Lord Bassam: "agonised" Lib Dems should co-operate with Labour

Labour's chief whip in the Lords attempts to woo his Lib Dem counterpart.

The next general election might be a good three years away, but that does not stop frequent speculation about what the next parliament might look like, and which way the Liberal Democrats would swing in the case of another hung parliament.

In the latest sign that Labour is thinking in exactly these terms, the party’s chief whip in the House of Lords, Lord Bassam, has written a letter to his Liberal Democrat counterpart, Lord Newby, urging him to meet with them more often. He wrote:

The last couple of years have been a bit bruising for your colleagues in this house, and no doubt they will be looking forward to a change of management to see if it brings some light relief.

. . .

I would keep a weather eye on the general election and thereafter. Your background as a flexible friend of other parties may come in handy. Keeping lines of communication open to the official opposition party might serve you well in the longer term.

It’s quite a leap for the man who tweeted in March: "I wouldn't want to wake up & find I was a Lib Dem today & have the selling of NHS on my conscience when I know I could say No."

Bassam’s overture to the Liberal Democrats is not particularly surprising in and of itself, as it follows reports that Vince Cable and Ed Miliband have been speaking on the phone, a sign of thawing relations.

However, the directness of the letter is striking. He goes on to urge Lib Dems to support Labour amendments, characterising them as "agonised souls trooping night after night into the Tory lobby to vote in favour of even more ghastly measures". He also says that the party faces another three years of being "the Millwall of British politics".

Direct, yes, but effective? That’s less certain. While Newby has declined to comment, the letter has not gone down well across the board. The Guardian quotes Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott as saying: "Sorry Steve, your charm offensive is all offensive and no charm. Calling us Millwall is not the way to build Lib-Lab co-operation on the red benches – if that's really your goal."

Indeed, no-one likes to be patronised, and Bassam’s characterisation of Lib Dems as the victims of coalition is damning with faint praise. But although several commentators have noted signs that Labour is relaxing its hostility to Nick Clegg’s party, it might be that they do not need to worry about the party not working with them. As our Liberal Democrat blogger Richard Morris wrote last month:

Does anyone really think after everything the Tories have thrown at us – including just the other week the Prime Minister telling his PPCs that he has effectively dealt with us  - that the odd insulting speech or overture to our support would block us dealing with Labour?

Given that Bassam's overture to support has apparently managed to be simultaneously insulting, Labour should hope that this is correct.
 

Members of the House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.