Preparing for a devolution revolution? Ed Miliband in Manchester. Photo: Getty
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Labour must be clearer about how devolution can improve people's lives

Labour should use the devolution debate as an opportunity to resurrect hope across the country by pushing power away from Westminster – and communicating why this approach will help people.

The political establishment has been jolted by new forces that are fed by people’s alienation from a Westminster-centric system of government. After the Scottish referendum and the certainty of further devolution north of the border, focus has shifted as never before to how England should be governed. Ukip is latching onto the perception that decisions are taken that a far removed from people’s lives: representation for it in parliament for the first time confirms it poses a threat that cannot be ignored.

Responding to these challenges requires ambition and guts. The Tories have neither – they are taking the opportunity of more devolution north of the border to pursue a Westminster stitch-up that they believe would provide them with a majority in England for the foreseeable future. Dressing up low politics as high constitutional principle is perverse, but unfortunately not surprising that they would pursue this strategy for their own ends.

Labour now has an opportunity to set out a different route for the people of England. The Tories offer a limited vision that leaves the centralised Westminster model intact but focussed more sharply on the people of England. Meanwhile Ukip presents a dark vision of a little England turning in on itself and indulging in easy, knee-jerk responses to very complex challenges in communities.

The Local Government Association Labour Group has understood the threat from Ukip for a while. The sense of exclusion and disconnection that many people feel is real, particularly in communities hit by the decline in manufacturing, the growth of low-wage economies and sharp rises in immigration, often with politicians unable to forecast accurately future numbers, or address the real tensions in many communities today.

There is a danger that those on the hard left ignore the problems, and those firmly on the right attempt to use the fears for a cynical and negative agenda of division. Only Labour can occupy the ground of fairness and equality and lead a mature debate; addressing the issues faced by many but with real solutions.

Ukip isn’t offering any real solutions but they are speaking about the issues people feel aren’t being addressed by mainstream parties. By fusing global change with ultra-local consequences, they are articulating people’s sense of economic insecurity and playing to anxieties about threats to “our” way of life. Labour cannot simply offer a one-size-fits-all national response since people’s experience of disconnection is localised and particular to their communities - be they coastal towns or former industrial areas, for example.

Scotland showed us all how to engage the public in political debate. But the debates weren’t just issues for Scotland – increasing restlessness in England as the other nations in the UK receive devolved powers is inevitable. And if local communities continue to be relatively powerless to respond to the particular challenges they face, Ukip will remain a temptation.

The full Constitutional Convention Labour has proposed is a significant opportunity to involve people in addressing the need for and shape of further devolution in England. This, combined with Ed Miliband’s recent commitment to an English Devolution Act that would further decentralise power, and the establishment of a regional cabinet, sets out a direction of travel for reform that builds on work already done through Labour’s Policy Review, notably the Innovation Taskforce and the Adonis Growth Review.

Now that a broad framework has been set, Labour must be clear about how pushing power away from Westminster and into the hands of communities can enable people to take control of their lives. Substantive decentralisation of power will involve local areas gaining real levers to grow their economies, while also being able to allocate resources to ensure local people are equipped with the skills and confidence to take advantage of new opportunities. It would mean local public services can become more integrated, which would create more responsiveness to needs and agility in adapting to demographic changes. Building capacity locally is important in itself, but also has the potential to neutralise the local anxiety that can arise from new pressures as a result of population shifts from inward migration.

As well as equipping communities to be less vulnerable to outside shocks, and more resilient for the future, decentralising power can be a route to restoring local pride where this is a memory not a reality for too many disaffected people. It offers a way of governing that is not remote and irrelevant, but has greater legitimacy and resonance because decisions are taken closer to, and genuinely with, local people.  

Labour has always been at its best where it gives a voice to those who are not heard. While the Tories are an expression of the established few and Ukip echoes fear and discontent, Labour’s voice can – and must – resurrect hope, restore pride and foster belonging across all parts of our country.  

Jim McMahon is leader of Oldham Council and leader of the Local Government Association Labour Group. He tweets @CllrJimMcMahon

Photo: Getty
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A rape-able sex robot makes the world more dangerous for women, not less

Eroticising a lack of consent is no answer to male sexual violence. 

On Wednesday, the Independent reported a new setting had been added to the personality range of a sex robot made by the company True Companion. Called “Frigid Farrah”, the setting allows men who own the robot to simulate rape. If you touch it in a “private area” when it is in this mode, the website explains, it will “not be appreciative of your advance”.

True Companion says the robot is not programmed to participate in a rape scenario, and the idea is “pure conjecture”. Nevertheless, the news has reopened the debate about sex robots and their relationship to consent. What does a rape-able robot say about our attitudes to consent, sex, violence and humanism? Do sex robots like Frigid Farrah eroticise and normalise male sexual aggression? Or does allowing men to “act out” these “most private sexual dreams” on inanimate objects actually make real women safer?

The idea that allowing men to “rape” robots could reduce rates of sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. Sex robot settings that eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, coupled with male aggression, risk normalising rape. It sends a message to the user that it is sexually fulfilling to violate a woman’s “No”.

It’s important to remember that rape is not a product of sexual desire. Rape is about power and domination – about violating a woman’s body and her sense of self. Raping a robot is of course preferable to raping a woman, but the fact is we need to challenge the attitudes and sense of entitlement that cause violent men to rape in the first place.

There is little evidence to back the claim that giving men sexual “outlets” reduces violence. The research that exists is focused on whether a legalised sex industry can reduce sexual assault.

Studies on Dutch “tippelzones” – spaces where soliciting is legal between certain hours – claimed the areas led to a reduction in sexual violence. However, the research lacked precise data on incidents of sexual violence and abuse, and the fact that sex workers themselves can be victims. As a result, it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how the number of rapes and assaults fell in the population at large.

Similar claims made by social scientist Catherine Hakim also failed to prove a causal link between legalised prostitution and reduced levels of sexual violence – again, because low reporting means a lack of accurate data.

Other research claims that access to the sex industry can in fact increase incidents of sexual violence. A 2013 report by Garner and Elvines for Rape Crisis South London argued that an analysis of existing research found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies”.

Meanwhile, a 2000 paper by Neil Malamuth, T Addison, and J Koss suggested that, when individuals considered at high risk of acting sexually aggressively are studied, levels of aggression are four times higher among frequent consumers of pornography.

However, just as the research fails to find a causal link between access to the sex industry and reducing violence, there is no research proving a causal link between violent pornography and gender-based violence.

Instead, we have to look at the ethical and moral principles in an industry that creates models of women for men to orgasm into. Sex robots are, at their heart, anti-humanist. They replace women with plastic and holes. They create a world for their owners where women’s voices and demands and desires and pleasures – and right to say no – are absent.

That should trouble us – we are creating products for men which send a message that the best woman is a compliant and silent one. That the best woman is one who lies back and “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, to quote the True Companion website, who is “always ready to talk and play” but whose voice you can turn off whenever you want.

“By transferring one of the great evils of humanity from the real to the artificial, sex robots simply feed the demon of sexism,” says Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Lab. “Some might say, 'What’s the problem – a sex robot is just metal and plastic – where’s the harm?' But a 'fembot' is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl, which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent – thus only deepening the already chronic and dangerous objectification of real women and girls.”

What research does tell us is that there is a clear link between violence and the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanise their victims. That, and a setting designed to eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, suggest that Frigid Farrah will have no impact on reducing sexual assault. Rather, it creates a space where rape and violence is normalised and accepted.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders at this sexualisation of male violence, we should be taking action to end the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. That starts by saying that rape is not an inevitable part of our society, and the danger of rape cannot simply be neutralised by a robot.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.