To protect children from abuse, ministers need to challenge those who blame the victims

The crashing silence from those in government responsible for keeping children safe leaves a dangerous vacuum.

Barely a week has gone by without new, horrific revelations of child sex abuse. These stretch from previously unreported historical cases on a breathtaking scale, to the recent, systematic grooming of young girls and boys in Rochdale, Bradford, Oxfordshire and in other communities across the UK.

In response, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, declared this a watershed moment, where processes would be overhauled and victims would finally be taken seriously, giving more people the confidence to come forward. But these revelations have revealed more than just poor practice. It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a disturbing undercurrent of misogyny and moral relativism among a minority of people, some of them powerful, highly influential individuals. 

We saw it when a 13-year-old child was labelled "predatory in all her actions" and "sexually experienced" by lawyer Robert Colover after she was sexually abused by a 41-year-old man, and again as the judge took into account that she looked older than her age when sentencing. We saw it last week when a former newspaper owner, Eddie Shah, blamed underage girls for "throwing themselves" at adult men. Several months before that, individual police officers and social workers in Rochdale dismissed young girls who asked for help as making "lifestyle choices", while some media columnists defended a 31-year-old teacher’s sexual involvement with a child in his care because she was "just a few months away" from turning 16. 

It is bad enough that children should be judged capable of consenting to their own exploitation but it’s a significant leap from there to hold them responsible for it. Yet as these voices have become louder in the public debate, young girls are increasingly portrayed as the perpetrators, while the adult men who exploited them become the victims. While not all victims of child abuse are girls, and not all adult perpetrators are men, there is an undertone of misogyny in this debate that is abhorrent, pernicious and immensely damaging.

Taking on these attitudes is at the heart of protecting children. It’s one of the defining features of child abuse that children are often, wrongly, made to feel responsible for their abuse by the perpetrator. For child victims, finding these deplorable attitudes reflected in wider society is immeasurably damaging. At least one teenager - in the Oxfordshire trial - recently attempted suicide, while such attitudes deter other young people from coming forward. Worse still, they allow paedophiles to find justification for their actions. There have been some notable children’s charities making this case. But they are not enough.

Keeping children safe from harm is one of the first duties of any government. Instead recently we’ve seen representatives of the state - police officers, legal professionals, social workers – judging, condemning and ignoring young victims when they are the very people tasked with protecting them. And in the face of a misogynistic chorus of voices blaming young victims, we have heard a deafening roar of silence from so many of the politicians whose job it is to defend these brave young girls and boys who found the courage to come forward.

I don’t believe that people like Eddie Shah or Robert Colover speak for the majority. But there are clearly still far too many adults who believe that children can consent to their own exploitation, who think that young girls who are raped and sexually exploited are 'asking for it' and who believe that young teenagers have sufficient maturity to take up relationships with adults who are much, much older than them - even when they’re in a position of trust.

So while the NSPCC is right to call for better training for the legal profession and much more support for young victims, we also need to draw a clear moral line in the sand. Just as racism, homophobia and other unacceptable attitudes should not go unchallenged, neither should these. Politicians don’t just respond to public attitudes. Our job is also to lead them. The crashing silence from ministers responsible for keeping children safe leaves a dangerous vacuum which is not going unfilled.

Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan and shadow children's minister

A broadcast journalist holds a copy of the report entitled 'Giving Victims a Voice' outside New Scotland Yard in central London on January 11, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

Photo:Getty
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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