Charity begins at the Playboy Club for our capitalist class, writes Lindsey German
There can be few pieces of investigative journalism that have scored so immediate and direct a hit as the FT article that exposed the Presidents Club last week. Wealth, entitlement, sexism, all there exposed in the most lurid way. But the aftermath of the story reveals much wrong with the attitudes of some of those who now recoil in horror at the excesses on display in London’s Dorchester Hotel.
There is much self congratulation at the speed with which money was returned, behaviour condemned, and indeed the whole sordid operation wound up. But the only reason any of this happened was because of the FT exposure, otherwise we would have to assume that the whole thing would have continued perhaps for another 30 years.
After all, everyone involved must have known what was going on. The attendees, many of whom had been in previous years, must have known the nature of the event. That includes a Tory government minister. The Dorchester Hotel - home from home for the rich and powerful - must have known the nature of the event. The agency which hired women as hostesses certainly knew the nature of the event given that it made them sign non disclosure agreements and put in a disclaimer clause about harassment. It also employed people to ensure the benighted hostesses didn’t spend too long in the toilets.
I presume also the recipients of this charity must have known at least some of what went on in the process of raising large sums of money for their good causes.
In fact I don’t really see why anyone who knew of this event even in the most cursory way could have not seen a problem with a men only, high cost, exclusive dinner at a Park Lane hotel, which was staffed by hostesses picked for their looks, told to wear black underwear which would show under their short skirts, and populated by the great and the good from the City of London and the wider establishment.
Consequently I’m not very impressed with the excuses along the lines of: I never saw anything bad going on, I left before anything happened, and the like. The sexist behaviour, sexual assault, and generally degrading treatment of women, were all there for anyone to see.
What are the wider issues behind this? To me it is a scandal which is about sexism and abuse, but also about the rotten neoliberal society in which we live. It is this neoliberalism which has led to huge levels of inequality, to the commodification of everything and to obscene and grotesque displays of wealth. It is this era which has adopted a level of feminism in terms of places for women in politics, industry and media, but which has at the same time created a massive sexualisation of society and an increase in women’s bodies being seen as commodities.
It is unsurprising that some of the worst excrescences of this system were over represented at the Presidents Club dinner. The City of London was there, one prize being tea with the governor of the Bank of England. The property developers and companies who are so ruining London and other cities made up a huge proportion of the guests - 10 out of 21 tables were booked by these companies.
At the heart of the dinner was the ethos of these companies: no restrictions on anything that the rich want to do, no concessions to, as they describe it, ‘political correctness’ aka treating other human beings decently, and creating a veneer of humanity by making (tax deductible) donations to charity, rather than pay personal or corporation taxes. Which begs the question of why children’s hospitals have to depend on the crumbs from the tables of the rich, rather than proper funding?
In short, a story for our times. The revulsion at the treatment of women is genuine and widespread. But it points to a rottenness which can only be dealt with by much more fundamental change. And it points to a politics of women’s liberation which is very far removed from the individual choice and identity which marks mainstream feminism, but which means the liberation of working class women from forms of exploitation that have sexual harassment and commodification at their centre.
It won’t get easier the second time around
There’s a head of steam growing in some quarters for a second referendum on the EU. I can’t see any way in which this would be a good idea. Firstly, all opinion polls show that the result would be very narrow. At present they show remain slightly ahead - as they did before the vote in 2016. Even if that is true, that means a margin of 1 or 2% which would leave an impasse, with people fairly evenly divided. None of the current divisions and problems would be solved. In fact, there would be increased bitterness from those who voted leave and who were told that their decision would be binding. This would especially be the case since big business, majority government and most sections of the ruling class would be euphoric.
It is easy to laugh at Ukip’s trials and tribulations, but we need to think what the consequences of a second referendum would be. Nigel Farage said two weeks ago that he thought there might be a second referendum. Why did he flag this up? Because in some ways he sees this as a game changer, once again putting his sorts of politics centre stage. Cue a UKIP mark 2 - but this time with the potential of a real mass base promoting racist and nationalist politics.
There are signs of the arrogance and lack of concern over this that mark the hardline remainers. This is epitomised by Chuka Umunna, the Blairite MP who is desperately trying to push Labour towards the single market and customs union, and effectively staying in the EU. He claims that he has a mandate from his south London constituency but his view is shared by many right wing Labour MPs who represent constituencies where the majority was for leave (as was the case with 70% of Labour represented constituencies). The pressure is on Jeremy Corbyn to move in this direction, but it would be a huge mistake for Labour, which during and immediately after the election managed to create a policy which was for a People’s Brexit. It is this policy which has to be pursued if Labour is to develop policies which can win both sides of the argument to developing policies which can improve working class conditions in or out of the EU.
It’s not what the Tories want, it’s what they will get
The new strong and stable didn’t last long into the new year. Theresa May briefed in early January that she would reshuffle her cabinet and that would give her a boost. It didn’t. Instead, we are now hearing about big internal crises within the Tories. The 1922 committee has notifications close the number of MPs needed to trigger a leadership and this week’s Observer reports she has been given three months to sort out her government. Fat chance. They cannot let her, above all, lead them into another election. While there seems to be consensus that this is not going to be till 2022, I have to say that seems to me unlikely. This isn’t about what the Tories want, but whether divisions and weaknesses can be contained. I think not - especially if there is a leadership challenge with a new prime minister.
These divisions are only partly about Brexit. There are so many issues where crisis is already there or just around the corner - housing, the NHS, privatisation, trade union struggle - that will divide the Tories. More importantly it can break up their electoral support. This requires Labour to go on the offensive and to take the fight to the Tories on all these issues, not get bogged down in the Brexit parliamentary debates.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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