A social media hurricane was unleashed in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion yesterday that the solution to women being harassed on public transport was women-only carriages. Let’s look at what Jeremy had to say before going any further:
“My intention would be to make public transport safer for everyone from the train platform, to the bus stop to on the mode of transport itself. 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 modes of transport where harassment is reported most frequently would be of interest.”
Okay, so far, not too bad. I don’t agree with the proposal, but he is saying he wants to consult with some women before charging ahead with this (he probably should have asked a few before airing the idea in public, but I digress). However, he also said this:
“It is unacceptable that many women and girls adapt their daily lives in order to avoid being harassed on the street, public transport, and in other public places from the park to the supermarket. This could include taking longer routes to work, having self-imposed curfews or avoiding certain means of transport.”
Self-imposed curfews? All right, like I said, I think the idea of public transportation being segregated by gender is a very bad idea. Whatever the supposed justification of it when it is enacted, telling people they can or cannot use a certain mode of public transport because of their gender or their race or their religion is well, it’s segregation. If you look at places where gender segregated public transportation has been tried, the experiment is never a good one, either for women’s safety or general societal gender issues.
But that’s not what this article is really about. Whatever I think about Jeremy’s idea, it did get people talking. Some were outraged at the whole concept; some people thought it was a great idea. But many more were upset by it than the other way round, particularly amongst groups of people Labour need to keep on side. All of which brings me to an important thing to remember when dealing with the “straight talker” concept.
People love a straight talker – until they say something which offends them, which straight talkers almost inevitably do. Does anyone remember Ross Perot? He was a guy who came from nowhere to be the front runner ahead of the 1992 U.S. presidential election, out polling George H Bush and Bill Clinton, the Republican and Democrat candidates respectfully, for months. He began with zero public presence to very quickly genuinely challenge for the presidency as an independent – all because he appeared to just go out and say what he thought. Like I said, it really worked for a while and both of the two main parties were very scared. Until it slowly began to unravel: he’d offend one group of people and then be forced to do an about face on whatever the topic was, every time he did this eating a little more into his straight talker image (he got into huge problems with gays in the military, as a for instance).
The qualities that made Perot likeable to a large swathe of the American public were the precise things that eventually got him into trouble. His main strength also turned out to be his chief weakness. There’s a reason why professional politicians watch what they say; why they triangulate, equivocate, even though everyone knows the vast majority of the public don’t like this behaviour. It’s because people will still vote for someone they think is a boring and even possibly slightly dishonest politician, but far less of them will vote for a loose canon whose leadership skills are questionable.
Is the Ross Perot story a perfect parallel of the Jeremy Corbyn tale that’s unfolding before us? Of course not. But there are lessons for Jeremy and his people to take from the Perot episode. Because, like I say, everyone loves a straight talker. Until they really, really don’t.
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