Evidence gathering: shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper at the 2013 Labour Party conference, Brighton. Photo: Getty
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Yvette Cooper: “We can’t just turn our backs on women who are becoming victims of crime”

Labour’s shadow home secretary on online misogyny, workplace discrimination and tackling domestic violence. 

“I remember the sort of harassment that you’d get as a teenager,” says Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, recalling the sexist attitudes that prevailed in 1980s Britain. “The abuse you’d get in the street and the kind of language continually about the way you look, the way girls were expected to behave at parties, physical harassment . . .” Now, she believes, online misogyny and social media pressure have made things worse.

Speaking in her Westminster office, Cooper explains to me why she has taken up the fight against the abuse of women, dealing with issues from safety for women at work to rape, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. One prompt has been the new online culture of misogyny. She says that she is frequently trolled on Twitter, though she is quick to add that she has suffered nothing like the “awful” attacks – including rape and death threats – that have beset the campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Cooper’s fellow Labour MP Stella Creasy.

Cooper is also concerned about the return of gender-based discrimination in the workplace. She points to the widespread reversal of flexible shifts that allow mothers to fit childcare around work. Asked whether she has ever suffered discrimination, she says, “I had problems the second time I took maternity leave, which was to do with the way the civil service responded.” However, she is loath to make the campaign about herself.

Statistics released this month by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) add weight to her concerns. They show that referrals of rape cases from the police to the CPS are down by almost 30 per cent since 2010, despite the number of reported cases having risen. Prosecutions and convictions are down, too. Under this government, prosecutions and guilty verdicts for child sex offences and domestic violence cases have also fallen.

On 7 July, Cooper opened a Labour conference on women’s safety in London, hosted by the Unison trade union. Laura Bates, the campaigner behind the Everyday Sexism Project, gave the keynote address. When two domestic violence survivors and a woman who had suffered FGM spoke, the audience – which included a handful of men – was visibly moved.

The event marked the start of a period of evidence-gathering that Labour will use to create its detailed legislative proposals to protect women from abuse and harassment. These will be announced this autumn and introduced in the next Queen’s Speech if Labour wins in 2015.

Cooper explains that the plans will include “national standards in the criminal justice system, a new commissioner to cover domestic and sexual violence and wider issues of women’s safety, and compulsory sex and relationship education in schools”. She is especially worried by evidence of violence in teenage relationships, which she believes is made worse by violent pornography being easily accessible online.

Speaking at the conference, Cooper demanded a “step change” in response to threats to women’s safety. The cutbacks in front-line services, police cuts that disproportionately affect domestic violence victims and even a reduction in street lighting have left women vulnerable. In the UK, two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner.

“We can’t stand for this,” Cooper said. “We can’t just turn our backs on women who are becoming victims of crime or harassment.”

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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