By Tom Fenton
The participation of Godfrey Bloom MEP in a Durham Union Society debate sparked a protest by a number of students.
Protests were organised by Durham University Students Against Austerity.
Mr Bloom was invited by the Union to propose the motion “This House believes that it’s a woman’s world”. This was his tenth visit to the society.
During his speech, protesters shouted “No Room for Bloom!”, “Women’s rights now, no debate necessary!” and other slogans although the MEP carried on seemingly unfazed.
Later he said he had been able to hear the protesters but was “deeply flattered” by them.
Also attending was Sebastian Payne, Online Editor for the Spectator speaking in favour of the motion.
Flo Perry, Social Secretary of the Durham University Feminism Society and Columnist for the Durham Tab, and Angela Towers, from NoMorePage3, spoke against the motion.
The chamber was full to capacity, with many students having to sit on the floor.
The debate started with the President of the Union Society, Rishiraj Goenka, welcoming everyone to the chamber. He also sternly warned audience members that: “It is essential to emphasise the rules that we follow for a debate in the Durham Union Society.
“There will be no personal attacks against any of the speakers or members of the audience, or by any of the speakers or members of the audience.
“While we are a bastion of free speech, this does not give the right to anyone to be offensive. Any offensive remarks by speakers or the members of the audience will be called to order immediately…
“If anyone tries to disrupt the proceedings of this house…they will be called to order and might be expelled from the chamber.”
Mr. Bloom, sporting a walking stick after hurting himself this morning, spoke for thirteen minutes.
He said: “There is no question about it – [women] are, without doubt, the stronger sex.”
The MEP, who will become the President of the Driver’s Union later this year, used a driving analogy to describe why. When God made women, he “built a better chassis”, referring to the decision of the car manufacturer Bentley to make new cars.
He said, “they learned a lot from the Mark 1”, just like God, in his parallel, learned a lot from creating man.
He told the audience that man had “a predilection for violence” and women had “caution and patience…in greater measure…and intuition”.
Defending his motion, he said: “Elected [female] Presidents and Prime Ministers in my life time have been at the forefront of so many countries in the world.” He also pointed out women’s roles in other important positions, such as Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, Hilary Clinton, who was the American Secretary of State until last year, and Mary Jo White, the Chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States. He said this was “right” and “proper”.
He called quotas for the proportion of women on boards “patronising” and said he had “never met a senior professional woman in business or politics who believes that to be true”.
He joked to applause that he did not understand why, as an anti-austerity politician, Students Against Austerity were protesting against him: “nobody has ever suggested I do anything in an austere manner. My Bentley is outside the hotel to prove the point.”
Flo Perry, opening for the opposition, said: “Globally, 1 in 3 women will be beaten or raped at some point in their life, how 99% of girls and women in Egypt have been sexually harassed, like how female genital mutilation is still commonplace in many parts of the world.”
She said, however, it was hard for people “to empathise from Bongo Bongo Land”, referring to Mr. Bloom’s description of Africa.
The Tab writer also listed times she had experienced sexism, including when she had been groped in a local Durham nightclub.
“If this world, where you get constantly harassed, interfered with and shamed, is a woman’s world, then that is a very strange way to define an environment that you live in. Not only are women unequal in power and in wealth and in status, we can’t even control much of what happens to us in our everyday lives.
“This is not a woman’s world because it is not the world we would choose to live in, it’s not the world we would want to live in.
“A woman in this world is living by somebody else’s rules. She’s living for someone else’s pleasure and someone else’s game.”
She also said: “It might seem like nothing but as well as the big things, the violence and the pain, it’s the little things which add up which make life as a woman slightly harder than life as a man.”
Sebastian Payne, giving his first speech to the union since graduating from Durham, said he believed that the strong reaction to Mr Bloom’s comments that women attending his speech at a UKIP party conference last year were “sluts” showed “precisely why we no longer live in a man’s world. If Mr Bloom had joked all women in politics were sluts… 50 years ago, barely an eyelid would have blinked.”
He said there had been “a huge shift in cultural attitudes” and there was “a gender revolution” underway.
After describing the success of women in education, Mr Payne told the audience: “We are living in a woman’s world because they are on the cusp of being the dominant force in the workplace.”
He described the alleged takeover of the economy by women as a “Trojan Horse takeover”. He also said that the only thing “saving men” from this was “women stopping work to have children”.
The final speaker for the opposition, Angela Towers, told the audience: “Women do globally two-thirds of the world’s work. In return for that, they receive 10% of the income and they only own 1% of the property…Those statistics alone say it is not a woman’s world.”
During her speech, Mr Bloom told her: “Lap it up while you can young lady.”
She said that domestic abuse is a “society problem”. She reported that the highest cause of death for a European aged 16-44 was domestic violence.
