Careful -- it would be a mistake to write off Ed Balls

The former schools secretary has a good chance of succeeding his ex-boss as Labour leader.

So Ed Balls has finally declared his candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the media's preferred candidate. And some Labour MPs, too, accuse him of being a bully, a schemer and a behind-the-scenes briefer, lacking in charisma, divisive, too close to Gordon Brown and an unreconstructed tribalist. But as I wrote on the Guardian's Comment is Free site during the election campaign:

Perhaps Balls isn't the dyed-in-the-wool Labour tribalist he is so often assumed to be by the great and good in the Westminster village. As even Martin Kettle, one of his leading critics, acknowledged on Cif: "If Balls were to be the next Labour leader, he would not, I think, be quite as bone-headedly labourist as many assume. This is a man who has crossed from the centre right to the centre left of the Labour Party in double-quick time, after all." But Kettle adds: "The main charge that those in the know make about Balls is not that he is dogmatic but that he is purely tactical -- opportunist is the word one hears most often."

Is the Balls shift to the left an act of opportunism? Perhaps -- although he has long been a proponent of "dividing lines" between left and right. Will it be enough to secure the votes of the Labour left? If Jon Cruddas fails to throw his hat in the ring and his opponent is David Miliband, I suspect it will. The children's secretary is making all the right (or should that be left?) noises.

The same journalists, commentators and MPs who wrote off Gordon Brown for three years, and wrongly assumed GB would be toppled by a coup, or resign in shame, or be humiliated on 6 May in a landslide defeat, now write off Balls, claiming he has no chance.

There is no doubt that the former schools secretary faces an uphill struggle against the Miliband brothers -- especially David, the clear front-runner and highest-profile candidate. But as the Guardian's John Harris -- no fan of Balls -- points out today on Cif:

Thus far, he [Balls] seems to be positioning himself as the poster boy for the less-than-erogenous Labour zone where dog-whistle toughness of the John Reid/Hazel Blears variety meets union-friendly Labourism.

The chatterati may scoff, but to the people who kept their party cards while all around were tearing theirs up, that will have a real appeal.

Meanwhile, the new labour-uncut website makes this observation:

Balls is also the one who has done the most work over the last five years. He's the only one who's been assiduously traipsing round the Friday night rubber chicken circuit of local Labour parties since 2005.

He has made the most effort to court the unions, and starts ahead in that section of the electoral college. And he has worked harder than David Miliband, though perhaps not than Ed, at convincing his fellow Labour MPs to like him.

Oh yes, let's not forget the support of the unions -- in particular, Unite.

But Balls's first challenge will be to gather together the necessary 33 signatures from fellow MPs in order to stand next week. Some newspapers have claimed he is struggling to get above 15 MPs, but a source in the Balls camp claims "we're pretty much there already. We're just not putting them all into the public domain at once."

Interestingly, among Balls's declared supporters is the Blairite former defence minister Eric Joyce, who resigned from the Brown government over the handling of the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps, as I've written before, Balls isn't as divisive or tribal a figure as is often assumed in the Westminster village.

Either way, my message to the Miliband brothers and the media: you write him off at your peril.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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A rape-able sex robot makes the world more dangerous for women, not less

Eroticising a lack of consent is no answer to male sexual violence. 

On Wednesday, the Independent reported a new setting had been added to the personality range of a sex robot made by the company True Companion. Called “Frigid Farrah”, the setting allows men who own the robot to simulate rape. If you touch it in a “private area” when it is in this mode, the website explains, it will “not be appreciative of your advance”.

True Companion says the robot is not programmed to participate in a rape scenario, and the idea is “pure conjecture”. Nevertheless, the news has reopened the debate about sex robots and their relationship to consent. What does a rape-able robot say about our attitudes to consent, sex, violence and humanism? Do sex robots like Frigid Farrah eroticise and normalise male sexual aggression? Or does allowing men to “act out” these “most private sexual dreams” on inanimate objects actually make real women safer?

The idea that allowing men to “rape” robots could reduce rates of sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. Sex robot settings that eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, coupled with male aggression, risk normalising rape. It sends a message to the user that it is sexually fulfilling to violate a woman’s “No”.

It’s important to remember that rape is not a product of sexual desire. Rape is about power and domination – about violating a woman’s body and her sense of self. Raping a robot is of course preferable to raping a woman, but the fact is we need to challenge the attitudes and sense of entitlement that cause violent men to rape in the first place.

There is little evidence to back the claim that giving men sexual “outlets” reduces violence. The research that exists is focused on whether a legalised sex industry can reduce sexual assault.

Studies on Dutch “tippelzones” – spaces where soliciting is legal between certain hours – claimed the areas led to a reduction in sexual violence. However, the research lacked precise data on incidents of sexual violence and abuse, and the fact that sex workers themselves can be victims. As a result, it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how the number of rapes and assaults fell in the population at large.

Similar claims made by social scientist Catherine Hakim also failed to prove a causal link between legalised prostitution and reduced levels of sexual violence – again, because low reporting means a lack of accurate data.

Other research claims that access to the sex industry can in fact increase incidents of sexual violence. A 2013 report by Garner and Elvines for Rape Crisis South London argued that an analysis of existing research found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies”.

Meanwhile, a 2000 paper by Neil Malamuth, T Addison, and J Koss suggested that, when individuals considered at high risk of acting sexually aggressively are studied, levels of aggression are four times higher among frequent consumers of pornography.

However, just as the research fails to find a causal link between access to the sex industry and reducing violence, there is no research proving a causal link between violent pornography and gender-based violence.

Instead, we have to look at the ethical and moral principles in an industry that creates models of women for men to orgasm into. Sex robots are, at their heart, anti-humanist. They replace women with plastic and holes. They create a world for their owners where women’s voices and demands and desires and pleasures – and right to say no – are absent.

That should trouble us – we are creating products for men which send a message that the best woman is a compliant and silent one. That the best woman is one who lies back and “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, to quote the True Companion website, who is “always ready to talk and play” but whose voice you can turn off whenever you want.

“By transferring one of the great evils of humanity from the real to the artificial, sex robots simply feed the demon of sexism,” says Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Lab. “Some might say, 'What’s the problem – a sex robot is just metal and plastic – where’s the harm?' But a 'fembot' is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl, which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent – thus only deepening the already chronic and dangerous objectification of real women and girls.”

What research does tell us is that there is a clear link between violence and the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanise their victims. That, and a setting designed to eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, suggest that Frigid Farrah will have no impact on reducing sexual assault. Rather, it creates a space where rape and violence is normalised and accepted.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders at this sexualisation of male violence, we should be taking action to end the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. That starts by saying that rape is not an inevitable part of our society, and the danger of rape cannot simply be neutralised by a robot.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.