IF we end up with women-only carriages on trains, where will it lead?
Female-friendly motorway lanes, closed to white van men and boy racers? Escalators reserved only for the use of the fairer sex, on which ladies can stand peacefully staring into space without being barged out of the way by blokes with briefcases? Pavements with a line down the middle to keep away gangs of teenage lads marching along seven abreast?
All of these imaginary possibilities are not without their attractions. However, just because they are attractive does not make them desirable. That is why the notion of single-sex train compartments, backed by Labour leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn, must be quashed.
It’s August, known traditionally in newspaper circles as “silly season”. Proper news is thin on the ground. That’s one of the reasons why this story of Corbyn’s support for segregated public transport is getting so much air-time. We should therefore keep a sense of perspective and a check on the hysteria. However, this doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore it.
The issue gives us a scary foretaste of what it might be like if Corbyn was ever to end up in a position of power, making the rules. It brings to mind the “Loony Left” some of us may remember from the 1970s and 80s, but with a sinister modern twist which suggests a dangerous concurrence between political correctness and discrimination. We’re reminded that in fundamentalist countries and under repressive political regimes single-sex travel is already an acceptable practice. In such places, women are routinely treated as second-class citizens, denied freedom and the most basic of human rights.
We’re still a free country, aren’t we? Left unchecked though, this kind of thinking could lead to a society divided even further by fear and suspicion than it is already. I don’t think it is what anyone wants for Great Britain, is it?
It also reminds us that there is an extreme wing of the Labour movement which never quite accepted women as equal and continues to sideline and patronise us. Believe me, bolshie mainstream heavyweights such as Ed Balls are like so many pussycats compared to the frustrated dinosaurs of the Left.
Don’t be fooled by the domesticated public relations-friendly exterior of the modern party. There are still men here who would rather women kept their heads down and their mouths shut and let them get on with the job instead. Corbyn has been criticised for the male-dominated nature of his campaign.
I suspect that this late outreach is a cack-handed attempt to get us onside. It’s a measure of his political clumsiness that it appears to be backfiring on him from all directions. Predictably, his leadership rivals have slammed him for looking backwards – female-only carriages were phased out by British Rail in 1977. And equally predictably, women from all corners of the political spectrum are rounding on him for appearing to support an idea already dismissed in a report for the Department of Transport which said that reinstating single-sex travel would be a “retrograde step” that could be thought of as “insulting, patronising and shaming to both men and women”.
And that’s right. How hard have we worked to bring about equality? Ideas such as this would turn the clock back in an instant. Also, it is absurd that the onus for tackling the rise in sexual harassment on public transport should be put onto women, rather than men.
It’s men who overwhelmingly commit the crimes, not us. So why must we be made to feel so ashamed for existing that we have to be shut up in a carriage by ourselves? Figures produced by British Transport Police suggest that incidents of violence and intimidation have risen by 25 per cent in recent years. Now, call me idealistic, but doesn’t it make more sense to take measures against perpetrators of such offences rather than suggesting that the preferable solution is to move women out of the way for their own safety?
If Mr Corbyn really wants to make women feel less-threatened on public transport, he would spend time devising properly-funded policies which would improve the whole experience of travelling. For a start, into this category would come railway and bus stations which were better and visibly attended by staff, especially at night.
It would also include decent lighting, the demolition of dodgy underpasses, lifts which work, CCTV which is switched on and harassment and intimidation taken far more seriously by the authorities.
It would also include encouraging a root-and-branch adjustment of attitudes to bring back politeness, respect and tolerance when travelling on public transport. Pushing, shoving, shouting loudly on mobile phones, no regard for the very young, disabled or elderly… I suggest that tackling this lot would be even more of an undertaking than re-routing the whole train system to give women carriages to call their own.
However, it would also make the experience of travelling much safer and more pleasant for everyone – and regardless of their age or gender. Any politician who can pull off this particular feat deserves not just to lead their party, but to run the country.