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Leader: We must not dismiss or diminish allegations of rape

Rape happens everywhere. It is happening today in Syria, as the Assad government’s thugs rampage and humiliate, and as a weapon of war in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It happened in mass rape camps in Bosnia in the 1990s. It happens to women and to men and to children. In June, it happened to a 14-year-old boy in a department store in Manchester. It happens on one-night stands and in marriages. It happens between strangers and friends.

No one can say for sure how many rapes happen every day, because the shame and stigma that surround the crime prevent many victims from going to the police. There seems to be a widespread misconception about rape victims. If a woman, the “perfect rape victim” is a virgin or, at least, monogamous. She does not wear short skirts or low-cut tops. She does not drink to excess or walk alone at night. She does not have sex with a man once and then change her mind. She is raped violently and knows instantly that she must report the crime. She does not wrestle with her experiences or wonder if a man she has previously liked and trusted can have invaded her body without her consent. She remembers every detail perfectly, despite the trauma she has been through, and can still recall it with perfect clarity many months later, when – or if – the case comes to court. If a rape victim breaches any of these unwritten rules, she is liable to be dismissed.

English law is clear about what constitutes rape: the intentional penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with a penis, if that person does not consent to the penetration and the perpetrator does not reasonably believe that the person consents. Consent to a previous sexual act does not matter; neither does the use (or not) of violence.

That has not stopped a series of men lining up in the past weeks to perpetuate some of the most pernicious myths about rape, particularly as a by-product of supporting the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, in his fight against extradition to Sweden, where he has been accused of rape and sexual molestation. Monty Python’s Terry Jones wrongly claimed that Mr Assange was accused merely of “sex without a condom”. George Galloway, the Respect Party’s only MP, said that the Australian national had displayed only “bad sexual etiquette” to someone who was “already in the sex game” with him. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, named one of Mr Assange’s accusers on the BBC’s Newsnight, before suggesting that her complaint could be dismissed because she had subsequently gone to a “crayfish party” with him. (He dismissed the outcry against him as a “fake campaign of indignation”.)

There is a reason why rape allegations are tested by juries – not by columnists, or blogs, or social media – and the New Statesman makes no judgement on the guilt or innocence of Mr Assange. Yet the misinformation spread by many of his supporters is cause for concern in a country where rape reporting rates are already low.

On 19 August, the Metropolitan Police’s specialist sex crimes operation, Sapphire, announced that the number of reported rapes had fallen by 14 per cent compared to last year. This is a grave human rights issue: roughly 400,000 women are sexually assaulted and 80,000 women raped each year in Britain, according to the British Crime Survey. It is estimated that nine in ten rapes go unreported.

Recent events have shown us that the gains made for women’s rights over many decades are more fragile than we might have thought. It is therefore incumbent on those who would call themselves progressive to acknowledge how widespread this crime can be and not to promote the myths that surround it.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

Photo: Getty Images/Richard Stonehouse
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Here's how Jeremy Corbyn can win back the Midlands

The Midlands is where elections are decided - and where Jeremy Corbyn can win. 

The Midlands: this “formless” place is where much of Labour’s fate lies. The party witnessed some of its most disappointing 2015 results here. In those early, depressing hours of 8 May, Nuneaton was the result that rang the death knell of Labour’s election chances. Burton, Cannock Chase, Halesowen & Rowley Regis, Redditch and Telford weren’t far behind. To win here Labour need to build a grassroots movement that engages swing voters.

Luckily, this is also a place with which Labour’s new leader has a natural affinity. The bellwether seat of Nuneaton is where Jeremy Corbyn chose to hold his last regional rally of the leadership contest; just a couple of counties over you’ll find the home Corbyn moved to in Shropshire when he was seven. He cut his political teeth round the corner in marginal constituency The Wrekin; it was in this key seat he did his first stint of campaigning. Flanked by a deputy leader, Tom Watson, who represents Labour stronghold West Bromwich East, Corbyn has his eye on the Midlands.

As MP for Islington North since 1983, Labour’s leader has earned London-centric credentials that have long since overshadowed his upbringing. But Corbynism isn’t a phenomenon confined to the capital. The enthusiasm that spilled out of Corbyn’s summer leadership rallies across the country has continued into the autumn months; Labour’s membership is now over 370,000. It’s fast catching up with 1997 figures, which are the highest in the party’s recent history.

London is the biggest beneficiary of this new movement - with 20 per cent of Labour’s members and 19 per cent of new members who signed up the week before conference coming from the capital. But Corbynism is flourishing elsewhere. 11 per cent of all Labour party members now reside in the southeast. In that same pre-conference week 14 per cent of new members came from this mostly Tory blue area of the country. And since last year, membership in the southwest increased by 124 per cent. Not all, but a good deal of this, is down to Corbyn’s brand of anti-austerity politics.

A dramatic rise in membership, with a decent regional spread, is nothing to be sneered at; people are what you need to create an election-winning grassroots movement. But, as May proved, having more members than your opposition doesn’t guarantee victory. Corbyn has spoken to many who’d lost faith in the political system but more people need to be won over to his cause.  

This is clear in the Midlands, where the party’s challenges are big. Labour’s membership is swelling here too, but to a lesser degree than elsewhere. 32 per cent of party members now and 13 per cent of those who joined up in seven days preceding conference hail from this part of the country.

But not all potential Labour voters will become card-carrying members. Corbyn needs to speak to swing voters. These people have no party colours and over the summer they had mixed views on Corbynism. In Nuneaton, Newsnight found a former Labour turned Ukip voter who thought Corbyn would take Labour “backwards” and put the economy at risk. But a fellow Ukip voter said he saw Corbyn as “fresh blood”.

These are enduring splits countrywide. Voters in key London marginal Croydon Central gave a mixed verdict on Corbyn’s conference speech. They thought he was genuine but were worried about his economic credibility. While they have significant doubts, swing voters are still figuring out who Labour’s new leader is.

This is where the grassroots movement comes into play. Part of the challenge is to get out there and explain to these people exactly who the party is, what it’s going to offer them and how it’s going to empower them to make change. 

Labour have nascent plans to make this reality in the Midlands. Tom Watson advocated bringing back to life this former industrial heartland by making it a base for manufacturing once again – hopefully based on modern skills and technologies.  He’s also said the leadership team will make regular regional visits to key seats. Watson’s words chime with plans floated by shadow minister Jon Trickett: to engage people with citizens’ assemblies where they have a say over Labour politics.

But meetings alone don’t make grassroots movements. Alongside the economy, regional identity is a decisive issue in this – and other – area(s) of the country. With the influx in money brought in by new members, Labour should harness peoples’ desire for belonging, get into communities and fill the gaps the Government are leaving empty. While they’re doing this, they could spread the word of a proper plan for devolution, harking back to the days of municipal socialism, so people know they’ll have power over their own communities under Labour.

This has to start now, and there’s no reason why the Midlands can’t act as a model. Labour can engage with swing voters by getting down to a community level and start showing – and not just saying –  how the party can make a difference. 

Maya Goodfellow is a freelance journalist.