On Saturday, Labour MP Jess Phillips declared that “well-meaning Left-wing men” were actually the “worst sexists.” Megan Nolan explains why that will never be the case.

On Saturday, Labour MP Jess Phillips declared that “well-meaning Left-wing men” were actually the “worst sexists.” Megan Nolan explains why that will never be the case.

Imagine being the worst – the actual worst – sexist. It would take some doing; some real commitment, a not insubstantial dash of chutzpah. On Saturday, at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Labour MP Jess Phillips claimed that “well-meaning Left-wing men” are “the actual worst sexists”, as opposed to the “out and out sexists” of the right, who we can only assume came in a close second.

I was struck when reading Phillips’ comments by a familiar dislocated nausea I experience when words seem to have been voided of meaning in service of some hot take. I felt it last year when New Statesman writer Glosswitch tweeted: “Left-wing men are worse than right. There’s something almost respectful about honest sexism: ‘I think you’re inferior and I will exploit you.’”

Maybe I’m the one at fault, and all words have in fact dramatically changed meaning without me noticing, but I fail to find anything respectful or even almost respectful in anyone telling me I’m inferior and they’re going to exploit me.

Of course, I understand why the belief exists that left-wing sexists are worse. The idea is that it’s better for your enemy to declare that he’s your enemy and attack you, than to weedily undermine you from within your own side. That way you know what you’re dealing with instead of having to second guess motives and deal with internal opposition constantly. It’s the hypocrisy, the duplicity, the abandonment of supposedly core egalitarian ideals. I empathise with this, I truly do. I’m not going to deny that sexism on the left is hard to stomach.

I remember the feeling in 2015 of seeing Russell Brand welcomed and hailed as the new hero of the left. He was clever and well spoken. He came from a working class, welfare-supported background and had the sort of platform which allowed him to call for class revolution in a Jeremy Paxman interview. And so it was decided we could not afford to eschew him – regardless of the fact that the man was an obvious and persistent sexist. When women drew attention to this fact they were made to feel as though such concerns were frivolous and a betrayal to the wider cause. What was almost worse was the attempt to both excuse and conflate his sexism with being a working class person. It’s just a bit of banter – Russell might be sexist but that’s because he’s authentically working class, yeah? So if you don’t like it you must not be part of the class struggle.

After an uncharacteristic bout of blind optimism during this summer’s election during which I supported Jeremy Corbyn not just uncritically but ecstatically, it hurt to then see him taking pictures with Steve Hedley (the trade union official accused of domestic abuse), not to mention his continued association with the SWP. It made me feel annoyed I’d bothered, let down, wary of getting involved in things. I suspect many women on the left, especially victims of sexual and domestic violence, will recognise these feelings. Survivors are told all the time that our discomfort about fraternising with perpetrators is less important than the grand aims of the project. I get it. I hate it too. I do not believe left-wing men to be any less capable than men in general of holding sexist attitudes and committing acts of interpersonal sexist violence.


And yet. I can’t help but find the idea of identifying left-wing men as the “worst” sexists risible. It’s politically expedient for Jess Phillips to make this claim because it bolsters her reputation as a scrappy feminist upstart coming up against the likes of Corbyn and McDonnell, but in the end it means very little. Sexists on the left are not worse than sexists on the right. This is not only because it’s childish and impossible to rank the worst sexists hierarchically, especially through the limited prisms of parliamentary politics. It’s also because sexism on the right is absolutely not a safer proposition. It is not overt. There are much fewer “out and out” sexists on the right than once existed. These old fashioned boors with whisky-reddened cheeks who grab your arse at a conference event still exist of course, but they’re hardly the archetypal Tory these days.

The right are no less sophisticated than the left, no less able to cloak their prejudices in meaningless linguistic turns and smooth obfuscations. It is a dangerous mistake to assume they are not, too, clever enough to hide their hatred. Sexism on the right is not just present, as it is in any organisation which includes men; it is implemented systemically throughout Britain. The disgraceful transgressions of individual MPs can be catalogued, certainly, but we must judge them also by the structural iterations we see in our communities every day – savage cuts to domestic violence refuges, welfare caps that hit vulnerable mothers hardest, attempts to restrict abortion access.

The idea that left-wing men are the worst kind of sexists is based in the notion that it’s better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. This may apply when it comes to the shenanigans and power struggles of Westminster but it doesn’t work so well in the real world. Here, as it is, the devil we know thinks nothing of destroying the lives of at risk women every day. And nowadays, they’re happy to call themselves whatever they think we’d like to hear, even feminist.

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