Two sitting Conservative MPs who agreed to speak at a men’s rights conference have withdrawn only two weeks before the event was to take place.
Lee Anderson MP, who represents the East Midlands constituency of Ashfield and sits on the Women and Equalities Select Committee, was featured as a speaker at the online International Conference on Men’s Issues (ICMI) until the end of last week. Henry Smith, MP for Crawley in West Sussex, withdrew after Tortoise contacted him for comment on Monday afternoon.
The conference’s lead organiser is Mike Buchanan, founder of the Justice for Men & Boys (And The Women Who Love Them) party (J4MB), who identifies as an “anti-feminist”. The party’s most recent manifesto, from 2015, states “there are no areas in which the state disadvantages women and girls”. In the manifesto, Buchanan also encourages men to take “the red pill”, a reference to the ideology of incels – extremists, usually men, who express extreme hostility and hatred towards the people, usually women, who they blame for what they believe is their involuntary celibacy.
Other conference organisers include Elizabeth Hobson who, according to anti-fascism campaign group HOPE not hate has associated with extreme-right figures in the UK and overseas, and Paul Elam, who runs A Voice For Men, which the US NGO the Southern Poverty Law Centre has called a male supremacist hate group.
Among the remaining “guests of honour” at the time of publication are retired Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, Warren Farrell, who in his book The Myth of Male Power described murder, rape, and domestic violence as “but a minute’s worth of superficial power to compensate for years of underlying powerlessness”, and Will Knowland, who was sacked by Eton after delivering a lecture called “The Patriarchy Paradox” – but later cleared of professional wrongdoing by the Teaching Regulation Agency, a watchdog.
Widdecombe told Tortoise: “I’m interested in men’s issues and in the fact that they have such difficulty sometimes getting access to their own children, even when there’s a court order in place saying that they should see their children.” She has pre-recorded the interview that will be shown at the conference.
“I can only be responsible for the views that I hold. And the views that I express,” she added.
David Lawrence, senior researcher at HOPE not hate said: “The participation of Members of Parliament in the ICMI helps to legitimise the misogyny and retrograde politics prevalent at such events.”
“Whilst this is concerning enough in itself, as we have explored in recent research, anti-feminism and misogyny can function as slip roads towards other forms of prejudice, including far-right politics, which is similarly rooted in a sense of aggrieved entitlement. We should expect our elected officials to stand against hateful politics, whatever form they take,” he said.
Henry Smith responded to Tortoise via email: “I recently withdrew from this event when I discovered some of the speakers’ views,” he wrote. “Earlier in the year I tabled a number of written parliamentary questions on concerns around educational attainment of working class boys, hence why I believe the organisers approached me for a Q&A session. Whether its climate action, gender issues or any other campaigns, I think more extreme positions discredits, rather than enhances, arguments for reform in such areas.”
The conference is due to take place online, from 13-19 December, with topics titled “abortion”, “false allegations (domestic violence, sexual offences)” and “paternity fraud” identified for discussion. Previous conferences have been held in the US, UK and Australia, in every year since 2014, except for in 2015.
Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley and another member of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, was a speaker at the event in 2016, 2019 and 2020, and has been described by Buchanan as a “hero to everyone in the global men’s rights movement”. In his 2019 address, Davies said he supported “feminists who really want equality”, but not those he referred to as “militant feminists”, “fighting a war against men”. In 2020, the conference played a video montage titled “Philip Davies’s Greatest Hits,” and he was interviewed by Hobson and Buchanan.
The men’s rights movement was initially complementary to the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s – seeking to unravel gender stereotypes for men and women. The group soon split, however, into those critical of patriarchy and those who argued male dominance was natural and inevitable, or who argued the progress in women’s rights had a negative effect on men’s rights.
Men’s rights activists today raise awareness about issues that disproportionately affect men, such as suicide, substance misuse, the incarceration of Black men and the educational attainment of white boys. For example, according to Samaritans, men are more than three times more likely than women to die by suicide. According to the Prison Reform Trust, there are disparities in incarceration rates based on gender and ethnic diversity. Black men are 26 per cent more likely than white men to be remanded in custody. 22 per cent of women are sent to prison for their first offences, compared to 14 per cent of men.
Tortoise contacted Lee Anderson MP for comment but he did not respond.
Photograph by Fabrizio Costantini/The Washington Post