Menzies Campbell and Lord Rennard applaud former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy in 2006. Photo: Bruno Vincent/Getty.
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Laurie Penny on political culture: Westminster’s casual bullying of women shows how out of touch it is with modern society

When political historians are dusting off the gravestone of Lord Rennard’s Liberal Democrats, I doubt it will read “killed by feminism”.

Lord Rennard isn’t saying sorry. The Liberal Democrat peer, who has been accused of multiple incidents of sexual harassment, could have saved a lot of fuss if he had just apologised to the women involved in his case – but he shan’t and he won’t, so he has been suspended. Rennard joins a dispiriting roll-call of powerful male politicians who have thrown public tantrums after being called to account for sexist behaviour.

You’d think that admitting wrongdoing and moving on might be a relatively easy task for any boy over the age of eight. When it comes to allegations of assault, harassment and rape, however, even the most respected professional men start acting like toddlers – screaming and lashing out, destroying every precious structure within reach and blaming the uppity women for making them do it. The Rennard case fits this pattern: some Lib Dem loyalists have claimed that the furore might “destroy” the party. Forgive me for paying attention to opinion polls, but in ten years’ time, when political historians are dusting off the gravestone of the Liberal Democrat party, I doubt it will read “killed by feminism”.

Across the political spectrum, women are being tossed under the bus of party positioning. This past week, we also got to watch Nigel Farage of Ukip tell business leaders in the City that women who take time off to have children are “worth less” to employers. The main message here is that social justice ought to bend to the needs of business – core Conservative territory that Farage is keen to stake out, proving to the City that Ukip does more than just incoherent xenophobia and odd weather forecasts.

The representation of women in party politics matters – and not just to politicians. I recently gave a talk on gender and social issues to a group of sixth-form students who were less than enthused about party politics but keen to talk about the dearth of women in government. Westminster’s hostility to women still sends an important message to the population at large.

It is not just about numbers. It is not just that young girls considering political work still see a parliament dominated by men. It is also that the few women who make it into those top jobs face relentless harassment – public punishment for their political ambitions – from the press, their peers and their colleagues.

The harassment of women in political office sends a message to the entire nation about what the role of women should be. In the late 1990s, Labour’s Harriet Harman was subjected to the sort of ridicule and public bullying that would put any bright girl off the idea of running for office. It was bullying that, whatever you think of Harman’s politics, remains as perfect a spectacle of political misogyny as the British elite have to offer. Over a decade later, Stella Creasy – also Labour – is as well known for being threatened and harassed online as she is for her campaigns against payday loan companies. And now Rennard would rather make his entire party look foolish and sexist than say a simple “sorry”.

Workplaces where the groping of women by high-status men goes unchecked are environments whose vectors of power are clear. Sexual harassment in general is not just about having your bottom pinched or your boobs squeezed on the sly. It is about having your bottom pinched and your boobs squeezed and being unable to say any­thing about it because the groper is an important man – and if you speak up, or reject his advances too loudly, it’s you who risks being called a lying slut and stonewalled out of the party. It is about a culture of silence that proves who has the power.

The Rennard affair calls to mind the collapse of the Socialist Workers Party, once Britain’s foremost far-left group, over a rape scandal last year. The SWP was unable to hold one of its leaders to account and unwilling to adapt to a world suddenly and uncomfortably full of women demanding to be treated with respect.

It is far from the only political party to have faced that challenge and faltered. When men on the political right harass women with impunity, that’s just traditional – like racist jokes or fox-hunting – but when men on the left harass women with impunity, it’s because to change their behaviour would be a distraction from the “Great Work”. Whatever the current Great Work is, from a global workers’ uprising to three years of waving through Conservative cuts and calling it compromise, somehow it’s always more important than women’s autonomy.

This is not just about “women in politics”. Politics does not end at the gates of Westminster but beats a path to every home and every heart. This is about a culture that continues to tell women that our autonomy does not matter, that our freedom is not important, that we must wait till after the revolution or until the next parliament for our silly little lady problems to be addressed – and meanwhile we should shut up and learn to take a groping like grown women.

No. Outside the world of party politics, more and more women are saying no. They are speaking out and refusing the posture of powerlessness – and if the old political order continues to fight that change, it will find itself skewered on the shards of its own privilege.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The radicalism of fools

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.