Anglo-Saxon attitudes

Sexual double standards are not the preserve of conservatively-minded ethnic minorities.

I'm quite willing to believe that "cultural attitudes" underlay the apparent belief of members of the Asian criminal gang that young white girls, many of whom were or had been in care, were "easy meat" for their predatory sexual behaviour.

After all, such cultural attitudes are hardly confined to those with family connections in Pakistan.  They even seem to have been prevalent at the Crown Prosecution Service, which decided back in 2008 that a girl who had come forward to describe being raped would not make a credible witness.  If traditionally-minded Asians are indeed liable to believe that  children like her are of less account than their own overprotected daughters it must be asked how they came by such ideas.  Perhaps they have been reading the Daily Mail's frequent and lurid accounts of the Hogarthian decadence with which a high proportion of this nation's teenage girls supposedly conduct themselves.

A Guardian editorial yesterday helpfully explained that "the force that shaped it [the sexual abuse] was not the ethnicity of the abusers but the poor, chaotic family lives of the victims."  Thus was the blame seemlessly (and perhaps unconsciously) transferred from the perpetrators. Poor and chaotic family lives may have rendered the victims vulnerable to the blandishments of these criminal gangs but it does not explain why they were raped. The only force that shaped the abuse was the behaviour of the abusers.

And it didn't take long, last night, for the BBC's "flagship" Question Time to degenerate into a veritable orgy of slut-shaming. Peter Oborne, a Telegraph journalist who has written extensively against Islamophobia, was the worst offender.  "What does it tell us about what's happened to our society," he wondered, "that we have 12 year old girls, 13 year old girls, who are happy to give up their affection and their beauty to men in exchange for a packet of crisps or a bit of credit on their mobile phone?" He later elaborated that the girls had shown themselves "ready to surrender their innocence for a bag of crisps".  

The implication is clear: the problem is with young girls, well below the age of consent, who (allegedly willingly) "surrender their innocence", rather than with the men who take. "Society" is to blame for allowing this to happen. The perpetrators, presumably, just couldn't help themselves, like children in a sweetshop. And Oborne's language of "beauty" and "innocence", with its nauseating fetishisation of female purity, seemed to embody precisely those "cultural attitudes" towards women that are assumed to characterise conservative Muslim communities. 

A man in the audience who appeared to be a bishop then chipped in with the suggestion that 13 year-old girls "go out dressed as if they are looking for that sort of issue to take place".  He later withdrew the obvious imputation that they were "asking for it", but it's striking how naturally the thought had come to his mind. As it came to the mind of Caroline Spelman that the solution lay in giving girls (it's always girls, isn't it?) "the right values... to keep themselves safe."

It would be naive to suppose that many of the girls who found themselves at the mercy of these gangs didn't already have "issues".  A high proportion came from broken homes and had been in the care system.  It's undeniable that such children are more likely than average to become involved in crime or drugs, to become pregnant at an early age, to end up homeless or engaged in street prostitution.  But that only makes it more important not to make them complicit in their own degradation.

It's not so many years ago that it was standard practice for underage prostitutes to be regarded by the police and justice system as criminals rather than as victims.  It's only a couple of weeks ago that a rape victim was named on Twitter by fans of the footballer convicted of assaulting her.  The charge being levelled against her, effectively, was one of having "loose morals".  No-one invoked the alien "cultural norms" of football supporters to explain such attitudes, as did David Starkey in response to the Asian grooming gangs, or saw it as evidence that the education system had failed adequately to convey the "history of feminism" in these islands.  

The trial that ended this week in Liverpool was not the first, and won't be the last, to feature predominantly Pakistani-British gangs preying sexually upon mainly white girls from troubled backgrounds.  There are, no doubt, special features at work in these cases: two that spring to mind are the sexual frustration experienced by young men from strict, patriarchal families and the "biraderi" system of male mutual support which might easily be debased into one of passing around young girls for sex.  But the sexual double standards, the valuation of women based on their actual or presumed availability, the writing off of girls from difficult backgrounds as "white trash": such attitudes are far from being the preserve of those from conservatively-minded ethnic minorities.
 

BNP members protest outside Liverpool Crown Court, 9 May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.