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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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.