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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder