“I remember the sort of harassment that you’d get as a teenager,” says Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, recalling the sexist attitudes that prevailed in 1980s Britain. “The abuse you’d get in the street and the kind of language continually about the way you look, the way girls were expected to behave at parties, physical harassment . . .” Now, she believes, online misogyny and social media pressure have made things worse.
Speaking in her Westminster office, Cooper explains to me why she has taken up the fight against the abuse of women, dealing with issues from safety for women at work to rape, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. One prompt has been the new online culture of misogyny. She says that she is frequently trolled on Twitter, though she is quick to add that she has suffered nothing like the “awful” attacks – including rape and death threats – that have beset the campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Cooper’s fellow Labour MP Stella Creasy.
Cooper is also concerned about the return of gender-based discrimination in the workplace. She points to the widespread reversal of flexible shifts that allow mothers to fit childcare around work. Asked whether she has ever suffered discrimination, she says, “I had problems the second time I took maternity leave, which was to do with the way the civil service responded.” However, she is loath to make the campaign about herself.
Statistics released this month by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) add weight to her concerns. They show that referrals of rape cases from the police to the CPS are down by almost 30 per cent since 2010, despite the number of reported cases having risen. Prosecutions and convictions are down, too. Under this government, prosecutions and guilty verdicts for child sex offences and domestic violence cases have also fallen.
On 7 July, Cooper opened a Labour conference on women’s safety in London, hosted by the Unison trade union. Laura Bates, the campaigner behind the Everyday Sexism Project, gave the keynote address. When two domestic violence survivors and a woman who had suffered FGM spoke, the audience – which included a handful of men – was visibly moved.
The event marked the start of a period of evidence-gathering that Labour will use to create its detailed legislative proposals to protect women from abuse and harassment. These will be announced this autumn and introduced in the next Queen’s Speech if Labour wins in 2015.
Cooper explains that the plans will include “national standards in the criminal justice system, a new commissioner to cover domestic and sexual violence and wider issues of women’s safety, and compulsory sex and relationship education in schools”. She is especially worried by evidence of violence in teenage relationships, which she believes is made worse by violent pornography being easily accessible online.
Speaking at the conference, Cooper demanded a “step change” in response to threats to women’s safety. The cutbacks in front-line services, police cuts that disproportionately affect domestic violence victims and even a reduction in street lighting have left women vulnerable. In the UK, two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner.
“We can’t stand for this,” Cooper said. “We can’t just turn our backs on women who are becoming victims of crime or harassment.”