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Challenge Labour and you'll find a horse's head on your pillow

It's all-round compulsory happy time in Labour ranks.

A couple of weeks ago I was discussing the local election results with a Labour MP. I explained that my initial reaction had been that they were very good for Labour, especially in terms of number of seats won, but I was concerned that the party hadn’t been able to break through the 40 per cent barrier.

He nodded and said: “Thirty-eight per cent in midterm local elections, with the country falling back into recession, the cuts and the shambles the Tories are in. It’s nowhere near good enough.” Then he shook his head. “But you won’t find anyone saying that, of course.”

Several days later I was chatting to someone who had spent the day at the annual conference of Progress, the New Labour pressure group, and sat through Ed Miliband’s speech. His response was scathing. Could I quote him, off the record? “No. Sorry. We’re all being terribly positive at the moment.”

The next day I phoned a shadow cabinet adviser. “The worst thing is we were just starting to make some headway. The shadow cabinet was beginning to put down some markers on the economy and not just the usual suspects. Now everyone’s going to have to shut up and bite their tongue.”

And, on the whole, they have. The muttering against the leader has ceased. The demands for a more credible stance on deficit reduction and on how the party should respond to the cuts have been muted. Even Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson are reportedly poised to become paid-up members of Generation Ed. Labour is united. But united behind what exactly? A solid but unremarkable opinion poll lead? The Tories’ spring omnishambles? François Hollande storming the Bastille of austerity?

No debate

All of which may be a genuine cause for optimism. Or a recipe for complacency. But we’re not going to be finding out, at least in the short term, because such things are not up for discussion. Labour is instead opting for a period of dignified, and comfortable, reflection. Reflection, rather than dialogue. Or debate.

To look out across the Labour movement at the moment is to see an ocean of tranquillity. The party’s “refounding” has been completed; the contentious elements such as a reduction in union conference votes, a directly elected chair and open leadership primaries quietly shelved. The early new year unpleasantness between the leadership and the union leaders has been smoothed over; there is precious little talk now of “tough choices” or “having to keep all these cuts”. The policy review has been removed from the perfidious grasp of the ultra-New Labourite Liam Byrne and dropped into the lap of the party pin-up Jon Cruddas. “Independent-minded” Jon Cruddas, no less, just in case at some point down the road a touch of deniability is required.

Since the Budget, a window of opportunity has opened up for Labour, with George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Sayeeda Warsi and Francis Maude all hurtling out of it. However, Ed Miliband, for reasons best known to him, remains reluctant to scramble through this inviting aperture.

In the past month alone, we have witnessed the crisis in the eurozone, Syria’s descent into barbarism, the deepening of Britain’s double-dip recession, the Rochdale rape scandal, the collapse of the UK’s manufacturing base and government schism over universality of benefits. In response, Labour’s leader has announced a voter registration drive, a call for greater respect for vocational qualifications and a plea to embrace our Englishness, all the while clinging tenaciously to the comfort blanket of the Leveson inquiry into media practices and ethics.

Yet within Labour ranks, this strategy (or anti-strategy) is greeted with silent approval. Perhaps wisely, given that those who do opt to question the current “consensus” risk waking to find the equivalent of a horse’s head on their pillow. We have had Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, taking out a political contract on Ed Balls, Jim Murphy, Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg – the four shadow ministers who have been branded the “horsemen of the austerity apocalypse”.

MPs who fail to show McCluskey and his union appropriate respect have been threatened with the removal of constituency support. Byrne, who dared think the unthinkable on welfare reform, was subjected to what colleagues called “a punishment beating” as he fought to retain his place in the shadow cabinet. Maurice Glasman, who challenged the liberal orthodoxy on social policy, is now confined to what is described as “house arrest”. Progress is facing a concerted effort to see it expelled from the party. And even those idealistic dreamers at Compass are about to be elbowed aside by “Class”, the new union-funded think tank pledging to “cement a broad alliance of social forces and influence policy development to ensure the political agenda is on the side of working people”.

Union heavies

The New Politics was supposed to be open, inclusive and pluralistic. Instead, it is being ushered through the labour movement, head bowed, by a bodyguard of old-fashioned union muscle, Twitter warriors and street activists. To stand in the way of this “progressive” entourage is to invite accusations of being a traitor, a Tory, or, worse still, a Blairite.

To be fair to Ed Miliband, he is aware of, and not entirely comfortable with, this new tyranny of loyalty. “I think this is a bit over the top,” one Miliband supporter confided to me after Anthony Painter and Hopi Sen, the fiscal credibility advocates and authors of In the Black Labour, a pamphlet advocating greater fiscal responsibility, found themselves under sustained attack for lacking “ambition and integrity” from the pro-leadership website Shifting Grounds.

That’s where we are. In the perennial battle between loyalists and pragmatists, it is the loyalists who hold the whip hand. And they plan on using it. Which will simply demonstrate that no consensus at all has been reached among Labour’s various factions. Instead, we are witnessing a shift in the internal balance of power: sceptics neither courted nor convinced, but neutered. “We’re in survival mode,” conceded a Blairite shadow cabinet source.
But for how long? Before finishing this piece, I spoke to a Labour MP who talked eloquently about his frustrations with the leadership. “Can I print that?” I asked. “No,” he said, “not at the moment.” Then he paused. “Soon, though.”

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.