At the grassroots and in parliament, Tories are drag anchors on equality
Domestic violence centres across the UK are at crisis point. According to charity Women’s Aid, almost one fifth of all domestic violence refuge centres have been forced to close since 2010.
With local authorities under increased financial strain as a result of cuts to central government grants, councils are looking to cut spending wherever they can. And the consequences are devastating: Women’s Aid estimates that 167 people per day were turned away from a refuge in 2015. Soon, Sunderland, a city home to approximately 150,000 women, will have no domestic violence refuges at all.
As such, Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement in February of a major new consultation on domestic violence legislation was welcome, as was the announcement in this week’s budget of £20m in additional funding for the sector May claims her plans ‘have the potential to completely transform the way we think about and tackle domestic violence.’
But however much they brag about their record of female leadership, recent manifestations of misogyny within the Conservative Party tell us that May’s transformative agenda should start closer to home.
For the Prime Minister’s proposals to correspond to the scale of the crisis, Conservatives have to be willing to take action. This necessitates an agreement that domestic violence, which affects 2.1 million Britons every year, is an incontrovertibly evil act which we must eradicate.
Unfortunately, even this basic axiom is controversial enough to some in the party. Take the example of Philip Davies MP, who recently spent almost three hours of parliamentary time attempting to derail parliament’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty that affords greater protection to victims of domestic violence.
He attempted to tack 47 amendments on to the Bill, including a bizarre amendment seconded by MPs David Nuttall and Christopher Cope requiring the government to ‘denounce’ the convention five years after ratifying it.
David Nuttall also sought to amend the Bill to exempt the UK from any kind of scrutiny over its fulfilment of the Convention’s obligations.
Trouble at the grassroots
It should, of course, be noted that most Conservative MPs voted in favour of the Convention’s ratification. But the problem is even larger at a grassroots level.
James Williams, a councillor at Portsmouth City Council, threatened to leave the Conservative Party in 2010 over a pilot scheme affording women greater protection from their abusive partners. He said the measures were ‘vile’, ‘sexist’ and ‘Stalinist’, decrying them as ‘totalitarian methods in the ongoing war against men by the feminist movement’.
Another Conservative Portsmouth councillor was exposed as attempting to mount a smear campaign against a local charity which supports survivors of abuse, suggesting the party should “play dirty”.
Moreover, it is not just hateful attitudes that are tolerated, but hateful behaviour. Connor Furnival, a councillor in Shropshire, was selected by the local party despite recently being convicted for assaulting his partner. He was suspended when his conviction was made public, but later reinstated as a member.
The current Leader of Northampton Borough Council Jonathan Nunn has been convicted of attacking his wife, which appeared not to bother local Conservatives when he was elected leader last year.
Some would respond that it is largely the old guard in the party’s base who harbour these misogynistic views. This is largely true, but David Nuttall was only elected in 2010, and Cllr Furnival is just 22 years old. Neither could be said to be part of the old guard. The problem then isn’t just with stuffy old men who have been in the party since people kept dinosaurs as pets. The problem is structural, and ingrained within every level of the party.
None of this means that May’s efforts to eradicate domestic violence shouldn’t be applauded. But remember that the Nuttalls and Davieses of the world are involved in creating the final legislation, and local councillors are responsible for funding and delivering the vital services that save lives every day. Should the status quo continue, no meaningful transformation of attitudes towards domestic violence can occur.
There is plenty that May can do. As leader of the party, she can discipline MPs who make such statements, and threaten them with demotion in their responsibilities. She can publicly condemn them, issuing a wider signal that those views will not be tolerated.
She can issue guidance to local Conservative Associations on selection procedures, or ask the party Chairman to amend the rules. Best of all, she could ring-fence funding to refuge centres, as women’s rights groups have repeatedly asked her to do.
The new legislation promises to increase prosecution, introduce new measures to help victims and simplify procedures involved in getting help, all of which are steps in the right direction.
But unless the prime minister’s rhetoric is backed up by sincere and concerted efforts to change attitudes within her own party, there is little reason to believe that the bill will deliver what vulnerable people fleeing abuse so desperately need.
Claudia Hyde is a political consultant, campaigner and writer based in LondonSign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.