On Saturday Jeremy Corbyn took political complacency on the issue of gender violence to a jaw dropping level. In a speech to mark Human Rights Day he lambasted the Conservative Government for failing to ratify the Istanbul Convention and allowing a historic international treaty...to tackle domestic abuse" to remain "nothing but a piece of paper". He pledged that a future Labour government would change this. He failed to mention however, there will be an opportunity to ratify this very same historic international treaty in the House of Commons this Friday. Apparently he only wants to tackle gender violence when its a win for the Labour Party.
In case you missed it, the Istanbul Convention is basically the best thing you've never heard of. It's the most comprehensive legal framework ever created to tackle violence against women and girls. It was signed by 44 countries in 2012, over half which have now ratified it into their own domestic law. The UK, embarrassingly, has not. The brilliant Eilidh Whiteford MP (SNP) launched a Private Member's Bill to resolve this, which will have its second reading on 16 December. What's needed is for 100 MPs to turn up and vote. So what's happened is every women's rights organisation and activist in the country has gone into overdrive, bombarding MPs.
I've been writing to Jeremy Corbyn for weeks now. We all have. Cajoling and pleading with him and other MPs to turn up and vote. The response has been underwhelming: radio silence from Mr Corbyn and most of his party. Nick Clegg and Emily Thornberry have sent gushing letters explaining that whilst they are also big fans of the Istanbul Convention, they'll be too busy to actually vote. There was a tense phone conversation with Meg Hillier MP's team; apparently she's still "undecided"... and some sort of nonsense from John Howell MP about how the Istanbul Convention cannot be ratified until domestic law has been amended (speaking as a lawyer, that is total BS).
Well, you can imagine my total indignation when Jeremy Corbyn got up on Saturday, grabbed a bat, took a running leap at the Istanbul Convention and whacked it into the long grass, pledging proudly that "a [future] Labour government will ratify [it]". So the good news is we now know that Jeremy Corbyn does actually support the ratification of the Istanbul Convention (provided he gets to do it himself and scoop some gender-friendly brownie points) but the bad news is, he's not going to whip his MPs to support the Bill on Friday, which may or may not be due to the fact it has been proposed by a member of the SNP, during the course of a Tory Government.
Problematically, politicians including Jeremy Corbyn don't seem to really understand the Istanbul Convention. On Saturday, for example, Corbyn authoritatively stated that the UK is largely compliant, having "measures already in place to protect women and girls from violence [which] comply with, or go further, than the Convention requires." He is referring to the fact the UK already has a full range of criminal offences.
This macho, punitive attitude to gender violence law and policy is deeply unhelpful. Enacting reams of criminal offences to 'punish' perpetrators simply does not 'protect women and girls from violence'. A case in point: Female Genital Mutilation has been a criminal offence in the UK since the 1980s, resulting in not a single conviction whilst many thousands of girls continue to be 'cut'. In fact, all forms of domestic abuse have been criminalised and yet last year only one in five women using domestic abuse services saw criminal proceedings taken against their perpetrators.
So if we already have a wide range of offences, why ratify the Convention? Well, the UK's domestic violence services are woefully inadequate. Last year 66% of women and children referred to refuges were turned away, largely due to lack of bed space. The Istanbul Convention requires its signatories to protect funding for shelters, rape crisis centres, 24/7 helplines and counselling for survivors. Ratifying the Convention would also require the UK to ensure that schools provide education on healthy relationships and to guarantee awareness-raising campaigns. In fact, if ratified, this Convention would constitute the UK's first ever attempt at actually tackling the root causes of domestic abuse as opposed to just treating the symptoms. No doubt compliance with the Convention will be expensive, but failure to fund domestic violence services properly has always been a false economy. Domestic abuse costs the UK £5.5billion a year through criminal prosecutions, medical costs, loss of earnings, social services and housing. The emotional costs to the 20% of the UK's children who are exposed to domestic abuse is unquantifiable.
In short, Jeremy Corbyn is wrong. In most respects the UK does not already have "measures in place to protect women and girls that comply with, or go further than the Convention". And having already waited four years, do we really have to wait until the next Labour government for the UK to make good on its promise? The political hypocrisy of any MP who claims to care about gender violence whilst failing to support the immediate ratification of the Istanbul Convention is staggering, and this Labour leader's failure to grasp the meaning of the Convention, whilst declaring he will be the one to ratify it in future, is depressingly consistent with his complacency about gender parity in general.