learn that it was ok to value other formative experiences too, the ones that didn’t make me feel so proud, the ones that made me feel dirty and shameful and like there was something wrong with me. Like the time I was cornered and spat on by bigger boys at the top of the helter skelter for having lesbian mums, or the time a man followed me home from school with clear intentions of hurting me. Unfortunately the left put up a bit of resistance to me learning to value those experiences as every bit as big a part of the reason why I would dedicate years of my life to trying to make the world better. In fact I’ve been told on the left that the fact that I’ve had experiences like that – and much worse as I’ve become an adult – makes me rubbish at socialism, unable to put aside my experiences to think about things rationally and ‘understand the class’ or whatever else empty nonsense. To be honest, I don’t call myself a socialist anymore, not because I don’t believe in it, but because of the kind of people who do. I understand why some black women reject the label of feminist, because feminism so often represents something that is hostile to black women’s experiences. So what am I to call myself if the socialism I’ve spend years building thinks my experiences don’t matter – or worse, actually make me a bad activist?
The sad truth is I think I’m just a hack at times, and my relationship with the left is a bit “I wish I knew how to quit you”. For the last couple of years I’ve existed on the fringes, partially through choice, but mostly because I’ve been pushed there. It has been good for me in a lot of ways, to rid myself of loyalty to groups and ways of working that no one should be unquestioningly loyal to. I can see much more clearly the problems (and some of the solutions!) from a semi-outsider’s position. But it’s pretty troubling to me, that I’ve suspected for a long time – and now know for sure – that there is a large section of people on the left who have decided that they don’t want to represent a person like me, or even associate with me. It’s a difficult thing to know whether to laugh or cry, when someone you’ve never even met in an organisation you’ve never been a part of calls you publically “the most odious person on the left”. I mean, clearly that person is a dafty. But you know when you get the feeling that lots of people don’t like you? Most of the time friends will encourage you to put it down to paranoia, but if you keep hearing more and more things that people you barely know have said about you, none of them complimentary, many of them actually vile gendered pish, most of them invented in some alternate reality, and all of them based fundamentally on the fact that you’re a woman who doesn’t shut up when they’d like you to, it’s hard to know how to proceed.
I often find myself asking ‘why?’ when the left makes it so clear that it’s closed off to giving a shit about my experiences and my input. The good people in my life tell me it’s because I scare people, because they recognise a truth they don’t want to confront in the things I say. But it’s a difficult thing to do, to stop caring about what people think of you. When the whole reason you got involved in this political culture in the first place is because you care about people and want the world to be better for them, it matters to you when people’s reaction to you is that you’re ‘mental’, ‘volatile’, ‘useless’, ‘annoying’ and the newest one – ‘a bully’. I do know better than to believe these things, because I have lived my life and these people have not. I know that I am not ‘mental’, despite the mental health issues I have experienced which the left has actively – and on a couple of occasions, deliberately – exacerbated. I know I am not ‘volatile’ for wanting to create safer spaces where less abuse is allowed to occur. I am certainly not a bully for refusing to sit down and shut up when people are being excluded and silenced for raising their experiences of marginalisation on the left. But I can’t shake the sense of betrayal that the left could have sucked me in, set me off on this path of speaking out against inequality and unearned power, and then spat me back out again for being too good at it.
Why would the left have no interest in representing me? Why would it reject my requests to ensure the safety of me and others whose natural political home should by all accounts be the left? Why is it deemed acceptable that I’ve experienced more virulent enforcement of male power on the left than I have in most of the rest of wider society? Why does the left not see how fucking BIZARRE it is to still seek to privilege white, straight, ‘non-mental’ and mostly middle class men as the natural leaders and backroom dealers of our movements? I really don’t see what it is about me that should be so threatening to a movement that loudly proclaims its commitment to fighting injustice at every opportunity. It’s not the left’s failure to find footholds in the mainstream that has been so alienating to me over the 7 years of my involvement, it’s been the slow, heartbreaking experience of discovering that the left talks a lot of shit and that people say things that sound good but which they very rarely mean. If they do mean them, they mean that they apply to someone else. ‘Everyone but us needs to take a look at themselves. Everyone but us has got it all wrong.’ A friend said recently of the state of the left, “It used to be about who was the ‘vanguard of socialism’, now it’s just about who is the best.” For me, going forward, it’s really got to be about who is the safest. That has to be the basis of any good politics. Beyond that, we’ve got a lot to work on, but for the moment, if you can’t guarantee you take seriously the issue of safety, then I can’t fuck with you – you’re dangerous.
