Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Yesterday, there was an excellent edition of Women's Hour on Radio 4. The two items that most interested me were a feature on the cohesion agenda and a piece on Sylvia Pankhurst.

The cohesion segment had a discussion between a New Labour apparatchik (didn't catch the name) and two women from ethnically-specific women's organisations, one of which was Southall Black Sisters. Such groups are under threat due to lack of funding because of the cohesion agenda. This is the shift in government policy since the disturbances in the Northern mill towns in 2001 (Oldham, Burnley, Bradford), which prompted the Cantle Report and other policy texts recommending funding for activities and services aimed at all members of (geographical) communities, rather than to single ethnicity activities and services. In other words, this was a retreat from the official multiculturalism of "the long 1980s" period which preceded it (what I call multiculturalISM, to emphasise its dogmatic, ideological nature).

Personally, I welcome a certain version of the cohesion agenda, the version promoted by the government's recent Commission on Integration and Cohesion, which didn't recommend withdrawal of funding from single ethnicity groups, but rather the promotion of cross-community activities and services, with a focus on the shared futures that unite people rather than the different ethnicities that divide them. This policy agenda is based in considerable evidence that what academic Roger Hewitt calls "clumsy multiculturalism" fuels racism rather than combats it.

However, if the cohesion agenda leads to funding cuts for services that are targeted at the most vulnerable and excluded sections of society, then it is a dangerous agenda. The Southall Black Sisters, who Martin M has blogged about, are an excellent grassroots organisation, who help women in West London who are victims of "honour crimes", domestic violence, and other acts which the official (male, elder) "community leaders" like to brush under the carpet. They should be strongly supported.

Sylvia Pankhurt is a great hero of mine. The Women's Hour slot featured interviews with her son, Richard Pankhurt, and daughter-in-law, Rita Pankhurst, and focused on a relatively neglected period of her life: the three decades of her life she spent in Ethiopia. Her anti-fascism, anti-imperialism and broad support for Pan-Africanism led her, and her Italian anarchist lover/business partner (they ran a tea shop together), Silvio Corio (who I presume was Richard Pankhurst's father), to throw themselves into the campaign to support Haile Sellassie's independent black state against Mussolini's imperialist adventures there, to the extent they wound up living there. I'm not sure how I feel about the logic that led her from her 1917 left communism to support for a reactionary monarchy, but it's a fascinating tale.

The show made a strong case that whatever her ideological positions (first a socialist-inflected feminism, then left communism, later Pan-Africanism), her politics was always first and foremost (like Southall Black Sisters') practical: she started cut price restaurants and co-operative toy factories. This pragmatic politics was rooted in her intense humanism: her solidarity with (not pity for) people's real life travails. This was what led her to break with the "bourgeois feminism" of her mother and sister, the other famous suffragette Pankhurst's, and their violent terrorism and utter disregard for the everyday lives of working class women.

Previous: Islamism and multiculturalism, Representing Muslims.

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