Labour candidates must be bolder on violence against women
The leadership candidates are missing an opportunity to take a meaningful and radical stance on wome
The lacklustre campaign for the Labour leadership is hardly competition for The X Factor but who wins is, nevertheless, critical to women's rights. When the economy dominates the headlines it's easy to forget that there are 80,000 rapes or attempted rapes each year, two women a week are killed by a violent partner or former partner and that thousands of women in the UK have been trafficked for sexual exploitation. There is a serious economic element too - violence against women and girls (VAWG) is estimated to cost the economy over £6 billion each year. Sadly, this is a problem that will long outlast the current economic crisis.
Despite this, policies on VAWG hang in the balance: the Home Office's strategy, published by the previous Labour Government after years of campaigning by our members and an extensive consultation process, has been shelved and the Coalition Government's messages on this subject have been mixed. The new Leader of the Opposition, therefore, has a critical role to play in ensuring women's safety is a top priority. So what action would the candidates take to tackle the problem if they are the winner next month? We asked them. They all backed a cross-government strategy and Ed Miliband would appoint a senior figure in the shadow cabinet to co-ordinate action. All say funding of life-saving services such as Rape Crisis Centres, domestic violence projects and support for ethnic minority women is crucial but give little detail on how this would be achieved. Diane Abbott says she would "advocate for more specialised services". Ed Balls goes furthest in saying that specialised services have a "legitimate call on mainstream government funding".
We also asked candidates what they would do to prevent violence in the first place. Abbott and Ed Miliband raised concerns about the over-sexualisation of society and lap-dancing clubs. David Miliband and Balls made specific reference to the curriculum and Balls could demonstrate concrete action taken when he was Secretary of State for Education in his attempt to make Sex and Relationships Education compulsory - a move that the Conservatives blocked just before the election.
Overall, though, the candidates' responses are heavy on warm words but light on specifics that would improve women's lives (and Andy Burnham's brief response sets out no policies at all - not even on health!). For instance, why no policies to tackle the post-code lottery of specialised support services facing victims such as ring-fenced funding at a national level? Even in tough economic times, women's services represent extremely good value for money in terms of the support they provide and the benefit to the state.
Furthermore, it was Labour women such as Caroline Flint who led the attack on the Coalition Government's incoherent and unevidenced proposal to give anonymity to defendants in rape cases, rather than any of the candidates (although they opposed it).
Despite this worrying start for the new Government, candidates need to recognise and respond to the shift in approach to VAWG that the Conservative Party in particular has made. Home Secretary and Women's Minister Theresa May has announced an extension of the pilot scheme to support women trapped in violent relationships by the No Recourse to public funds rule and, unnoticed in the Home Office's draft Structural Reform Programme (for policy anoraks only), is a commitment to publishing a new VAWG strategy next Spring. We will be working hard to ensure that this has specific actions to ensure that women are no longer denied access to specialised support on the basis of their post-code, that perpetrators of violence are brought to justice and that the critical job of preventing violence is begun.
Labour's future leader risks playing catch-up on these issues. At a time when the party needs to be more visionary, he or she is missing an opportunity to take a meaningful and radical stance on women's rights.
Holly Dustin is the Director of the End Violence Against Women coalition
Tags: Labour leadership