Safety became such a big concern to me when I experienced ‘occupation politics’ at the Hetherington occupation in a Glasgow Uni building which lasted for 6 long ass months. It’s pretty clear to me now that occupations are the single most dangerous form of activism I’ve ever encountered. Imagine all of the problems the left has with entitlement and harassment, and imagine that was taking place IN YOUR HOME. I will never be involved in a long term occupation again, and I will discourage others from getting involved. They attract men looking for a power trip, whether that’s in the incredibly labourious day to day running of the micropolitics of an occupation, or whether it’s from the access to women – sometimes sleeping women, sometimes drunk women, often young women new to activism. They attract people who don’t want to exist in the real world and so become professional occupiers, floating from occupation to occupation, causing havoc. If you can’t ensure the safety of a physical space, your physical space can’t be allowed to exist. It certainly can’t be made into a lefty principle to keep a space open that is clearly dangerous to women, as happened after a woman was raped at Occupy Glasgow in George Square. To give it its dues, the Hetherington occupation will go down in history as the turning point where activists in the Scottish left who could never work together suddenly found that they could. Links were made in the initial weeks of the Hetherington that really will form the basis for whatever becomes of the Scottish left in future. But it should always be remembered as a place where a number of men came with the intention of using it as easy pickings for the harassment, assault and domination of women. A place where speaking up about real and present dangers was met with hours of screaming-matches, until women were forced to give up and leave, and where there was no way to stop dangerous people wandering in freely and doing whatever they wanted. It absolutely wrecked my mental health, and I do not want more people to go through the same experience in future. To avoid that we have to reflect on exactly what goes wrong when the left assumes that it’s fine for activists to come to a shared space with all of the fucked up power issues and entitlements that society teaches them, and do nothing to firmly mark the space as somewhere where that can’t be tolerated. Not only is it basic safety to give serious consideration to addressing power structures in our organisations, events and spaces, it’s really good politics. If you don’t, everything just turns to shit.
Having been through the Tommy Sheridan saga with so many people who seemed to have such a genuine and deep analysis of the gendered power abuses on which the whole episode was built, I thought I had found my tribe. If you have to go through something horrific to learn from your mistakes, then we were miles ahead in our education. The Hetherington occupation was a scary experience, but yet again I met more people whose eyes had been open by the experience of such open misogyny on the left. But sometimes, people will bend historical fact to fit new interpretations, if they feel themselves being challenged a little too closely for comfort. Sometimes I wonder if I’m living on the same planet as people that I used to consider “comrades”, friends and even confidants, when people who told me that they would always have my back when it came to challenging male power and who went through so many of the same formative experiences as me, suddenly don’t want to know me – or worse, actively oppose and exclude me – when it becomes a question of “Hey, you know our friend who sexually assaulted people, maybe we should not be his friend anymore?” or “Hey, I’m being called a bully every time I open my mouth, maybe we could not misuse the term ‘bullying’ to describe people talking about power abuses?”. It was fine to talk about these things when the abusive men in question were our enemies, but ask someone to question their own behaviour, or that of their friends, and it’s like all we went through to get here never even happened.
