Jeremy Corbyn: Labour must get rid of this talentless cheerleader for outmoded 1970s thinking

He should be replaced before he does any more damage to the party

Independent on Sunday, 29 November 2015

Imagine a pub band that’s been slogging round the country since the 1970s, playing the same old songs in back rooms. No one expects them to make the big time, not even members of the band, but then something extraordinary happens. By some fluke – mainly because everyone has got fed up with manufactured boy bands – they have a hit single. That’s when the trouble starts.

This is roughly where the Labour Party stands under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Nostalgia can only take you so far and his back catalogue has already moved from unfamiliar and charming, if a bit rough round the edges, to bizarre and alarming. What those of us with a long-standing interest in Labour politics knew before he was elected – that Corbyn is a man with positions, not policies – becomes more obvious by the day.

I remember the damage a previous generation of hard-left politicians inflicted on the Labour Party, creating divisions that took years to heal. Corbyn’s lack of support among Labour MPs is regarded by his supporters as a badge of honour but it’s more plausibly a product of two things: one is a horrified awareness of how ineptly he handles disagreements, forcing him into a series of ‘clarifications’ which suggest he has no media strategy; the other is the fact that he hasn’t changed his mind on anything important since the 1970s.

None of that affects his core support, which is grounded in hostility to professional politicians (although that, ironically, is what Corbyn is) and unaffected by rational argument. Some of his supporters are sentimental and self-righteous by turns, demanding all kinds of things – free speech and the right to attack opponents – they don’t want to share with anyone else. If you disagree with “Jeremy” you must be a Blairite or a Tory, insults designed to marginalise the soft left who are his most dangerous opponents.

As so often, I can’t help wondering what Robin Cook would make of all this. Cook was neither a pacifist nor a “war-monger”, constantly interrogating his own politics in the light of events. Like many of us on the left, he took the idea of universal human rights as his starting-point, supporting British intervention in the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone but not the invasion of Iraq.

Cook was thoughtful and consistent in a good way, which isn’t something you can say about Corbyn. He is critical of Saudi Arabia, a view many of us share, but he doesn’t employ the same strictures towards Iran. That country is governed by a nasty theocracy which tortures opponents and uses the death penalty even more enthusiastically than the Saudis; according to some estimates, it’s on course to execute 1,000 people this year alone.

Corbyn visited Iran last year, arguing afterwards in the Morning Star that sanctions have been ineffective, but it’s his remarks on human rights abuses that deserve close attention: “When we raised this subject, both with Iranian all-party parliamentary groups and government ministers, they were concerned about double standards on human rights and pointed out, quite correctly, [that] the US torture camp at Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and atrocities in Iraq were also human rights violations which must be condemned.” I don’t think you have to be an intellectual colossus to point out that none of this excuses hanging gay men from cranes or sentencing women to death by stoning.

A leader of the opposition needs to think quickly, but Corbyn doesn’t do that either. After the terrorist attacks on Paris, a savvy politician would have foreseen a question about Labour views on shoot-to-kill. Corbyn evidently didn’t, having to rummage around in his filing cabinet again: “Hang on, I’m sure I had a position on that. Ah yes, here it is, filed next to Bloody Sunday.” And so he responded in the context of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when he was actually being asked what he would do if Islamist suicide bombers opened fire in a coffee bar in Manchester. Try explaining that on the doorstep in the Oldham West by-election.

No wonder so many Labour MPs are incredulous and angry. Corbyn is conducting politics as though he’s addressing his mates in the upstairs room of a pub, with no tough questions allowed and no need to link his statements to policy. The people around him are no better, reviving outdated ideas about the commercial sex industry that appal feminists in the party; the shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, and indeed Corbyn himself, have opposed attempts by female colleagues to criminalise men who pay to use women’s bodies. Fiona Mactaggart, a former Home Office minister who last year proposed an amendment on these lines to the Modern Slavery Bill, was one of the first MPs to say publicly that Corbyn’s leadership is unsustainable.

