Sunday, 30 August 2015

Corbyn suggests women only carriages and Labour goes off the rails.

Last week Jeremy Corbyn, the surprise front runner in the race to be Labour leader, suggested introducing women only railway carriages in response to concerns about safety on public transport. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth from his fellow contenders.

Yvette Cooper told the BBC he was 'turning back the clock, not tackling the problem', whilst Andy Burnham said that 'in this day and age we shouldn't even be considering the idea of segregated travel.'

Britain last had railway carriages reserved for women only in 1977, a relic of Victorian prudery and many other countries including Mexico, Japan and India have separate women only carriages on trains.

Women's Minister Nicky Morgan said the idea 'smacked of segregation' and Sarah Wollaston, chair of the health select committee said having women only carriages would 'normalise unacceptable attitudes.'

Hang on, everybody take a deep breath, calmer now? Good, then we'll try to look at things sensibly.

Jeremy Corbyn in his slightly diffident way told The Independent the paper that broke the story he wanted to 'consult with women' and open the issue up to 'hear their views on whether women only carriages would be welcome', with no more sinister intention than to try and 'make public transport safer for everyone.' What he didn't at any stage do was issue a proclamation that this was a policy Labour would go to the country on at the next election.

Actually there is a problem figures released by British Transport Police recently show that sexual offences committed in and around railway stations have gone up by 25% and they have launched a campaign urging women to report incidents. Rail minister Claire Perry even suggested last year that introducing women only carriages was an idea worth considering.

Considering possibly, faced with a problem you should at least consider every option, but not, I think worth adopting. I'm with Yvette Cooper and Nicky Morgan in not wanting to see segregation on the railways or anywhere else.

Instead we should be tackling the immediate problem by enforcing existing laws robustly and using public education campaigns to change attitudes and behaviour in the same way as they did around drink driving a generation ago.

The moral panic that greeted a modest suggestion made by a modest man has nothing to do with the unlikely prospect of men and women having to travel in separate train carriages. What it is really about is the panic that has gripped the political establishment following the remarkable rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

The pattern is as familiar as it is tedious, he makes a policy suggestion and all hell is instantly let loose. He is accused of being either a dippy idealist or a dangerous radical; a thoroughly bad egg anyway.

If you think he's got the boys and girls in the Westminster bubble rattled you're almost certainly right. Corbyn was only allowed into the race in the first place on the complacent assumption that he would finish nowhere, now it looks like the could win.

The reason for this is devastatingly simple, he's everything the other candidates aren't. Where they are slick and cynical he is homespun and earnest. The public response to this has been as powerful as it has been positive.

Jeremy Corbyn probably won't much care for the comparison but he resembles nothing so much as a senior member of the Church of England. He has that of intellect and otherworldliness and, most importantly, he is so firmly convinced in his beliefs he isn't afraid to be himself. What you see really is what you get.

How very different to his three opponents, who probably wouldn't recognise a genuine belief if they tripped over one. Where Corbyn engages in a conversation with the voters they alternately wheedle and hector at them from their ivory towers.

On this specific issue Corbyn genuinely wants to engage in a discussion with the public. The other three want to follow standard political procedure by passing the whole thing through a couple of focus groups, turning it into a policy framework only their civil servants will ever read before doing nothing about it.

Corbyn's approach can, it must be admitted, be a little bit scatter-gun. Some of the policies he has put forward have about them the well meaning impracticality of student politics, others though, like renationalising the railways ring true to the public mood.

Whether he wins or not on 12th September Jeremy Corbyn has changed the Labour Party and maybe politics as a whole forever. He has shown that if politicians have the courage to speak honestly about their beliefs the public will respond to them.

As its chief architect Tony Blair harrumphs to the press about 'Corbynism' being 'Alice in Wonderland politics' New Labour suddenly looks older than the hills and a lot less likely to endure. It might be too soon to predict what will take its place, but these are interesting times to be on the left.

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