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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.