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Chris Huhne spent his last night of freedom watching me do karaoke to “Teenage Kicks”

Tom Watson's diary.

The fightback

To Easington, where I am the guest of Grahame Morris MP for the constituency annual dinner. Our backdrop was a new National Union of Mineworkers banner. Where once there was a pithead, the banner now portrays a newly built school with happy children excitedly leaping into their future.

I couldn’t help but be struck how these potent symbols of our past were being used to project a new hope for the coal communities. Which is perhaps why there was fury directed towards Michael Gove, who that week had attacked local schools for having “the smell of defeatism”. The working classes of Easington have been in plenty of battles, but on the evidence of last week they’ve never been defeated.

Then a post-midnight drive through the mist and fog to wake up in the rustic peace of Keswick for the Words by the Water festival, to discuss my book Dial M for Murdoch. I shared a dressing room with the Guardian’s indefatigable Polly Toynbee. “Why are your frontbenchers not more angry?” she asked me. She’s right. I resolved there and then to work with the team of grass-roots members who are organising more than 53 protests against the bedroom tax.

The paperback

The former Labour MP Chris Mullin says he thought the art of political debate was over until he started to address literary festivals. He’s not wrong. The audience was intensely interested in the fine detail of the Leveson proposals and kept me on my toes.

I was struck by how even the most politically aware audience has almost given up on Westminster. Trust in public institutions is at an all-time low. We’re going to have to address the trust deficit if we are to strengthen civil society post-hacking, post-MPs’ expen - ses, post-banking crisis.

Jailhouse rock

The finest part of the weekend was the wedding of Charlotte Harris – the incisive media lawyer who cracked open the phone-hacking case – and her debonair fiancé, James Burr. Poor Chris Huhne was there, looking wistful. I couldn’t help thinking that spending your last night of freedom listening to me singing “Teenage Kicks” with a karaoke band would make prison seem a more tolerable fate. He got an eight-month sentence the next day. Even though he lied to a court, the sentence seemed hard for a scandal that started with a speeding offence.

Lazy Labour

Fair bit of ribbing wherever I’ve been about “Lazy Labour”, a nickname mentioned last week in an interview with Jim Murphy in this magazine. Reminded me of the old story about Roy Jenkins. The Balliol-educated son of the south Wales mineworkers’ leader, Jenkins had entered parliament in 1948, just as Nye Bevan was in the throes of founding the NHS.

In the smoking room one evening, it was suggested to Bevan that Jenkins, though clever and articulate, might be lazy. Bevan didn’t hesitate: “Lazy? Lazy?” he shrieked. “A boy from Abersychan with an accent like that – whatever he is, he’s not lazy.”

And Bevan was right. Whatever Jenkins was or wasn’t, the ensuing half-century proved beyond doubt: he wasn’t lazy.

The current “controversy” is almost equally amusing, and typically lazy. A classic mediadriven fuss over nothing, in which a Labour frontbencher making a perfectly reasonable point has his words twisted to resemble an attack on (of all people) me.

Changing times

In the brouhaha over Murphy, some central points – on which we all agree – have been entirely overlooked. On one level, the “debate” has been couched in terms that have romanticised the New Labour era. And yet sentimental attachment to old dictums is the very antithesis of everything that Tony Blair and New Labour were about.

Media critics attempting to beat Ed Mili - band with this stick are not just wrong, but incoherent in their own terms. Not only is it wrong to go back to the past, no sane person has ever said that and nobody is saying it now.

The interpretation that media critics have been putting on the word “segmentation”, as though it were a divisive strategy, is dis - ingenuous. Unless you have either a single voter, or 60 million unrelated individual voters, somewhere in the middle you always have groups of voters. To talk to them is hardly to abandon the middle ground.

Stuck in the middle

Most preposterous of all, bored pundits have tried to present some Labour colleagues as believing that appealing to disillusioned Lib Dem voters is some kind of exclusive, zerosum strategy. I don’t believe (and I don’t say this lightly) any Labour MP is that stupid.

Lib Dem activists may well be a crazy sect of staring-eyed obsessives but their voters are anything but. They are slap-bang in the middle of the national mainstream. Millions of them now feel betrayed by the Lib Dems and are looking for a new home. Failure to compete for that group of people would be an abrogation of serious politics and a dereliction of duty.

What the media pundits really mean is that Ed is too left-wing. The Daily Mail and the Sun won’t be happy until Ed fights the election on a right-wing agenda, which goes further right than Blair, and probably in some cases than the Tories.

The one thing Tony taught us is not to be sentimental about the past. We can’t just repeat what happened in the Nineties and expect the old magic to work again.

Blair was not electorally successful because he was right-wing, he was successful because he was right – particularly on some of the important socio-economic issues in the early days.

You win elections by talking to all the people about the things that matter most to them, by giving them a real choice, by being right for the time. Every Labour frontbencher knows that. Bring on 2015.

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East and deputy chair of the Labour Party

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

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. 

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem