One thing I’ve learnt in six years as a member of parliament is that choices you have to make as a politician are rarely straightforward. That’s not about lack of principles. It’s that the consequences of the decisions you take can be complex, unpredictable or unwanted. Apparently “obvious” solutions to problems aren’t always the best ones.
Extensive and thoughtful discussion in shadow cabinet and the wider Labour Party mitigate the risk of poor decision making. Careful debate of an issue enables us to share different perspectives, weigh up competing factors, and reach a collective position. But, as a number of my colleagues have already said, too often Jeremy Corbyn has failed to do that.
On 3 March this year, a few months after he appointed me to his shadow cabinet, Jeremy argued that the sex industry should be decriminalised. He made this announcement in front of students at Goldsmiths University, without any discussion or consultation with his shadow cabinet, with me as his shadow minister for women and equalities, with women in the PLP or, to the best of my knowledge, with anyone in the wider Labour Party.
Of course, it may represent his own belief – or that of John McDonnell, who had booked a meeting room in parliament for the English Collective of Prostitutes, who campaign for the decriminalisation of prostitution, weeks earlier. And I agree that prosecuting vulnerable, coerced, abused, sometimes trafficked women (and men) is neither morally right nor sensible. But any notion that we should consider decriminalising pimping or brothel keeping, or that we should legitimise the purchase of sex, or that sex work dignifies the women and men engaged in it, is to many campaigners reckless and offensive. Too often, sex workers experience violence, brutality and abuse. The evidence on how to prevent that is complex and contested.
So it was hardly surprising that the response of my colleagues, especially those like Jess Phillips, with long experience of working with women who’ve experienced abuse and sexual violence, was one of angry protest. Had Jeremy taken the trouble to ask their opinion, he’d have understood that his comments were ill informed, ill-judged and irresponsible.
I went to Jeremy to explain the concerns, and the careful, thoughtful research into the subject that was being carried out, including by the Home Affairs select committee. He didn’t seem to understand the problem. He wouldn’t accept that he’d oversimplified a difficult and controversial issue. He couldn’t see how his remarks might be interpreted.
It left a nasty taste in the mouth. It left many of my female colleagues mistrustful and sceptical of his understanding of sexual violence, abuse and coercion. It told them he didn’t understand or care to inquire into the complex and gendered nature of abuse and intimidation.
Sadly, this is part of a pattern – of carelessness, indifference and ignorance. Even when Jeremy gets that there’s a problem, his solutions too often reinforce rather than address the root causes of gender inequality. So his crass suggestion during last year’s leadership campaign of women-only carriages on the tube, to offer women passenger protection against sexual harassment, overlooked the fact that it’s not the women who experience such abuse who should have their freedom curtailed when they travel.
Just before the summer recess, more than 40 women Labour MPs wrote to Jeremy about intimidation and bullying of women in our party. This reflected a pattern of online and sometimes physical intimidation they’d experienced, or had reported to them. It followed correspondence and communication a number of my colleagues had had with Jeremy personally, or with his office, about gender-based abuse in our party, to which they’d either had a dismissive response, or received none at all. There was also concern about reports McDonnell had suggested shutting down the Compliance Unit that should be investigating such cases.
Though Jeremy responded to that letter, it’s still not clear he understands the depth of women’s concern and anger about gender-based abuse and harassment. There was consternation when he suggested just a few days ago that those who experience abuse should ignore it.
To be clear, I don’t for one moment accuse Jeremy personally of sexist behaviour or misogyny. But I also don’t think he gets the gravity of his ill-thought out responses to issues of gender-based abuse and intimidation, whether that’s inside our party, or in wider society. Instead, he puts the purity of the tenets he’s always held ahead of evidence, complexity or consequence. He listens only to those who share his world view. He defends them even when others, more thoughtful and better informed, present him with an alternative opinion.
That isn’t the mark of a leader. It’s the mark of a lazy thinker. There can be no half-heartedness, no oversimplification or ignoring of facts, when it comes to taking a stand against gender based-abuse and violence. Yet too often in the past year, women have seen Jeremy as being weak, pusillanimous, unwilling to question his own half-baked views, or to challenge the behaviour of his allies. Warm words, and the promise this week of a Women’s Advisory Board, won’t be enough. Women in our party expect better of our leader. Women’s safety and dignity depend on it.