Demonstrating against violence against women, photo by Northampton SP
photo by Northampton SP

Sue Atkins, Southampton East Socialist Party, Chair Southampton trades Union council

“I have had plenty of bad experiences. I was spiked last week in a pub, which I had considered to be a safe place. I’ve also had to witness some of my friends leave in ambulances, when they just came out to have some fun and a dance”. These are the words of a young woman in Southampton, describing her experiences in the city.

Southampton has the second highest number of sexual offences reported in England, and has seen a 240% increase in recorded sexual offences over the past five years. This figure has been worked out following a 91% increase in referrals to a local victim support charity since the Covid pandemic began. These shocking statistics are not isolated, and will be familiar throughout the country.

A Safe Night Out

That is why the Socialist Party in Southampton is campaigning for a Safe Night Out, together with the trades union council and Socialist Students, on International Women’s Day, 8 March.

Domestic violence and rape are on the increase too. In Southampton in 2021, there were 1,945 rape investigations and only 85 resulted in a charge or court summons. Nationwide, the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted and convicted fewer people for rape in 2020 than in any year for which data exists.

For the victims, this lack of support and acknowledgement can be devastating. Indeed, of the people who told someone about being assaulted but did not report it to the police (five out of six women, and four out of five men), 40% said they were too embarrassed, 38% thought the police couldn’t help, 34% thought it would be too humiliating, and 25% also thought the police wouldn’t believe them.

While women are disproportionately affected by these issues, they affect all genders and we need a united campaign to address them. The local elections in May can play an important part in the struggle for the services and resources that we need.

Many services that used to be run by local councils have been cut to the bone, disbanded, or handed over to charities or the private sector.

For example, local authorities now have a statutory responsibility to fund domestic violence services. However, this comes with no promise of sufficient funding from central government. Local authorities have to fund these services on already stretched budgets.

The women’s refuge in Southampton is run by Women’s Aid, a charity that can offer support for only six months. While that is an important and welcome resource, what happens after that? With sky-high rents and a lack of affordable homes, it is important for local councils to build new council houses to enable women and children to move on safely and securely, without the prospect of a possible return to the circumstances that they have escaped from.

There is much that Southampton City Council, and other local councils, could do, but it needs councillors with the political will to make it a reality. Labour, Liberal and Tory have all taken turns at running the council in Southampton, and all have been found wanting.

We hear time and again from frustrated workers: “They are all the same – it makes no difference who you vote for”. The consequence is that around 60% of the electorate don’t vote, seeing no option on the ballot paper that will act in their interests. Labour were in control for nine years until 2021. In that time they cut 1,000 jobs and £160 million from the budget which devastated local services and resulted in the Tories regaining control last year.

Councils must fight

The struggle for women’s rights benefits us all and should not be seen in isolation. If no-one else is standing up for women and our local communities, then we will. We need socialist councillors who will fight for:

  • Fully funded services and support for all women affected by domestic violence, rape and abuse. This includes fully resourced refuges, and permanent, affordable social housing
  • Safe, affordable well-staffed public transport and adequate street lighting
  • A united struggle for zero tolerance of sexism and sexual harassment in workplaces, schools and colleges
  • A legal, balanced, no-cuts council budget. Build a campaign to force the government to return the stolen millions
  • Democratic community and trade union control of the police and criminal justice system
  • A socialist transformation of society, to bring an end to the inequality and division of capitalism

Socialist Party members will be proud to stand in the local elections as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. All the main political parties have failed us, and Labour under the leadership of Keir Starmer has made it clear it offers no challenge to the status quo.

It is time for a new mass party of the working class to be built as part of the fight for a socialist alternative to the sexism, inequality and crisis of capitalism, and we will play our part.