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Miliband is sneaking up on power without a plan for government

If the Labour leader forms a government without permission to inflict pain or make enemies, he will quickly find Britain ungovernable.

If there is such a thing as a good booing, Ed Miliband got one at an anti-austerity rally in London on 20 October. The leader of the opposition was heckled as he told the assembled crowd that a future Labour government would also need to cut budgets.

Jeers are never the soundtrack to a public relations triumph. At least the growls of dissent rebutted Conservative claims that Miliband went to the rally for some thumbsucking evasion of the financial challenge facing the country. Those Labour MPs who had feared that their leader’s appearance at the march would hand a propaganda victory to the government were relieved.

None of Miliband’s antics has intruded much on voters’ attention in recent weeks, since the government has been engaged in the peculiar practice of megaphone ineptitude – amplifying small mistakes into presentational disasters. It was, for example, quite a feat of media mismanagement to stretch an anecdote about the Tory chief whip being rude to a police officer into a month-long saga, culminating in
a resignation.

Guitar hero

Miliband has had the freedom to work on his political stance like a wannabe rock star trying out stage moves in the privacy of his bedroom. His statements of intent to contain the deficit are the policy equivalent of air guitar – roughly the right position but not very revealing about what he would do if plugged into instruments of real power.

This leisure bestowed on the opposition is a source of Tory MPs’ fury with David Cameron and the No 10 machine. Most Conservatives are persuaded that a hint of encouraging economic news and a spell of competent administration would cause Labour’s opinion poll lead to shrivel. Many shadow ministers agree. A shudder of alarm passes through the party when official statistics on unemployment or growth hint that sunnier times are coming into view, albeit on a distant horizon.

Ed Balls will continue to argue that the coalition has delayed recovery and inflicted gratuitous pain. There is evidence that voters are sympathetic to that view. Growth, when it does return, is likely to be weak and its benefits will largely accrue to people already fairly well off. The squeeze on living standards for those on middle incomes and below will endure. Labour MPs still want reassurance from Miliband and Balls that there is a “fair weather” strategy in case Tory claims to have saved the economy from mortal peril look plausible as an election nears. “If it turns out their policies are actually working, it puts us in some difficulty,” says one shadow minister.

A parallel anxiety is that the Labour leadership’s vague offer of austerity-lite masks a lack of willingness to think about ways to deliver public services on lower budgets. The opposition has to hold the coalition to account for its poorly targeted and hastily implemented cuts. Yet Labour must also beware of implicitly aligning itself with the view that the only problem with public services is their lack of funding.

Awkwardly for Miliband, the playbook of public-sector reform ideas, developed when his party was last in government, is branded with the colours of New Labour and Blairism, which are now deeply unfashionable in the party. There are shadow ministers who whisper that, as long as no great fuss is made, those ideas can be revived under a suitably Milibandite “one nation” banner – but only after an election.

Labour could campaign against the bits of the coalition programme that everyone hates, mainly the squeeze on the NHS, while discreetly acquiescing to more popular policies – welfare and education reform. Academy schools started out, after all, as Labour policy. “We can pretty much pick up where we left off in government,” says one pro-reform frontbencher.

Others are less sanguine. They fear that failure to signal reforming intent – pretending, for example, that the rationing of NHS services is proof of Tory malice towards the health service as if demographic and budget pressures were not also a factor – is dishonest. Voters will smell the deception. Labour could still scrape into power but then hit a wall of public revulsion as misty-eyed promises of change give way to more of the same. It is a scenario that one shadow minister describes as “Labour ending up as the Nick Cleggs of 2015”.

Senior Labour figures cite as a parable the steep fall in popularity of François Hollande since his victory in the French presidential election earlier this year. Hollande stood on an anti-austerity platform, cheered on in Miliband’s office. He is now suffering for want of public money to put where his campaigning mouth had been.

Miliband’s allies have a well-rehearsed response to accusations of deferring difficult decisions. There is a rhythm to a parliament, they say, and an optimal trajectory for opposition movements to rise as incumbent governments falter. In other words, now is not the time for the leader to be boxing himself into rigid policy positions. Holding back an account of what public services would look like under Labour is thus meant to preserve flexibility. It could achieve the opposite effect if it locks the party into defending a romantic vision of the public sector as just a Treasury cheque short of perfection.

Know your enemies

Serial Tory blunders have afforded Labour space to work out what kind of opposition it wants to be. As well as thanking his luck, Miliband should consider why this has happened. It must be tempting to think that Cameron just happens to be congenitally incompetent. Another explanation is that some of the disarray expresses how hard it is to govern in austerity and how easy it is to make powerful enemies of public servants – nurses, teachers, police officers – when taking their money, pensions and job security away.

Miliband imagines doing things differently. His plan involves promising epoch-defining change to the way society and the economy
are structured without divisive talk of winners and losers – the cosy one-nation revolution. It is a feasible strategy for sneaking up on power but with a hollow mandate. If Miliband forms a government without permission to inflict pain or make enemies, he will quickly find Britain ungovernable.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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.