Clarke and rape sentencing: one day later

Why Miliband's opportunism was just as disgusting.

Sometimes things can seem different one day later.

The unfortunate and crass comments yesterday of Ken Clarke were bad enough. But there was something repellent in how the Leader of the Opposition and the Conservative Right sought to make immediate political capital of Clarke' difficulties.

And so today, what lingers for many is not so much Clarke's offensive tone and seeming complacency, but Miliband's distasteful opportunism in trying to make rape sentencing something to score points with at Prime Minister's Questions. It must have seemed such a good idea at the time, but it does not today.

As this blog set out yesterday, the Criminal Justice system does treat certain rape cases with more severity than others. This is not exceptional, and indeed it has long been settled sentencing policy. This not to say that rape is not rape, but punishments can and do vary according to the presence of aggravating factors. Indeed, no one seriously seems to think that this should not be how rape sentencing should operate.

And this was certainly not the only legal blog to point out that rape sentencing was more complicated than yesterday's media frenzy suggested: see for example former Tory MP and criminal barrister Jerry Hayes, Labour List blogger Ellie Combo, and my fellow liberal lawyer (and also a criminal barrister) Gaijin-San. The legal blog Beneath the Wig correctly observed that the over-reaction to Clarke's comments may even make rational debate on rape policy more difficult. And, as Brian Barber today observes (again at Labour List), the Labour Party should have been supportive of Clarke, not trying to get him sacked.

All this said, Clarke should not have said what he said, and definitely not in the way he said it. But his blunder was at least inadvertent, and it lacked the deliberation of those in his own party and the opposition who exploited and misrepresented the rape sentencing issue so as to try to get a political opponent sacked.

One day later, it is the cynicism of Miliband and others on this issue that disgusts as much as Clarke's original dreadful remarks.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.