“If this were a woman’s world, the number one threat to our health wouldn’t be something which was preventable. If it were a woman’s world, 603 million women would not be living in countries where domestic violence isn’t considered a crime at all.”
According to her, the term “domestic violence” appears in 869 news articles in The Sun but the word “sexy” appears over 18,000 times. She said it seemed that “female body parts are more important than female welfare as far as the media is concerned”.
She concluded by declaring: “We live in a global patriarchy.”
During the questions, one member of the audience was ejected after he heavily criticised the Union for inviting Mr Bloom “in a bid for controversy”.
After questions, Mr Bloom was allowed to conclude the debate for the proposition.
He said: “If I do not pay an Italian or a French girl a compliment on a new frock, I’m in trouble. If I do it for one of the girls from Denmark or Sweden, I’m a sexist pig. You can’t really win, can you, with women.”
He described the squeezing of people’s backsides as “this is life”.
“There are bad things going on but generally speaking… it will be a woman’s world if you have faith. I have faith in women to get to the top on merit.”
He also described the feminist ladies as “a little bit shrill and loud”.
One protester told Palatinate: “The idea of freedom of speech is being completely misrepresented. It literally means the government or police cannot arrest or prosecute you for your views.
“It doesn’t mean that independent organisations haven’t got to put up with bigoted bullshit which is exactly was the DUS is doing. They have the right and should have the moral obligation to refuse a platform for a person spouting this absolute nonsense.
“As a working class immigrant who pays £9,000 a year to be here, I feel personally offended that they are inviting someone who not only makes me feel unwelcome but physically unsafe.”
A security guard told the protesters at around 19:45: “We appreciate that you have the right to protest as much as you want, we will not stop you.”
He told them to move to the grass bank “for your own safety”.
Protesters were eventually “moved on” from Palace Green by security guards and police, reportedly due to complaints from a class below the debating chamber and the Cathedral with regards to young Choristers who were trying to go to sleep. They were also accused of trespassing, a source said.
The Union were careful only to allow members from the Union and Feminist Societies with a number of Union students barring the way.
Sources told Palatinate that there had been plans to protest inside the chamber but these did not manifest themselves.
One student said before the debate: “Their form of protest has made the debate about Godfrey Bloom as opposed to the issues that we are debating.”
Another student agreed. She said that protesters “were missing the point of the debate. By allowing Godfrey Bloom to voice his opinion, it will become very clear what the answer is.”
Another student said that the protests were “a bit excessive”.
A student from Durham University Feminist Society said after the debate she personally did not believe Mr Bloom should have been allowed to come to the Union debate “because we are giving a platform to someone who has made sexist, racist and homophobic comments.
“By giving him a platform, we are making what he believes legitimate. Godfrey Bloom has nothing to do with feminism. We have seen how he objectifies women in a debate.”
When asked whether she believed Mr Bloom was only joking in his remarks, she replied: “A joke is never free from politics… We can make jokes that reinforce how we think about things so for example, if Godfrey Bloom can make a joke about how a woman should lack up the objectification that she receives whilst she can, i.e. when attractive and young, that is justifying that woman being objectified, making that woman’s appearance more important than anything else.
“There is no such thing as just a joke. Jokes are what we really want to say but if said as a statement would get us in to trouble.”
The Union’s President said in a statement before the debate: “The best way to engage with elected representatives like Godfrey Bloom is to debate with them and hold them to account, rather than simply ignore or silence them.”
Next term’s Union President, Joe Hill, told Palatinate: “I gathered from the slogans on their placards that those protesting believed that by hosting this debate the Union was suggesting that the issue of women’s rights was up for debate, and that they felt this was inappropriate.
“I would join with them in protesting any debate which suggested that there was a serious claim to be made that women were not equal to men, as that would be ridiculous. But we simply were not doing that.
“I believe that [the President’s] intention in holding the debate was to hold a discussion of what had been achieved by the feminist movement so far, what was yet to be achieved, and the state of the world as it currently is.
“That is a serious and complex issue, which I don’t believe in any way suggests that gender inequality is a reasonable position to hold.
“We are glad that the Union could host such an important debate, and hear we could both sides of the argument, along with providing out members with a chance to express their views.
“I’m sure I can speak for all of standing committee by saying we encourage everyone to exercise their right to free speech including those protesting us, but that means that people have a right to be heard as well, and nobody should have to be shouted at whilst they’re speaking in any debate.”
Mr Bloom, who is the Member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire and the Humber, now sits as an independent after UKIP withdrew the party whip.
He had called female audience members at a party conference “sluts” and struck journalist Michael Crick on the head. He also threatened another journalist.
The debate was defeated.
Image: James Poole