David Ruffley MP speaking in the House of Commons.
Show Hide image

What David Ruffley's resignation tells us about attitudes in power to domestic violence

The Conservative MP will stand down at the 2015 election after accepting a police caution for a common assault on his former partner earlier this year.

At the start of this year, David Ruffley MP accepted a police caution for common assault on his then partner. Last night he resigned. (Or rather, he promised to resign in 2015 – after taking another ten months of wages from the taxpayer.)  

Reading Ruffley’s resignation letter – much like his "apology" last week, you would be excused for thinking this was a man who had been forced to quit over nothing. An assault that left his then girlfriend “wincing in obvious pain” was, according to Ruffley, a "very regrettable incident".  Objections to him being allowed to continue to be a member of Parliament was, to the Conservative MP, “a protracted media debate” on his “private life”.

What has had the biggest stench in this has been the way all – both Ruffley and the ones rushing to brush it under the carpet – have strained to say they would never “condone domestic violence under any circumstances". What was this, then? What Ruffley was cautioned for doesn’t "in any way qualify as domestic abuse", according to his local association chairman. Ruffley accepted a caution for common assault - the incident took place in his home with a woman he was in a relationship with. It’s not clear which part of that doesn't qualify as domestic abuse. Perhaps the part where he is a wealthy, elite, white man.  

This week, David Cameron vowed to consider making domestic violence a specific crime. The same David Cameron who has overseen the slashing of services for victims of domestic violence – and who did nothing when Ruffley accepted the caution months ago. Just left Chief Whip Michael Gove to say how "sorry” he was that Ruffley will be standing down at the next election and that he “fully respect[s] his reasons". All they need is to chip in for a leaving present at this point; perhaps a commiserating bottle of whisky and a card signed “Chin up, from the boys”.

If it feels like the Ruffley events tell us something about what male-dominated powers think of domestic violence, it’s because it does. It tells us they wish to call it “an incident”. That they prefer to excuse abuse as “regrettable”. That they believe a man leaving his girlfriend in visible pain should be “private”.

"All these things happen behind closed doors,” Ruffley’s local Conservative chairman told the BBC. "It was a private matter, and as in most domestic issues, I suggest it was six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. Nobody really knows what went on."  

Every week in this country, two women die at the hands of their partners or exes. Thousands of others, in every street, are controlled, raped, hit, scarred. Around 90 per cent of abusers are not even prosecuted by police. We know what goes on. And worst of all, we know the men in power don’t really care.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses