"A heroic campaign"

Labour will recover from its Scottish setback, insists its top pollster

Like the vast closing of an arc, the Scottish election in the sunshine was the last election for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, ten years exactly after their first extraordinary campaign. Never again will they campaign together as elected politicians; next month Gordon Brown goes solo. It was perhaps the most dramatic and certainly the most challenging of all the campaigns I have been involved in. We lost, but by the smallest of amounts, when four weeks earlier we were heading for horrendous defeat.

From the start the polls were against us. One had us 12 per cent behind the SNP with only weeks to go; another had us lagging by 10 points. This election should have been over before it began. Yet there were opportunities. The majority of the electorate believed Scotland was moving in the right direction. Many had doubts about the SNP and the financial risk of independence. Focus groups gave grounds for hope. Of course voters wanted change; they were fed up with Labour for a variety of reasons, but it did not seem an irretrievable breakdown. The electorate acknowledged progress, but were not prepared to give Labour much credit for achieving it.

Compounding this demand for change was a more potent mood for national expression in the post-devolution era. A minority wanted a complete break from the UK, but for most the demand was for recognition rather than separation. This blended into a political brew so potent it seemed unstoppable - the perfect storm that SNP leader Alex Salmond believed would sweep him into office. The strategy of the SNP in Scotland, like David Cameron in the UK, was to ride public sentiment, not change it. For this to work, the SNP, again like Cameron in the UK, had to reassure the public that it was an unthreatening repository for their vote. It sought this through a pincer movement: a referendum on independence and business endorsements.

This plan worked well until the crucial last days when the SNP, prevented from talking about the one thing it really believed in - independence - lost emotional power and clarity of message. It is at the close of a campaign that a strategy of reassurance is most vulnerable and so it proved. The SNP survived, but only just.

To its credit, the SNP had spent years planning its campaign. As with all incumbents, ours had to start later, given that the main players were involved in their day jobs. This is less of a disadvantage than it may appear. Today's campaigning does need pre-planning but what matters now is flexibility. The early stages were bleak, but gradually we got back into the game. The turning point was the publication of the SNP's economic plans that did not impress, particularly in the eyes of the media. From that moment until election day the SNP was on the back foot.

Sporting and business voices started to come out for the union, but still the polls would not change. Most people thought we were dead, but on the Sunday before polling day I conducted my normal pre-election focus groups and it was possible to feel a glimmer of voters coming back to us. In the last few days our campaign pounded a double message of SNP risk and "come home to Labour". As we strengthened the SNP melted, and we were sure that we would win or come close. In the event, we lost by one vote in a night of unbearable tension, which ended late in the afternoon of the following day with the Highlands and Islands returning officer declaring the result of his list - first for Labour, and then for the SNP - and consequently the whole election.

This was a campaign that showed Labour at its best: Tony Blair magnificent, leading from the front, finding exactly the right words, always able to change the political weather. Gordon Brown like a tank, indomitable, raging against the possibility of defeat, generating ideas and implementing them with an energy that was breathtaking. Douglas Alexander, pathologically determined to win, displaying that infuriating determination of purpose that is the mark of great campaigners. And Jack McConnell, so often criticised, but who never showed the slightest loss of nerve, in the end finding a street-fighting demeanour that made Salmond's helicopter tours look arrogant and presumptuous.

There were many besides and all were, in their own way, heroic, brought together by that extraordinary glue that new Labour campaigning has at its core: a courage that will not allow for the possibility of defeat. Whatever else can be said of Blair and Brown, they do not lack guts. No news, however bad, unnerves them. Even after it was announced that we had lost, they still believed something could be done. This courage will not fade with the passing of Blair; it is part of the DNA of Labour as a campaigning party. I believed at the start that it would be harder for Labour to win in Scotland than in the next general election, that if we could win north of the border we could win anywhere. We did not quite win but we fought back to almost neck and neck, and this with 100,000 ballots spoilt and lost.

It is clear from this campaign that when an election really matters, voters look beyond the moment and seek out the bigger argument. There is a point of reckoning that every election must reach. In Scotland this happened late, and so it will in the coming general election. If we hold our nerve, voters will move from a mood of protest to a serious consideration of the choice. You can only surf a mood for change for so long; there will always be a reckoning. This past week was the Conservatives' highest point in this parliament, Labour's lowest.

From now on Labour will strengthen, and the Tories inexorably weaken. Last week was a turning point, for Labour not David Cameron. Not a bad legacy for Blair and Brown's last campaign.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?

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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 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?