Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The David Ruffley case is another blow to victims of domestic abuse

The case of David Ruffley leaves a very sour taste in the mouth. The Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds will stand down at the next election after pressure grew on him to resign when it was revealed that he had received a police caution for assaulting his ex-girlfriend earlier this year.

As is the way these days, when the incident came to light, we got the usual emotionless, legal-speak, type of statement, from Ruffley:

“In March this year, an incident occurred between me and my former partner, resulting in inappropriate action on my part, which I deeply regret."

Only the entitled and the privileged would dare describe a case of domestic violence as something ‘inappropriate.’

The key intervention that moved this episode on seems to have come from the dean of the constituency cathedral the Very Revd Dr Frances Ward. Her letter to Ruffley, picked up by Guido Fawkes, is damning.

In it, she states her view that his position as their MP has become untenable. Most tellingly, she also questions his version of events as to what took place in March, in particular his claim to her that ‘there was blame on both sides.’

Dr Ward describes how when she visited Ruffley’s ex-partner and greeted her with a customary hug, the latter ‘winced in obvious pain.’ According to Dr Ward, the ex-partner speaks of being frightened by [Ruffley’s] ‘rage and violent behaviour.’

Dr Ward brushed aside Ruffley’s attempts to play down events that evening as nothing more than a ‘little local incident.’ Furthermore, in the letter she advises he gets professional help for his behaviour. Indeed, one of the reasons Ruffley’s ex-partner has decided against speaking out was due to concerns as to what he might do to himself.

The letter seems to have been written (sent with the blessing of Ruffley’s ex-partner) as a result of the reverend and other people’s feelings that events in March had impacted on the MP’s ability to do his job. He had in effect lost the support of his constituents. And this without going into the effect all this must have had, and is probably still having, on his ex-partner.

Although not all constituents have been so ready to turn their back on their MP. Most pointedly, his local association chairman, denying that what took place ‘in any way qualifies as domestic abuse,’ instead choosing to attack those who did see it this way as ‘the opposition and minority feminist groups.’ A claim refuted by Jenny Antill, a Conservative councillor in a nearby ward.

Antill hit back, asking:

“Do you agree that David Ruffley accepted a police caution for common assault on his then partner at his London flat earlier this year? If so, in what way does this not constitute domestic abuse?”

A member of the Bury St-Edmunds Conservative Association and supporter of Ruffley told the BBC that assaulting one’s partner shouldn’t preclude someone from being an MP, adding that ‘there are very few people in life who haven't done something they subsequently regret.’ He also took a pop at ‘odd female organisations that look for equality.’

Another tipping point seems to have been a letter leaked to Guido Fawkes, ready to be sent to today’s Times from dozens of women affiliated with the Conservative Party which states;

“We consider it unacceptable that a man has accepted a caution for assaulting his partner should continue in his position.

“This Conservative-led government has a proud record of acting to prevent domestic violence.

“The public has the right to be served by representatives who abide by the legislation that they pass through parliament.”

Guido also makes the astonishing claim that certain MPs ‘emotionally blackmailed and even threatened their female staff with disciplinary measures if they signed this letter.’

Two things come to mind from this whole unsavoury affair. The first is that too many people, including, and most worryingly, those in positions of power, continue to play down the severity of domestic violence. For some it’s purely a private matter best resolved behind closed doors, rather than an issue to be brought in to the public domain by some pesky feminists.

For the perpetrator, in this case a sitting MP, it wasn’t deemed to be sufficient grounds for resigning. At least not until external pressure was applied.

Dr Ward’s letter brings up a number of issues, many of them common in cases of domestic abuse: denial by the perpetrator that they were solely to blame for their actions. The trivialisation of the offence. One apparently so trivial that it still required the police to be called and left the victim wincing in pain. And finally, despite being on the receiving end of the assault, the victim’s unwillingness to speak out against their partner for fear of what it might do to their partner’s reputation as well as their mental and physical wellbeing.

The second thing that this case highlights is the urgent need for a proper right to recall bill. Not the heavily diluted, limp, MPs get to decide first, cop out version currently being proposed. But one which does what reformers have been championing for years. One which allows constituents to have the ultimate say over the behaviour of discredited MPs.

David Ruffley has resigned but in fact he hasn’t really because he’s still free to continue in his job until next May, and with it free to claim his handsome salary and other parliamentary perks that come with his privileged position.

As one commentator rightly points out:

“Money aside, his constituents in Suffolk will for the next ten months be represented by a man who committed an act of domestic violence against a woman. A man whose actions were deemed so inappropriate that he accepted he had to leave politics.

“Where does this leave women in Bury St Edmunds who need the help of their Member of Parliament? Knowing what we know now, would a woman with a deeply personal issue feel comfortable attending a private meeting with Ruffley to discuss her problem? To put it bluntly, if a woman in Bury St Edmunds was suffering from domestic violence and needed the help of her MP, would she feel able to come to Ruffley for support?”

“Ruffley's resignation letter is a de facto admission of guilt, or to be specific an admission that he should no longer remain as a representative of the electorate. This seems part of a growing trend among politicians who have been found to have done something wrong, whereby they accept that they have to go, but refuse to do so immediately.”