I find that when I ask difficult but necessary questions, I’m often met with a nostalgic harking back to a “better time” when things “weren’t so difficult” and we weren’t “bogged down” by discussions of distressing things. What this means is “shut the fuck up”, with a hefty dose of “bitch don’t kill my vibe”. Nostalgia is the refuge of the privileged. “A better time” means a time when more people suffered in silence, and when assumed power relations remained unchallenged. At least, they were unchallenged on a serious level, even if lip service was paid to challenging power – a serious level being one in which we ALL take responsibility for challenging ourselves and our own assumed roles and rights, from how we organise our campaigns and parties, to how we interact with each other as friends. This is a particularly huge necessity on the left, where so many people come to it with good intentions but a massive bundle of privileges and entitlements. I see no viable future for the left, or for feminists for that matter, if significant focus is not given to furnishing people with the tools to unpack their own privileges, and creating some standards for acceptable behaviour when relating to each other.
So often I’m accused of looking for pity, as though I come from a place of ‘poor me’ all the time. People say that a lot about anyone who discusses “privilege”, and lefties bemoaning “privilege checking culture” has become a shorthand way to dismiss out of hand the urgently real experiences of shitty, shitty behaviour and attitudes on the left. It’s just daft really, when the people who talk about this stuff I’m talking about always try their best to make it clear that self-reflection is such a positive thing for us, and it’s in realising the advantages that we have, much of which can be handed to us by society unearned, that we’ve realised what the problems are – and how they can be fixed. Far from being a ‘poor me’ position, it’s a strength to be able to be critical about yourself and acknowledge your own pre-judgements and where they might be coming from. The people who truly think ‘poor me’ are the ones who categorically refuse to accept that they could hold privileges, and that there are dark sides to life (in general, and also life on the left) of which they can never claim to understand. There is absolutely no route to an outward looking left that is attractive to anyone other than hacks and lonely little boys who see the left as the chance to be popular and controlling that they never had at school, if we don’t address inwardly the reasons why we’re so unattractive to all of the people we should be existing to represent. And why we fail, hurt and damage so many of the people that do drift into our sphere.
When I think about this, my thoughts return time and time again to one of my closest friends, the exact type of person that the left should exist for, and yet someone who has faced the most abject failure from the left, to the point that the left has actively caused real harm to their wellbeing. A working class person (genuinely, not the kind of working class that people on the left think they are), with experience of real poverty (not just student poverty), of mental health issues and of abuse. I cannot overstate how vile the reaction of many on the left has been to a young woman who from where I’m standing is nothing but kind, helpful, intelligent, interesting and real. People on the left literally recoil at the sound of her voice – except on a couple of occasions where they’ve thought a real, ‘poor-sounding’, Glaswegian voice might give off the right vibe over a megaphone. In the past she found herself under pressure to engage in code-switching her voice when surrounded by university-voiced lefties, and yet many still had a reaction to her accent and were visibly left uncomfortable – it sounds too aggressive or blunt for them, because she is audibly poorer than them. People have encouraged her exclusion on the basis that they find her intimidating. I’m calling bullshit on this right now – she’s only intimidating if you have led an incredibly sheltered life. And are a snobby bastard. The fact that the organised left in Scotland could reject someone so vehemently for being TOO WORKING CLASS jumps out to me as concrete proof that the left wing project has disappeared so far up its own arse that it’s almost entirely fucking meaningless. When time and time again, feminism is seen as a distraction from “real class issues”, my thoughts return to this friend, who was humiliated and excluded from the left for being working class. It makes me sick with anger to think about how on top of this kind of behaviour from self-proclaimed socialists, this same friend was made viciously unwelcome every time she tried to voice concerns about being spoken over as a woman and a young person, about the left’s attitudes to sexual violence, and its piss poor understanding of mental health. She doesn’t participate in left activity any more. A young working class woman should expect to find a place where they can for once be valued on the left, but instead what she found was a playground for angry wee men who like the sound of their own voices and expect the women around them to be their fucktoys or their mouthpieces. I’ll get back to talking too much about myself shortly, but I felt it important to mention this example because it is burned into my mind and fuels my distress when I see so-called socialists and so-called feminists attempting yet more humiliation and exclusion of young women.
