We have to counter the anti-sex, anti-choice spin before it's too late

A vocal minority is attempting to influence the political mandate on sexual health.

I had hoped my first blog post for the New Statesman might be about my experience of sexism in the film industry (short version: it’s like 1950); that I think we should have a Good Sex instead of a Bad Sex literary award (why not celebrate decent, provocative writing?); or perhaps just a few lines on how underappreciated the naked male form is (and wanting this exhibition to come to the UK), but, instead, I am having to pen a piece about the way in which politicians are screwing us (no pun intended) over sex.

When it comes to sexual health, we seem to be seeing a subtle change in policy-makers’ decisions, with the vocal minority becoming more determined to influence the political mandate. Last year, I wrote this about Nadine Dorries MP, because her repeated attacks on abortion and sex education needed to be confronted. While it is nice to breathe a sigh of relief now, and know that her political objectives have been ridiculed (not least with her appearing on TV’s I’m A Celebrity), the fight for women’s rights over their own bodies still continues.

There is an undercurrent in UK politics, with, at its heart, an anti-sex, anti-women agenda. Bit by bit, the goal posts are being shifted and with each step pandering to the religious, anti-science, anti-choice ideologues, our rights, our ability to access healthcare, our freedom to make safe choices about our lives, get chipped away.

It’s incredible that we have a health minister, Jeremy Hunt, who wants the time limit for abortions to be halved, without any medical reason for doing so, and who fundamentally misunderstands that abortions are provided as healthcare for women – we shouldn’t need tragic cases like Savita Halappanavar to be reminded of this. But he sees this as a moral issue: he believes that personal opinions are the basis upon which to make medical decisions, not scientific facts. And he is in charge of women’s health. Great.

We also have a women’s minister and home secretary both pushing for four-week reductions. Besides ignoring their own parliamentary review (pdf) in 2006, which clearly states that there is no justifiable reason to decrease the 24-week limit because very, very, few foetuses are viable before then, these politicians press ahead with their ignorant opinions, arguing that “people’s views” should help form a pronouncement of women’s healthcare.

As well as the attacks on abortion rights, the coalition government is undermining sex and relationships education in schools and specialist services for young people due to their cuts in funding. If we don’t provide young people with comprehensive, age-appropriate sex and relationship education, which includes teaching about all forms of contraception, their sexual – and emotional – health will suffer. Brook, the sexual health charity for whom I am an ambassador, regularly asks young people what they want when it comes to learning about sex and relationships – and what they want is unbiased, balanced, knowledgeable sex education. Without this, they cannot make informed decisions about the sex and relationships they choose to have.

Simon Blake OBE, Brook’s Chief Executive, says:

“Most young people under the age of 16 are not having sex. Evidence shows that high quality sex and relationships education, provided by parents and at school, combined with access to free, confidential sexual health services helps delay the age young people first have sex and increases the likelihood they will use contraception when they do.”

If we don't fight against the encroaching attacks on access to abortion we will see a further deterioration of women's reproductive rights, and more women’s health will be at risk. And if we don't fight on behalf of young people and the sex education they are entitled to, then the impact on their lives, their relationships, and their sexual health, will be felt for generations to come.

In January, I'm running an event called Sex Appeal on behalf of Brook, to get people to openly challenge those who spread misinformation about sex, sexuality and sex education. We need to counter the spin that these anti-sex, anti-choice apologists are spreading – before it is too late.

Women’s minister Maria Miller has backed a four-week reduction in the limit for abortions. Photograph: Getty Images

Zoe Margolis is a journalist and writer, famed for writing the Girl With A One-Track Mind blog. You can find more information about her work, including on sexual health, at her website. She's on Twitter as @girlonetrack.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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