Sexual Politics

Article excerpt

Sexual Politics: Sexuality, Family Planning, and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day

Stephen Brooke

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2012

On a Tuesday afternoon in September 2009, thousands squeezed themselves on to a conference floor in Manchester. Cameramen stood poised, lenses blinking at the arranged smiles of the Cabinet. And then the moment we'd been waiting for. A collective exhalation as Gordon Brown strode to his pulpit. His poetry moved us from the off. We were there to be inspired.

After twelve years in government, Labour foot soldiers were proud of what they'd done. In proclaiming his list of Labour achievements, Brown stirred the hearts of every Labour member in that room (Brown, 2009). But there was one striking thing about his list. Up there with the minimum wage was the creation of civil partnerships. Nestled in with devolution was Sure Start and maternity pay. Labour achievements for women and for LGBT people were spoken of as at the heart of our purpose as a party.

The politics of sex and sexuality have not always had such an easy relationship with the Labour Party. Stephen Brooke's work tells the story of how the Labour Party and the left reached the position of being able to talk about those issues with pride. It is a gargantuan, complex challenge, but it is one Brooke attacks with gusto.

The book deals specifically with developments in reproductive rights and in lesbian and gay rights as two key indicators of sexual liberation. The book focuses throughout on the Labour Party and on political and legislative change, although other left groups are mentioned. It plots developments from 1880 until the last Labour government, and is in three parts. After an exploration of sexual reform in the late nineteenth century, the first section looks at the period between the two world wars; the second section follows the road to the major reforms of 1967; and the third section examines developments since.

A number of interesting themes emerge throughout. The most striking is perhaps the instinctive electoral caution that has typified the left's approach to sex and sexuality. In Glasgow before the First World War 'free love' was an insult thrown at socialist candidates standing in local elections (p. 25). There was a widespread fear that any connection with the politics of sexual liberation could threaten the development of the new Independent Labour Party, and that fear persisted throughout the entirety of the following century. Leadership on sexual liberation was not an easy decision for a Parliamentary Labour Party that was reliant on the votes of conservative working households for whom any discussion of sex in a public forum was anathema.

The electoral caution highlighted by Brooke is evident too in today's Labour Party. At the Progress conference in 2011, Frank Field, a leading exponent of Blue Labour, stated baldly that feminism 'should not be the dominant ideology' of the Labour Party (Bailey, 2011). Recently, Kirsty McNeill, explicitly a proud feminist and the author of that rousing Brown conference speech, wrote an article for the Fabian Review where she suggested that Labour's focus on perceived women's rights issues has been at the expense of working for working class men. She wrote:

  Labour began as a working man's party, set up to guarantee
  for the working class male a chance to secure both an
  income and an identity. This is a proud part of our heritage
  ... it should lead us to build Labour's next majority by
  bringing men back home to Labour. (McNeill, 2012)

Field and McNeill no doubt come from very different ideological starting points, but both contributions reflect the unease of an unresolved question asked throughout the twentieth century: to what extent do the politics of sexual liberation complement or hinder Labour's primary founding purpose as a party for the advancement of Britain's working people? …