All of this has come to a head over Syria, which is not at all surprising, given Corbyn’s close involvement with the Stop the War Coalition. That’s “stop the war” in a generic sense, which hardly suggests he has an open mind about situations in which the use of military force might be necessary. It fatally weakened Corbyn’s authority last week when he asked the Prime Minister whether an air campaign could be successful without ground troops, Does anyone seriously imagine that Corbyn would support putting British soldiers into Syria?

It takes a special kind of political incompetence to turn a debate about something as serious as extending British military action in the Middle East into a melodrama about the Labour Party. Personally, I can’t wait for this talentless 1970s tribute band to return to the obscurity it so richly deserves.


Child sex abuse in Britain is worse than we ever thought. What now?

Daily Telegraph, 24 November 2015

Child abuse has seldom been out of the headlines in the last few years. Even so, the latest official estimate of the extent of the problem is alarming, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of cases are going unreported. Only one in eight comes to the notice of the authorities, according to a new report, and the true number could be 400,000 in the last couple of years alone.

The report is from Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, and is based on research showing that a huge amount of abuse takes place in the home, behind closed doors. The idea that relatives and family friends pose more of a danger than strangers may be hard for many people to accept, especially in view of the publicity attracted by cases such as the abduction of Madeleine McCann. But such events are the exception, as experts in the field have pointed out for years.

Some people feel an instinctive revulsion to the suggestion that so many children are at risk from people who are known to them. Any politician who dares to suggest that education about healthy relationships should begin in primary school will get a furious reaction: ‘Sex lessons for five-year-olds’ is a headline guaranteed to produce scorn and outrage. But denial about the extent of the problem is no more use than the kind of over-reaction that sees abusers everywhere.

Such information may be difficult for us to process as we read the papers over our morning coffee – something that’s true of the news generally at present – but the important thing is to come up with practical rather than emotional responses.If we accept the figure of around 200,000 children being abused each year, it’s something that needs to be analysed to come up with practical changes that can help children at risk. One of the lessons of this report (and others have come to similar conclusions) is that it isn’t good enough to wait for children to tell an adult what is happening.

We know that abusers work hard to win the trust of their victims precisely so they won’t tell a parent or teacher that they’re being abused. Even if a child senses that something is wrong, he or she might feel guilty about confiding in someone else; some children are so young when the abuse starts that they don’t even know the words to describe what’s happening to them. “A system that waits for children to tell them about something cannot be effective,” Longfield says.

It’s not surprising that children aren’t always able to make the distinction between healthy relationships and exploitation, especially when they’ve been ‘groomed’ by a manipulative adult. What’s more shocking is the failure of some adults to recognise abuse on occasions when victims have tried to disclose it. A common factor in the Rotherham and Rochdale scandals, in which vulnerable girls were multiply raped and passed around groups of men, was a failure by professionals to act even when victims reported what was going on.

Anyone who doubts the figures in the latest study should look again at the report of the independent inquiry into child sex abuse in Rotherham by Professor Alexis Jay. She believed that at least 1,400 children had been exploited there between 1997 and 2013, with some of the victims as young as 11. Other English towns have had similar scandals, not on the same scale so far, but it reflects a persistent failure to recognise the systematic nature of child sexual exploitation.

This is just the latest in a series of shocks to the criminal justice system. The staggering extent of Jimmy Savile’s predation on adults and children has changed the way police and prosecutors think about sex crimes, as well as persuading many more victims to come forward. The extent of rape, domestic violence and child abuse has been hidden for years, kept under the radar by a number of factors: shame, fear of not being believed, manipulation by abusers.

All of that’s changed in an incredibly short space of time. It may be hard to listen to survivors’ descriptions of horrendous abuse when they were children but their stories should guide public policy. This is especially important at a time when the police say that easy access to violent pornography on the internet is warping the behaviour of teenage boys, putting children as young as four at risk of sexual abuse.

Panic is never a helpful reaction to emotive subjects. But the realisation that child sexual exploitation is more widespread than most people ever imagined demands a sensible and pragmatic response. This has to start in schools: the argument for warning children about sexual predators from an early age has never been more compelling.