If authenticity in the way a working class person presents themselves is intimidating to you as a lefty, then I have to suggest that you’re in the wrong place. It’s just a fact that the left is brimming with middle class people, and if we get sniffy every time someone suggests that then we are never going to overcome the problems that having left organisations controlled and steered by middle class people bring. Personally, for all the multitude of awful shit that has happened in my life, I have always known that I have a safety net, a family who if I need it, can afford to help me financially if I have an emergency, can provide me with a comfortable home to return to if I find myself without a house, who love and support me no matter what. Absolutely no good will come to me or anyone else from downplaying the power of that, or behaving like that is the norm – outside the left anyway. There are millions of people who have no such safety net. It’s a very concrete example of a privilege, and yet many left activists make their way through university not appreciating or accepting the privileges inherent in getting most of them there. Accepting the privileges I have is not asking myself to feel guilty for the family and the support that I have, it’s asking myself to appreciate the lives of others, and the value in learning to shut up and listen when others speak about their experiences. It’s fine to be a lefty who has had (in some ways) a comfortable life, but it’s not ok to use the advantages you’ve gained from that to place yourself in a position of authority, to perpetuate middle class ways of doing politics, or to shut anyone down for talking about things you just don’t get.
We should be aiming towards building a society that is capable of lifting more people out of poverty and social isolation, without seeing ourselves as in any way better or further along some nonsense path of enlightenment if we’re lucky enough to already be one of the ones whose safety net is real. It’s fundamentally no right that in being involved in the left I have I found myself surrounded by people who think being a socialist is reading what Marx said about dialectics, and not offering a safe space for people who have actual experience of poverty and abuse to feel empowered and valued. Middle class snobbery (and talking to other folk like they’re idiots) from the very same people who shut down discussions of gender and sexuality as “distractions from class issues” is rife in the Scottish left, and it’s embarrassing as fuck.
Have I met some of the best people I’ll ever meet through the Scottish left? Absolutely. But we are outcasts. We’ve bonded over our shared frustrations with the left’s chronic ability to alienate the people it needs most. We have many positive and life affirming things in common, and we’re frankly fucking brilliant. But amongst what we have in common is the depressing experience of the attempt of the left to push us out, some more successfully than others. I have some great men around me who have experienced that, but for most of them their experiences have been fundamentally different in that they’ve been excluded for association with women, not for their own involvement in speaking out against the left’s ways of working. Fundamentally, the left always wants to believe the best of men, even the ones who are working to destroy its archaic and unequal power structures from within, while women who speak out’s motivations are written off instantly as nasty, bitter and mental. It’s why when we tried to stop a man involved in a rape-cover up in the SWP from speaking freely at a demo, women were screamed at and groped, while the men saying the same things were spoken to like human beings and told to keep their women in line. It’s why people I used to consider friends have written me off and out of their lives entirely, while these men who hold the exact same opinions as me are kept on side and gently ribbed for their involvement with me. It’s why abusive men and the people who prop them up refuse to listen or get out of women’s faces when women pull them up, but instantly back down and slink off when a man says the same to them.
It’s really the same train of thought as calling women witches – the fear that women will use their ‘powers of manipulation’ to make men do things. It’s a bizarre logic that asserts that men are the only ones capable of having rational discussion and the only ones worth listening to, and yet are apparently so basic and underdeveloped that they would be so easily swayed by the ‘lure’ of a witchy woman. The idea that women are fundamentally nasty and manipulative is threaded tightly throughout the left. I’m not just talking about that time that Tommy Sheridan started off on his “dark arts” rant about the women in the SSP, I’ve been confronted with this throughout my years on the left. It’s difficult to accept that that’s what people think of you, but I’ve heard variations of it enough times know to know what it’s all about. It’s scary how often it’s been used to hurt and silence me and the women I know. Everyone on the left always wants to believe the best of men, even if all evidence points to a man being an abuser, but being critical of anything (even something as small and simple as organisational structures or the running of an event) as a woman leaves people instantly suspicious that you have bad motivations, that you ‘cause arguments’ for fun, that you are jealous of someone, or that you’re in some way reactionary or conservative.
