Austin Mitchell MP has still not examined his privilege

By Emma.
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There was some degree of upset last week when Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Grimsby tweeted the following message to departing Tory MP Louise Mensch:

“Shut up Menschkin. A good wife doesn’t disagree with her master in public and a good little girl doesn’t lie about why she quit politics”.

Now I’m no great fan of Louise Mensch or lover of Tories in general. But this isn’t football. the point is not simply to beat the other team, but to be better than them. When a Labour MP behaves in this sexist and misogynistic way it cheapens all of us.

Gladly, many other Labour members agreed. Including my Twitter friend Nate Barker, a Labour member in Reading West. Nate took the time to write to Mr Mitchell expressing his concern. With his kind permission, I am reproducing below both Nate’s original email and the response from Austin Mitchell:

Dear Mr Mitchell,

I’m just writing, one party member to another, regarding a tweet sent from your account (or one purporting to be you) regarding Louise Mensch’s resignation & related commentary in the media this weekend.

The tone of this tweet was completely unacceptable. Our political system is already unrepresentative of women in general (our party’s work in this area notwithstanding) and the House still has a “boys’ club” image. As an MP for our party, you have a duty to both your constituents and to Labour to always be in the vanguard when it comes to respecting women.

I appreciate the point you were trying to make – namely, an MP hungry for power & fame using her position to try and make a name for herself rather than serve her constituents, only to cut and run when it became clear no cabinet position was forthcoming. In there is a message of somebody elected to serve, only to renege on her duty and put her own interests first; it may sound callous, but her role was not to be undertaken lightly.

Instead, you risk contributing to the Mensch narrative of a good MP driven out by her familial duties – and in the midst of an election campaign!

We’re better than the Tories, but we still have to convince the country – and setting a good example at the top is part of that.

I hope you take my comments in the spirit in which they’re intended – concern from a grassroots member who knows the best hope for our nation is a Labour victory in 2015.

Yours faithfully,

Nate Barker

the response from Austin Mitchell came back:

Dear Nate Barker

 

Thank you for your reprimand.  It was my tweet.  It was meant as a joke but it`s been taken seriously by hundreds, resulting in a tonne of abuse descending on my head.  Indeed yours was the mildest and best expressed.

 

Political correctness never was my strong point but I don`t see that incorrectness is going to have any effect on Labour`s standing votes, or reputation, by turning a passing tweet into a monstrous assault on womankind.

 

I`ve written the clobbering up in the next edition but one of The Oldie since many of the people who tweeted back opposed sexism by ageist attacks on me as geriatric.

 

Yours sincerely

AUSTIN MITCHELL

 

At the time, lots of people tried to blame the instant nature of Twitter for Mitchell’s “mistake”. And here Mitchell is trying to do the same while also employing the “It’s just a joke” meme.

 

I hate the “it’s just a joke” meme. It’s the most sly way of constantly denigrating a group of people. It’s a socially acceptable form of kicking down. As the excellent Everyday Sexism project demonstrates these aren’t “just jokes” they are weapons used to keep women in their place by undermining them on a daily basis.

 

So yes, Austin, your “just a joke” is a part of the daily assault on womankind. It’s part of the culture that diminishes us that thinks such a joke is funny. It’s part of the culture that diminishes us to think that Politcal Correctness – or being polite as sane people call it – is not a standard to aspire to but something to be avoided.

 

Equally, this issue isn’t just about Labour’s reputation, standing or votes. It’s not just about winning. It’s about being worthy winners.

 

However, if people have genuinely been attacking Mitchell for his age, that too is wrong. There is plenty enough to criticise him for, his age is neither here nor there.

 

I am – in many aspects of my life – privileged. I am a youngish, white, middle class, well educated, employed, able-bodied, straight, cis woman. It is only in the last of these areas that I find myself disadvantaged by society. Perhaps it is because I am so used to being in the priviledged group in all other areas that I am so concious of gender discrimination. Beacuse I recognise the advantages I have in life, I try to check my privelege when discussing issues that do not effect me personally.

 

So do some of the men – feminist or otherwise – I discuss sexism with. Sadly some of them don’t and try to waste endless hours of my time explaining exactly why I think they’re being sexist and patronising without undertaking the most rudimentary attempt at self-examination. Frankly, from now on, my life is too full to check others privilege for them.

 

But Austin Mitchell is a representative of my party. Like it or not, he is the face and voice of the Labour Party in Grimsby. As an MP he has an audience I do not and his words have a power mine cannot. If he will not understand why what he said was wrong, then I will not stop criticising him for saying it. Because these jokes, the attitude behind them and the culture they foster have no place in the modern Labour Party.

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4 comments to “Austin Mitchell MP has still not examined his privilege”

  1. Comment by Conrad Landin:

    Agree with pretty much all of what you say here.

    My one issue is with this:
    “But this isn’t football. the point is not simply to beat the other team, but to be better than them. When a Labour MP behaves in this sexist and misogynistic way it cheapens all of us.”

    I think we have to be clearer in our analysis here. Such behaviour is just as unacceptable in football. And there’s a difference between negativity and negativity that runs against our values. If you or I were to snap rudely at Grant Shapps on Twitter, I think it might well be justified. But the comments from Mitchell are totally out of order. Not because they are of a lower standard than the Tories’ comments. Not because they are negative. But because they are, quite simply, misogynistic.

    Anyway, I’m glad we’re still talking about this and that it hasn’t simply been brushed under the carpet after his non-apology. Good article.

  2. Comment by Emma:

    You are quite right that sexism or any other form of kicking down is unacceptable in football and in any other form of life. I phrased that clumsily. What I meant was that this is not just a game that matters only to the players and supporters. It matters to everyone because the culture and decisions that flow from politics at the top affects us all.

    And as someone who can be very rude when she wants to be I completely agree that snapping at and sniping about Grant Shapps is quite different from kicking down. But political correctness is a form of politeness, one that is about the power imbalances between those making politically incorrect statements and those who are the target of them.

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