Lib Dem leaders missed a trick in not showing leadership over sexual harassment

It could have been a watershed moment for the party or, if I am being optimistic, even British politics way back in 2013 if the party’s leaders had taken seriously allegations made by female members on their encounters with Lord Rennard.

If the leaders had acted differently on the claims and given the women the respect that they deserved it may very well have opened the Pandora’s box of sexism within British politics. I say this not as though it were a missed opportune moment for party political kudos but rather as a lost opportunity for a Liberal party to demonstrate that women’s rights was something the party practised and not just spoke about from podiums at conferences.

With news coming through about MPs harassing females in Parliament I have no doubt that in the days to come the Tory party and the Labour party will throw up sexist perpetrators too. This is not, however, the type of level playing field that the Lib Dems want to be aiming towards.

Many female members of the party, including me, watched with disbelief at the extent to which the women who had been victims had to go to to even get their story across. At one point, I even wondered about the wisdom of letting my then 14 year old daughter carry on being a member of a party that seemed to care so little about something so serious.

I had a conversation with a Lib Dem councillor who told me how she was often intimidated at party meetings because of her gender. I personally approached a female Lib Dem MP over these concerns and her reply was that female members should not feel afraid to speak up. That was the gist of it. It profoundly conveyed a lack of a deep understanding or, even, care about the level of sexism that had taken root in the party.

It doesn’t pay to rake over the details four years on if anything out of respect for those women who must be reading and following the current unfolding of events and wondering whether it has come too late for them.

I can’t help but wonder though whether British politics may be in a different place now if our leaders had stepped up to the plate. The culture of the party in coalition was largely to blame. It was very macho. Members were constantly told to toe the line which largely translated into being a culture of obedience. Questioning what the leaders were doing in the coalition was actively discouraged. I remember attending conferences where opposition to austerity policies was almost ridiculed for being immature in content. The message was that we were in power and had to act as grown ups. 

The women who complained of sexual harassment and intimidation were seen as interlopers. They threatened the party’s reputation and politics was more important than morality.

The tide is turning, thankfully. The Mexican wave ripple effect of the dismantling of sexual harassment as an acceptable act because ‘men will be men’  has reached the doorstep of British politics. It is only a matter of time before the full scale of women’s experiences of sexual harassment within the hallowed halls of Parliament is unmasked.

It really is time for British politics to stop being projected as a strong man’s political playground. The baying, the shouting, the hand gestures and smirks in Parliament resemble a zoo at feeding time. With all that testosterone it is not surprising that women are made victims of all that male micro aggression. If there is any good to come out of a Hollywood mogul’s shameful, evil and possibly criminal behaviour against women it is the unmasking of sexual harassment as an act that knows no boundaries.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Lib Dems could have solved the huge problem of sexism in British politics single handedly but I do think that we could have made a difference that may have, in retrospect, been seen as a watershed moment.

Four years on and I still feel a sense of anger. Apart from Lord Rennard himself and the party’s leaders, I reserve the last vestiges of my anger for Shirley Williams who gave unstinting support to those who undermined the women who put themselves on the line to speak up. What does it say when a doyenne of the party lets members down? 

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1 Comment

  1. October 28, 2017 / 10:53 am

    The Rennard allegations well predated 2013 though (and that is when any action should have been taken). The far more serious failing of Lib Dem procedures was in the way the Mike Hancock case was handled as, on his own admission, he had behaved in a very inappropriate way towards a constituent and the Lib Dems did nothing. As it was his own admission there wasn't (unlike the Rennard case) a dispute over the facts as to what had happened (I'm not querying whether they were or weren't true but it is obviously more difficult to deal with a case where any conduct is disputed than when it is admitted).

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