Should ginger-bashing be considered a hate crime?

Being ginger-haired, you're not considered fully human.

Last February, Alex Kosuth–Phillips was subjected to a vicious and unprovoked attack outside a pizza shop in Birmingham, where he had been out celebrating his 23rd birthday.  His jaw was broken in two places and he had two metal plates inserted into his face.  For three months he was drinking with a straw.  The culprits apparently took exception to his ginger hair.  The story is in the news now because earlier this week, police released CCTV footage of the incident in an attempt to catch the assailants, who remain at large.

Also in February last year, two men were convicted at Southampton Crown Court of a "frenzied and sustained" assault on a red-haired man in New Milton, Hampshire.  The attack, which was again quite unprovoked, began with "gingerist" insults hurled at the victim, James Prior, from a car.  In another case ten years ago, a young man was stabbed in a West Yorkshire wine bar "after an argument over his ginger hair."   Redheads have also been the target of sustained harassment.  In 2007, for example, the Chapman family  of Newcastle hit the headlines after suffering "years of taunts, smashed windows and violence" and being forced to flee several homes.

Such attacks would meet most natural definitions of a hate crime.  Redheads are a minority, indeed a very visible minority, who are in no way responsible for the fact that some other people display an irrational aversion to their (our) hair colour.  Like members other groups, such as ethnic or religious minorities, gingers make a convenient target for the innate human desire to single out and ridicule people who are "different".  In this particular case, the prejudice is both widespread and, apparently, deep seated.  It's said to be especially prevalent in Britain, perhaps because the red-hair gene itself is commoner here. 

The Penguin Guide to Superstitions identifes a "general prejudice... that red-haired people are devious, cruel, lascivious, unlucky and generally untrustworthy".  But it's no quaint folkloric survival.  Virtually every ginger-haired child will have experienced some degree of name-calling at school. For some it continues into adult life.  I had the double whammy of ginger hair and glasses.  I can't claim to have experienced serious bullying (except, astonishing as it now seems, from one of the teachers).  But the taunts were always there and even when harmlessly meant, coming from friends, they had the power to wound.  The message was unspoken but unmistakable: being ginger-haired, you're not one of us, not quite normal, not fully human.

Sometimes it rises to the level of serious bullying.  In 2010 the Mirror told the story of a twelve year old girl, Nicole Nagington who was forced to leave her school after receiving repeated Facebook death-threats from her classmates and being physically assaulted. After she died her hair blonde, one of the bullies taunted her with the words "You're still a ginger bitch.  All gingers should die." 

Anti-ginger bullying may be a particular problem in schools, but few schools make it a priority, guided by the law and codes of practice to concentrate their efforts on tackling racism, homophobia and disability prejudice.  Indeed, unlike hatred based on race or sexuality, however, there is no legal recognition that anti-ginger prejudice exists.  Hair colour doesn't feature among the list of "protected characteristics" in the 2010 Equality Act.  The law attaches no special opprobrium to words that incite anti-ginger hatred, as it does to the stirring up of religious hatred or homophobia.  The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines restrict to category "hate crime" to those "motivated by hostility towards someone based on their disability, race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation." Such crimes attract more severe penalties than "ordinary" assaults, even though the hatred involved may be no less real, random or irrational and the injuries hurt just the same. 

Anti-ginger prejudice may seem trivial to those who have never experienced it.  Even Harriet Harman, whose legislative monument was the 2010 Equality Act, saw fit to taunt the Lib Dem cabinet minister Danny Alexander as a "ginger rodent".  She later apologised, but it's striking that she did not realised beforehand that her remarks were likely to be offensive.  It betrays a common blind-spot.  Or take Barabara Ellen in the Guardian: "One doesn't want to get into the idea of ginger-whingers, but could it be that some red-haired people spend their lives looking for offence, where there is none?"  A generation or two ago, gay people and members of ethnic minorities who objected to insulting language and offensive banter were greeted by exactly the same accusations of oversensitivity, humour-failure and wallowing in victimhood.  And, indeed, many targets of such banter accepted it without complaint.  It was only when others organised and got angry that wider society noticed the problem.  Today we may well ask why, if "spaz" and "Paki" are unacceptable, why should "carrot-top" or "ginger bastard" be allowed? 

Lest I be accused of special pleading, it's not just the ginger-haired who become the victims of bullying, belittling humour or random acts of violence based on personal characteristics in which the law takes no interest.  20 year old Sophie Lancaster was murdered in 2007 by a gang who singled out her and her boyfriend for being Goths, in what a judge later described as a "hate crime" - although he had no legal justification for using the term.  People have lost jobs as social workers or teachers when it became known that they visited fetish clubs.  Prejudice against overweight people, which can cause seriously psychological harm, is surreptitiously encouraged by public health campaigns against obesity: they are made to feel like unattractive failures and, worse, a potential drain on NHS resources.  Given the current volume rhetoric around "welfare scroungers", cranked up by politicians and press alike, I fear that is only a matter of time before an unemployed person is the subject of a violent assault provoked solely by their inability to get a job.

The real point is that hatred doesn't always fit neatly into one of the little boxes defined by hate crime legislation or by the Equality Act.  Prejudice is prejudice, no matter who or what its target.  Besides, adding one or more "protected characteristic" to what is already a long list would only lead bullies to find a new target.  The problem lies in the piecemeal nature of the legal framework. For social and historical reasons, some minority groups (and women, who were once a minority in the workplace) have banded together (have become "groups" indeed) and driven an awareness of the prejudice they encounter onto the political agenda in most Western countries.  Others have not.  The result is a law full of anomalies.

Legislation has become a means by which the modern state expresses its moral disapproval of certain actions and attitudes.  There are good arguments for that.  But it's surely wrong that the law accords treatment to members of some statutorily-defined minorities and ignores others whose problems may well be experienced in precisely the same way.  It's the very definition of privilege.  It sends out a message that some forms of irrational prejudice are more acceptable than others, that an unprovoked attack one someone is somehow worse if it's motivated by the colour of their skin, or by their perceived sexuality, than by the colour of their hair or their weight.  In truth, there is an infinite number of possible hate crimes.  If the concept of has any meaning, it should apply irrespective of the personal characteristic, innate or adopted, cultural or sartorial, that inspires the hate.

"Virtually every ginger-haired child will have experienced some degree of name-calling at school". Prince Harry. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: Getty Images/AFP
Show Hide image

Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.