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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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.