Every prejudice that the public have about politicians laid bare. Not above the law, but not exactly living by the rules applied to the rest of us. Answerable, but answerable on their terms.

Domestic abuse remains a scourge which afflicts people of all classes. Our response to it underlines why it remains so. Neither the perpetrator nor the chairman of his constituency Conservative association were able or willing to properly admit what had taken place in March. It was only once the victim’s friend intervened, someone in the position of influence, have we had justice. Justice of sorts that is.

This was first published on Speaker's Chair on Wednesday 30th July 2014

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Axing of Gove: Cameron at his most cowardly

They got their man in the end. Every teacher up and down the country has been rejoicing. Or so we’re led to believe.

Which has always been part of Michael Gove’s problem. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of teachers (they’re usually the head teachers) who have publically backed him and his reforms. Groupthink acts as a natural disinfectant to any would be dissenters.

It would be disingenuous to excuse Gove from some of the opprobrium that has come his way over the past four years.

Pushing through wide-ranging changes is one thing. Selling them to an already sceptical and weary profession is quite another. Gove’s method of flogging his reforms was to go on the attack. Vilifying those who didn’t support them, getting people’s backs up whenever he spoke. He often gave the impression of a man who didn’t care what people thought of him because he was so sure about what he was trying to do.

This obviously didn’t go down well with teachers or many left-leaning public sector types. He has become the pantomime Tory villain. The man who contaminates what’s left of his party’s modernisation project. Not even George Osborne has faced such sustained criticism.

Which is all the more frustrating because Gove has been right from the start in what he’s been doing. And already we can see the benefits.

His vision for education is anything but reactionary. The reactionaries are those who have spent years, even decades, resisting wholesale change to their profession. Content to trudge on as we were, leaving our schools mired in mediocrity, left behind by the Asian powerhouses.

It would be too simplistic and dangerously na├»ve to believe Gove has been punished more for his delivery than his content. Yes, he could have been a little softer in making his case, trying to win over hearts and minds, but then this isn’t the kind of politician he is. It may not have made much difference either way.

The teaching unions don’t take kindly to any Education Secretary meddling around on their turf. Has there ever been a Secretary of State for Education in recent memory that hasn’t been jeered at the unions’ annual conference? And the spite and anger reserved for a Tory Education Secretary is unique.

Which brings us on to David Cameron and his cowardly decision to demote him. Three explanations have been offered. The first is that Gove simply made far too many enemies. As one of his key allies, Toby Young, put it:

“The reason he has so many enemies is because he's achieved so much. There's no great mystery surrounding why Education Secretaries usually achieve so little and why so few ambitious politicians have coveted the role until now. You're ranged against a vast array of vested interest who will fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo. If you try and wrest control of our public education system from them, they're naturally going to do everything in their power to destroy you and, until now, few senior politicians have been willing to take that risk.”

Michael Gove is that type of a politician. A convictionist with a long term vision for where he wants our education system to be in 20 years from now. And conviction politicians tend to get people’s backs up. Our system rewards those who quietly get on with their business, not making a fuss, not causing a scene, whilst issuing bland statements on the way. Quite simply, Gove was in the news far too often for Cameron’s liking.

The second explanation is the fallout from the Trojan Horse affair. It seemed at the time that Theresa May had been damaged more by having her special adviser take the bullet, whilst Gove got away with an apology and a public reprimand. This very public spat, between two of the PM’s biggest hitters, couldn’t have gone down well at number 10. Maybe the embarrassment was the final straw.

A final explanation points to Downing Street’s private polling. It had revealed that Gove had become a liability, in particular, surprise surprise, among teachers.

According to The Times (£) he had become a very public liability:

“In all the focus groups and surveys, Mr Gove achieved the unwanted double of being recognised and disliked by the public. One recent YouGov poll found that 57 per cent of the public could correctly identify him as education secretary, but that 55 per cent thought he was doing badly at the job.

“The picture that emerged of polling in marginal seats was said to be even starker, especially in areas with high numbers of public sector workers.

“By association, the education reforms that were once seen as an electoral asset were becoming “toxic”, according to one senior Conservative.”

What we have is politics at its most cynical. At its most short-termist and poll-obsessed. Never mind what Gove had achieved, never mind what he was going to achieve. The numbers have spoken.

The government needs all the votes it can get. Some have suggested this reshuffle shows Cameron in confident mood ahead of next year. I’d argue it shows the opposite. It shows a man desperately scrambling around for every vote he can get, knowing how close it’s going to be. If it means sacrificing his best minister, so be it.

Yesterday, David Cameron spouted the usual platitudes about what a remarkable politician his friend is, who’ll be doing an important job as Chief Whip.

Cameron is often accused of believing in nothing. We now know that’s not the case. He believes in the findings of a few focus groups who have told him that people who aren’t known for being natural Tories feel a bit affronted.

Where Gove showed conviction, Cameron has shown cowardice. Today, England’s schoolchildren will be worse off.

This was first published on Speaker's Chair on Wednesday 16th July 2014