Sexual harassment on public transport: not just London

Why is Project Guardian so London-centric?

Back in March, on International Women's Day, Ellie Cosgrave danced out her anger on a busy London Underground train. The reason for her brave, unusual protest? A couple of years previously, a fellow passenger had pressed his erection into her from behind on the very same packed Northern Line carriage, leaving her with semen running down her legs and an anger that only intensified in the months that followed.

It's an anger that many women travelling on the UK's trains and buses must share; sexual harassment and intimidation of women is a pervasive but relatively undiscussed problem on public transport systems all over the country. The reason the issue has remained so well-hidden from crime statistics and public debate is clear – like Ellie, many women feel obliged to downplay these incidents in their immediate aftermath, and aren't at all confident that they'll be taken seriously if they do report their experiences to the police or transport authorities. The most recent Transport for London safety and security survey paints the picture in numbers: around 15 per cent of London's female public transport users have experienced '"unwanted sexual behaviour" on the network, it found, but up to 90 per cent of those affected didn't report the incident to police.

The British Transport Police is hoping to address this startling disparity between sexual offences and the frequency with which they are reported with its recently-launched Project Guardian scheme in London. The project, which was developed with input from campaign groups Everyday Sexism, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and Hollaback UK, aims to increase public awareness of the problem and bolster women's confidence to report threatening sexual behaviour, as well as spearheading a more proactive policing strategy.

The BTP faces an uphill battle to implement an effective anti-harassment strategy, in London or anywhere else. From a cultural perspective, the unspoken assumption by many authorities and members of the public that women should either find unwanted attention flattering, or change their own behaviour to avoid being targeted, needs to be rigorously challenged. Transport authorities in Beijing were the latest to fall back on this victim-blaming messaging earlier this summer, when officials advised women to avoid wearing short dresses on public transport, or even "shelter their bodies with bags, magazines and newspapers" to prevent sexual harassment.

"We don't want anyone to have to change their behaviour to prevent becoming a victim," Inspector Ricky Twyford of the BTP told me recently. "The only people whose behaviour should change are those who are perpetrating this activity."

Another major hurdle is that much of this kind of behaviour doesn't actually constitute a criminal offence. It might not be illegal for a man to sit directly next to a woman on an empty carriage at night, openly staring, but it's certainly an intimidating experience that puts many women off travelling alone after dark. The BTP hopes that increasing the rate of reporting will help officers build a more detailed picture of all incidents, major and minor, so that officers can be deployed to provide visible reassurance, even if arrest isn't an option.  

Since Project Guardian's London-centric launch, many have understandably asked why this national issue isn't being addressed with a nationwide campaign. Certainly, sexual harassment needs to be highlighted on trains and buses all over the country, but a major pilot project on the UK's largest urban transport network is a good start that will hopefully serve as a springboard for a national discussion. Of course, the goal of any sane society should be to challenge and gradually overturn a prevailing culture that shrugs its shoulders at the casual harassment of women on our public transport and in our public spaces, and focuses on victims' behaviour rather than that of their abusers. Sadly, that process will be a long and arduous one, but it's encouraging that public authorities are starting to recognise the problem, and that there are courageous individuals like Ellie Cosgrave who are willing to dance their defiance against the status quo.

For the full article on Project Guardian: http://www.railway-technology.com/features/feature-project-guardian-sexual-harassment-public-transport/

Project Guardian aims to raise awareness of sexual harassment on public transport. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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