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New Thinking.

Does opposition to the “rape clause“ show a progressive alliance could work?

Protestors gathered in Glasgow to demand a change in legislation limiting child tax credits. 

By Julia Rampen

On Thursday evening, a group of protestors gathered in Glasgow’s grand George Square. They waved placards like “Down with this sort of thing”, and the odd Saltire flag. 

Since the Scottish independence referendum, the square has become a rallying point for the independence movement. But this wasn’t about the constitution – at least not directly. It was about the UK government’s decision to stop child tax credits for a third child, and in particular demand evidence for an exception when the woman was raped. “Get tae wae yer rape clause,” another placard demanded.

Mentioning “progressive alliance” to anyone in Scottish Labour is a somewhat sadistic enterprise, because it always gets the same result. The SNP, they point out between splutters of indignation, is not progressive but managerial. And as for an alliance – this is the party that is, door knock by door knock, attempting to obliterate them.

Yet while Labour will never consent to pax SNP, on the ground, truces are being made on particular causes. The “rape clause” is one of them. 

Alison Thewliss, the SNP MP leading the protest, told the crowd: “This isn’t just about women in Scotland.” Women in Northern Ireland, as several speakers noted, could find themselves in trouble if they hadn’t previously reported the rape because of laws requiring them to disclose serious crimes. 

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Later, Thewliss told me she had support in opposing the “rape clause” from Labour MPs like Jess Phillips and Sarah Champion, as well as Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. She hopes to continue to challenge the bill containing the legislation at committee stage.

But the rape clause protest has also provided a useful tool for opposing the Tories on both sides of the border. Scottish Labour activists are deeply cynical about the SNP’s supposed emnity with the Tories, which they view as a pantomime designed to consolidate votes along pro and anti independence lines (Labour’s more nuanced position has pleased neither voter camp). Under the charismatic Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives are expected to win big in the local elections in May.

When I asked Thewliss why she was targeting the Scottish Tory leader, who has no seat at Westminster, she replied: “She has constituents here as well who will be affected by this policy, I know who have communicated to her about this.”

Dugdale, too, has gone on the attack. In the Daily Record, she praised Thewliss and accused Davidson of remaining silent on this “barbaric” issue. 

There was no doubting the strength of feeling against Davidson at the rally. One protestor, Maddy McCance, waved a sign declaring Davidson “a traitor to woman and weans” (the UK Prime Minister Theresa May occupied the other side of the card).

Herself one of ten children, McCance said she objected to the idea of limiting child tax credits to two children full stop.

She told me: “Every one of us grew up when the state [still] helped, got degrees and went to work, and put money back into the state. That’s what we were brought up to do.”

For the Scottish politics connoisseur, the rape clause rally still had echoes of a pro-independence event. The popular SNP MP Mhairi Black lamented to the crowd that she was “tired of the Scottish government having to put plasters over the holes of a government we never voted for”. On a darker note, the language of “traitors” scribbled on some of the signs is often used against pro-union campaigners (of which Davidson is the best known). 

Then there’s the fact that – as Labour veterans of the 1980s know – a day in power is worth years in opposition. Despite the rally, the legislation is likely to go ahead.

But for anyone bracing themselves for continued chaos in Labour and a decade of Tory rule, cross-party, cross-parliament support may be the only way practical way forward. Just so long as no one ever calls it a progressive alliance.

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