Of course there are times when some women do engage in reactionary and conservative politics within the left, but because it’s the default assumed position for women – especially women who talk about women – it requires a lot of care to pick out when there are genuinely conservative ideas at play and when it’s just the left saying it’s so. I’ve written on the problems of transphobic and white-centric feminism excluding and marginalising people within our movements before. It can at times be difficult to know how to and when to speak out against this, because there is such a strong current of anti-feminism running through the left too which I never want to lend ammunition or credibility to. Anti-feminism and transphobic feminism actually make great bedfellows though, as they both engage in the (often violent) denial of lived experiences outwith their own bubbles. There’s a lot of pressure as well, particularly for young women, to agree with and be the public face of men’s bad ideas about feminism. Particularly if you’re shagging any of the men in question, as is so common on the left. It seems so important to me now, having actually come from a tradition from my time in the SSP of subtle anti-feminism (amongst some of the men) and subtle transphobic feminism (amongst some of the women), to be able to look back on my own history on the left and learn from my mistakes. I feel like I’m playing a lot more of a positive role in building a better future/Scotland/left/whatever now that I recognise my own faults and how far I’ve got to go than I was when I assumed I’d found all the answers in the left and in the type of feminism I fell into naturally in the past.
It’s a powerful thing to acknowledge where you’ve fucked up, for your own growth and the growth of your organisations. I used to say transphobic things as if it was ‘common sense feminism’! Before I had a strong understanding of my own bisexuality and the place in the world assigned to me because of it, I judged other women’s sexual expressions unfairly. I had absolutely no understanding at all of my role in perpetuating white supremacy as a white person, a white woman, a white lefty and a white feminist. It’s worth noting that on a great deal of the occasions when I have fucked up, it’s been when I’ve been adhering too closely to left wing dogma. But I won’t shy away from my personal responsibility – whether I was involved in a left wing circle with certain ideas about how to interpret the world or not, I had no excuse for blinding myself to the experiences of other people that I was ignoring. Regardless of what level of dogmatism your lefty campaigns and organisations engage in (and mine were never particularly dogmatic in comparison to others, but still I picked up some very bad habits) you still have a responsibility as an individual to acknowledge marginalisation and abuses happening, whether your organisation considers it a priority or not. Particularly if those abuses are happening in front of your eyes, being perpetrated internally or externally by your own organisations. I don’t give a flying fuck if your organisation doesn’t think it’s a political priority to discuss rape and rape apologism in the left, you support and defend the women who do. You speak out when your own organisations are trying to silence women who discuss abuse. And you put your fucking hands up and say “I got this wrong, what can I do to help” when women are taking the monstrously difficult step of cutting out an abuser you know. We need to stop giving so much power and oxygen to the people who are so hell bent on holding on to their own vestiges of power within the left, deride them for the joke that they are, and create our own narrative. We need to TALK about this, not brush it under the carpet while subtly informing women that they are basically bitches if they bring up the behaviour of men and how it affects them.
I know why people back away from these difficult discussions. I know because I am a living example of someone who has been vilified for having them, and people don’t want the same to happen to them. But people like me (and they are many – if the readership of A Thousand Flowers has taught me anything, it’s that I’m far from alone) are always going to be vilified. We’re always going to be doing the difficult thing, because someone has to. It only gets easier when others do it too. It might be difficult for you to begin but you’re making it ten times easier for the next person who needs you, who needs a safer left and a left that really gets who it’s representing and why. The left needs people like us who power through despite being hated, because it’s never going to change or be in any way successful without us. I have the utmost respect for the people who tried, and who had to give it up and get out for their own wellbeing. I have no respect for the people who say they want to try but can’t because it’s scary and hard. I know it’s scary and hard because I live it, but I have no choice in that. There has to come a point when you put aside your privilege, your ability to stay out of it, and make the right choice. It’s a choice you’re lucky to have, and the end result will be something you can be proud of yourself for.
“Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power – not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.”
- bell hooks