Rod Liddle and friends, a word in your ear about harassment

There's a difference between flirting over the photocopier and being a groper. So even if you think you're Don Draper, you might be Uncle Monty.

Gentlemen, a word in your ear please. As you all know, some of the chaps have been getting into a bit of bother of late, with all sorts of unfortunate allegations, sordid photos and lurid headlines on the front pages. Well, let me offer a bit of advice.

We all know what the newspapers are like. There we are, doing our jobs, working hard from morning till lunchtime running the country and protecting the mortal souls of the nation, and in they saunter, joking about their column inches and hinting that if we play our cards right, they could give our careers just the boost we need. Don’t fall for it. They’re not really interested in our talent, potential or future career, forgive my frankness but, they’re really just hoping for a chance to screw us. One minute you’ll be at a daily photo-call, cool and professional, the next moment you’ll be getting chased up the stairs by a paparazzo with a fully extended telephoto lens.  If you’re going into politics, it’s a very tough world, and if you want to survive the attentions of the press, you might find you need to toughen up a bit, play the game, if you get my meaning. Relax, try to enjoy it, it happens to everyone.

Steady on, I hear you say, perhaps these chaps have done nothing to invite the hot, heavy breath of a tabloid hack on their necks? What if their behaviour was entirely innocent? Won’t this type of unwelcome and unfair harassment put talented men off the notion of public service, to everyone’s detriment? Maybe advising people to toughen up isn’t quite enough, so let’s consider an alternative approach. 

Take a look at your employment contracts, chaps. You see that passage in the ‘benefits’ section, just between the pension plan and the holiday allowance? The bit saying you are entitled to squeeze every potential opportunity and sexual thrill out of any passing young colleague who takes your fancy? No? Perhaps that might be because it is not bloody there.

It’s all very well for the likes of Rod Liddle to declare breezily that all this is no big deal, that the work place has now become the venue within which we meet our sexual mates, because he sits on a moral high ground to which the rest of us can only aspire. It’s not as if he famously left his wife and two children for a 22-year-old receptionist from work or anything, is it? Is it? