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Does opposition to the "rape clause" show a progressive alliance could work?

Protestors gathered in Glasgow to demand a change in legislation limiting child tax credits. 

On Thursday evening, a group of protestors gathered in Glasgow's grand George Square. They waved placards like "Down with this sort of thing", and the odd Saltire flag. 

Since the Scottish independence referendum, the square has become a rallying point for the independence movement. But this wasn't about the constitution - at least not directly. It was about the UK government's decision to stop child tax credits for a third child, and in particular demand evidence for an exception when the woman was raped. "Get tae wae yer rape clause," another placard demanded.

Mentioning "progressive alliance" to anyone in Scottish Labour is a somewhat sadistic enterprise, because it always gets the same result. The SNP, they point out between splutters of indignation, is not progressive but managerial. And as for an alliance - this is the party that is, door knock by door knock, attempting to obliterate them.

Yet while Labour will never consent to pax SNP, on the ground, truces are being made on particular causes. The "rape clause" is one of them. 

Alison Thewliss, the SNP MP leading the protest, told the crowd: "This isn't just about women in Scotland." Women in Northern Ireland, as several speakers noted, could find themselves in trouble if they hadn't previously reported the rape because of laws requiring them to disclose serious crimes. 

Later, Thewliss told me she had support in opposing the "rape clause" from Labour MPs like Jess Phillips and Sarah Champion, as well as Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. She hopes to continue to challenge the bill containing the legislation at committee stage.

But the rape clause protest has also provided a useful tool for opposing the Tories on both sides of the border. Scottish Labour activists are deeply cynical about the SNP's supposed emnity with the Tories, which they view as a pantomime designed to consolidate votes along pro and anti independence lines (Labour's more nuanced position has pleased neither voter camp). Under the charismatic Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives are expected to win big in the local elections in May.

When I asked Thewliss why she was targeting the Scottish Tory leader, who has no seat at Westminster, she replied: "She has constituents here as well who will be affected by this policy, I know who have communicated to her about this."

Dugdale, too, has gone on the attack. In the Daily Record, she praised Thewliss and accused Davidson of remaining silent on this "barbaric" issue. 

There was no doubting the strength of feeling against Davidson at the rally. One protestor, Maddy McCance, waved a sign declaring Davidson "a traitor to woman and weans" (the UK Prime Minister Theresa May occupied the other side of the card).

Herself one of ten children, McCance said she objected to the idea of limiting child tax credits to two children full stop.

She told me: "Every one of us grew up when the state [still] helped, got degrees and went to work, and put money back into the state. That's what we were brought up to do."

For the Scottish politics connoisseur, the rape clause rally still had echoes of a pro-independence event. The popular SNP MP Mhairi Black lamented to the crowd that she was "tired of the Scottish government having to put plasters over the holes of a government we never voted for". On a darker note, the language of "traitors" scribbled on some of the signs is often used against pro-union campaigners (of which Davidson is the best known). 

Then there's the fact that - as Labour veterans of the 1980s know - a day in power is worth years in opposition. Despite the rally, the legislation is likely to go ahead.

But for anyone bracing themselves for continued chaos in Labour and a decade of Tory rule, cross-party, cross-parliament support may be the only way practical way forward. Just so long as no one ever calls it a progressive alliance.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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