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Jeremy Corbyn's women-only carriages: the arguments for and against

The leadership frontrunner's proposal has riled up commentators across the political spectrum. Here's a rundown of the pros and cons. 

Labour leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn made waves today with the announcement that he would consider carrying out a consultation on maybe& introducing women-only carriages on tubes after 10pm. Crazy, we know. What a firebrand. 

But the real reason the suggestion is already so controversial, despite its tentative nature, is that it implies that Corbyn thinks women-only carriages could be solution to harassment on public transport. And as we all know, suggesting an imperfect solution to something like this is far, far more offensive than not attempting to tackle it at all (see: the government for the past five years; most governments prior to it).

Corbyn is expected to make a speech today which will also pledge to set up a campaign combating street sexism, a 24 hour harassment hotline and the appointment of women's safety officers in local councillors. He's expected to say:

It is simply unacceptable that many women and girls adapt their daily lives in order to avoid being harassed on the street, public transport and in other public places from the park to the supermarket. This could include taking longer routes to work, having self-imposed curfews, avoiding certain means of transport."

The idea of women-only transport in Britain is nothing new: most recently, Conservative transport minister Claire Perry floated the idea in 2014, but it was never taken forward. 

But given that a consultation may take place under a Corbyn-led Labour party, it's worth knowing the arguments and evidence for and against women-only carriages. So: could segregated carriages on post-10pm tubes successfully drive down transport harassment? 

Here's why women-only carriages are great

They're already in use in many countries, including Brazil, Egypt, India, Russia, Japan and Thailand.

Where they're in use, they seem to work. According to a report put together in February by Middlesex University, British Transport Police and the Department for Transport, there's a lack of conclusive evidence on whether women-only carriages reduce harassment, but as part of a 2008 women's safety campaign in Mexico City, they cut the number of sexual harassment cases from five to one a day. In Japan, a survey of 155 women found that over half would like to see more women-only carriages.

A sizeable number of London's women say they'd feel safer in a women's carriage. A 2014 poll from YouGov and the Thompson Reuters foundation found that 45 per cent of surveyed women in London would feel safer on segregated transport, compared to seven in 10 of women surveyed around the world. 

Here's why women-only carriages are not so great

They imply that women should take measures to secure their own safety, rather tackling harassment at its source. This is a popular view on Twitter this morning, and with the two female leadership candidates

Would they be enforced properly? In Mexico City, 44 per cent of women did not agree that women-only carriages were safer in a 2013 survey. Over half of these said it was because they weren't well-guarded, and men didn't respect the segregation. Tubes are notoriously staff free: without a security guard, it's hard to see how the carriages would be kept segregated.

The carriages could be trans-exclusionary, depending on the method of enforcement. In today's society we broadly accept that gender is more complex than "he looks like a man, so he is a man and shouldn't be allowed on this carriage". This is especially problematic considering trans people might need the protection offered by the carriages just as much, if not more than, cis women. 

In some places where women-only transport is in use, it's not very popular. In Pune, India, only 2 per cent of women thought single-sex buses were a good idea. In Sao Paolo, women have argued that they should be able to feel safe in public without boarding the "pink train". 

The British Transport Police/Middlesex University report argues that the introduction of women-only transport would be viewed as a "retrograde step in Great Britain, which could be thought of as insulting patronising and shaming to both men and women". Pretty damning conclusion, there. 

Other solutions might work better. Higher staffing levels, prominent CCTV and education campaigns have all been proposed as measures which could also drive down harassment. They would have the benefit of targetting perpetrators, rather than encouraging victims to protect themselves by boarding a separate carriage

So in summary: women around the world broadly agree that they'd feel safer on women-only carriages. But the question of how you enforce them, and whether they send a negative societal message, could outweigh the benefits. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.