A Labour government must take on our stubbornly patriarchal society
It’s time to be bold on women’s rights – Labour must address the systemic issues, writes Sarah Champion MP
With a General Election looming, our attention needs to turn to Labour’s next manifesto. I was privileged to be a member of the Shadow Cabinet when we wrote our 2017 pledges. Those commitments for a Labour government still stand strong and include: gender auditing all policy and legislation for its impact on women; ensuring a right to choose a safe, legal abortion and extend that right to women in Northern Ireland; creating stable central funding for women’s refuges and rape crisis centres; working to end maternity discrimination; making LGBT hate crime an aggravating offence, updating the Gender Recognition Act; and seeking to build a society free from all forms of racism and discrimination. Big aims, but all achievable with a Labour government.
Two years on and I believe we need to be even more ambitious, especially around women’s rights. We need to learn the lessons of the #MeToo movement. Nationally, Labour must commit to addressing sexual harassment, the gender pay gap, failings in preventing and prosecuting domestic violence and sexual assaults. We have to be upfront and say that these issues are the symptom of a stubbornly patriarchal, sometimes misogynistic, society and we will tolerate it no more.
To start this process, we need to make sure our own house is in order. Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right to commit to gender balance in Labour MPs, especially at Cabinet level. To achieve this we need to keep the all-women shortlists and be proactive about recruiting, training and supporting women candidates.
The Labour party needs to be seen as a welcoming and supportive place. Visible diversity among MPs and councillors helps in this, but knowing that any discrimination (structural or personal) in the party will be dealt with swiftly and effectively has to be a cornerstone. I joined Labour because it is the party of equality. Let us make it very clear that there is zero tolerance to bullying, harassment and all forms of discrimination at every level of the party.
The main focus of my parliamentary work continues to be on women and LGBT rights. I am also a big campaigner on preventing child abuse, stopping sexual exploitation and securing justice for survivors of sexual abuse.
Huge strides in these fields could be made if Labour’s manifesto included a national strategy for addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as this would give us the best chance of identifying children and adults with ACEs, putting in early intervention and ending the cycle of abuse
Reform of our justice system is also vital. From police to the courts, it has been devastated by Tory cuts and privatisation. Securing justice for survivors of sexual abuse is becoming more of a battle every day. Labour needs to bring in a Victims’ Law with stronger rights than currently exists in the Victims’ Code, including minimum levels of support to enable people to rebuild their lives. For Labour to really stand for the many not the few, we need to make sure those who are survivors of crime are able to flourish, not be re-traumatised by the process of seeking justice.
To prevent sexual exploitation of both children and adults, we need to end demand. Partly this can be achieved by Relationship Education for all primary school children; teaching them about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour towards others, challenging gender norms and building self-esteem.
Twenty years ago in Sweden they brought in legislation that changed the countries attitude about the right to purchase access to another’s body. They decriminalised selling sex, criminalised buying sex and invested in services to help prostituted people escape exploitation. By not having similar legislation (already in place across Ireland and soon Scotland), England and Wales are becoming destinations for traffickers as the majority of women brought here are now in sexual slavery.
Labour can and must take action to address these systemic issues. Conference will be a vital chance for us to set out exactly how we will do so.
Sarah Champion is Labour MP for Rotherham