Is Trenton Oldfield Our Pussy Riot?

Attack the elite and they won't take it lying down, writes Caroline Criado-Perez.

On 17th August 2012, Pussy Riot, a feminist punk collective based in Moscow were jailed for two years for “hooliganism”. And around the world governments were rightly swift to condemn the ruling as bearing no resemblance to justice. The UK media gave us rolling coverage of the events. It was big news and Britain basked in the safety of an outrage that didn’t affect us.

In the run-up to the trial, Britain’s very own, self-proclaimed freedom-fighter and iconoclast Brendan O’Neill, wondered what a UK Pussy Riot could “bravely mock”? He theorised that the only orthodoxies that are truly “dangerous” to mock in modern Britain are institutions such as the NHS, or concepts such as “multiculturalism”, or perhaps most bravely of all, “victim culture” – I guess Brendan has never seen Sarah Silverman’s set on why rape jokes are about as safe as you can get.

Irrespective of the fact that O’Neill makes a living out of “bravely” standing as a one-man army against these over-bearing ideologies and yet still, inexplicably, remains free, our courts have now provided an antidote to his theorising. Because yesterday, without the blanket media coverage and fanfare that accompanied the Pussy Riot sentencing, a man called Trenton Oldfield was jailed for six months.

His crime? Disrupting the Oxford-Cambridge boat-race as a part of a protest against elitism. Or, to use Judge Anne Molyneux’s terminology, his crime was “prejudice”. And as Molyneux says,

No good ever comes of prejudice. Every individual and group in society is entitled to respect. It is a necessary part of a liberal and tolerant society that no one should be targeted because of a characteristic to which another takes issue. Prejudice in any form is wrong.

And indeed it is. But don’t these fine words in defence of a put-upon elite sound a little familiar to you? They should. But if they don’t, here’s a little re-cap:

In a modern society relations between various nationalities and between religious denominations must be based on mutual respect and equality and idea that one political movement can be superior to another gives root to perspective hatred between various opinions.

These are the words with which Judge Syrova sentenced Pussy Riot to two years in a penal colony. They are the words which were so complacently mocked and derided by the world’s media. They are the words upon which the twitterati offloaded an abundance of WTF. And they are words which now make our judiciary sound like an authoritarian echo-chamber – and make our complacency look very shaky indeed.

Trenton Oldfield without a doubt comes across as pompous, self-satisfied and lacking in any tangible aims. His protest was childish, ineffective and bizarrely targeted. It deserved little more than the smirk he supposedly awarded Judge Molyneux yesterday.

But in the wake of Molyneux’s judgment, Oldfield’s pronouncements about elitism start to look far more credible. The boat race starts to look like far from a soft target. And O’Neill’s choice of orthodoxies start to look wildly off base. Indeed, when it comes to “victim-culture” it seems that if you must commit a crime, you’re still far better off actually physically attacking someone who lacks institutional power, say like a girlfriend, than of committing the heinous offence of interrupting a jolly day out at the races.

Not so much of a “modern British orthodoxy” after all then Brendan.

This post was originally published at Week Woman

Trenton Oldfield leaves Feltham Magistrates Court. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Photo: Getty
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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.