Jeremy Corbyn is facing a backlash from fellow Labour leadership candidates and others after floating the idea of introducing women-only train carriages in Britain as a measure to protect women from sexual harassment.
Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, his three rivals in the contest to lead the party, all condemned the proposal, set out in a policy document on ending street harassment, as tantamount to conceding defeat on the issue.
Kendall said that while sexual harassment and violence against women was a serious issue, women-only carriages were not the answer.
“Everyone should be able to travel without fear of physical or verbal attacks, and we have much to do as a society to reach that point,” she said. “But I don’t believe that gender segregation is the answer. That’d be an admission of defeat, rather than a sustainable solution.”
Later, in a statement, Cooper said women-only carriages would be “turning the clock back, not tackling the problem”.
She added: “The staff needed to enforce the segregated carriages should be keeping all the carriages safe instead. Transport bosses and police need to do far more to crack down on harassment and abuse – and that means we need more visible police and staff on tubes, trains and platforms, better lighting and CCTV, tough action to follow up abuse (which too often doesn’t happen), and a complete change in culture on buses, railways and tubes.”
Cooper also said that if she formed a government she would introduce a violence against women and girls bill, which she said would include compulsory sex and relationship education in schools to challenge attitudes.
Burnham said: “In this day and age, we shouldn’t be even considering the idea of segregated train travel. As a dad of two young girls, I want to see a proper society-wide strategy on tackling violence against women.
“We need sufficiently funded police forces, especially the British Transport police, and investment in practical measures like better lighting to ensure safety at all times.”
But two of the Labour MPs seeking the party’s nomination to be the party’s London mayoral candidate were less critical. Gareth Thomas said that, if consultation showed that women did want women-only carriages, he would back the idea.
Diane Abbott said Corbyn was right to raise the issue of the harassment of women on public transport and that the problem would only get worse with the introduction of the all-night tube in London. She said that while she was “not sure” that women-only carriages were the right answer, Corbyn was only proposing a consultation.
Transport for London is due to start running all-night trains on five tube lines on Fridays and Saturdays from 12 September, although an ongoing dispute with the rail unions could delay the launch. Over the next few years TfL plans to extend the Friday/Saturday 24-hour service to other tube lines and to the London Overground.
Another Labour London mayoral hopeful, Christian Wolmar, said it would be better to focus on measures like more CCTV and getting more guards walking through trains. Wolmar, a rail historian, said that when trains were divided into compartments without corridors, some were set aside only for women, but that having women-only carriages now would be “unworkable”.
Corbyn’s aides brushed aside the concerns, stressing that he was only raising it as an option for consultation and at least he was generating a debate about sexual harassment.
In the document Corbyn stresses that he would prefer not to introduce women-only carriages. “Some women have raised with me that a solution to the rise in assault and harassment on public transport could be to introduce women-only carriages. My intention would be to make public transport safer for everyone from the train platform to the bus stop to the mode of transport itself,” he says.
“However, I would consult with women and open it up to hear their views on whether women-only carriages would be welcome – and also if piloting this at times and on modes of transport where harassment is reported most frequently would be of interest.”
The document also proposes having a police hotline staffed by women, dedicated to dealing with incidents of sexual harassment and assault; having a minister responsible for women’s safety; and getting councils to create cabinet posts dealing with women’s safety.
But the other proposals were overshadowed by the women-only carriages proposal, which was widely criticised on social media.
The End Violence Against Women Coalition tweeted that this was a “terrible idea”, saying that it implied harassment against women would be acceptable in mixed carriages.
The Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, who chairs the Commons health committee, said segregating women on public transport “just normalises unacceptable attitudes”. The proposal would not tackle the underlying causes of sexual violence, she said.
“In countries where women are segregated on public transport, this is a marker for disempowerment not safety,” she said in a tweet.
Claire Perry, the Conservative transport minister, had previously told a meeting at her party conference that she was open to the idea of introducing women-only carriages. However, the plan does not seem to have been taken forward by her department.
Responding to the complaints about the proposal, a spokesman for Corbyn said that the MP was floating an idea raised by women and that all the ideas in the document were “driven by the knowledge that we must tackle harassment by changing men’s behaviour, not blaming or penalising women”.
The spokesman added: “At last we are having a national debate about the problem of harassment in our society – it has been overlooked by the political and media establishment for too long. Our policy in this area will be driven by the views of women.”
This article was written by Andrew Sparrow Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 26th August 2015 14.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010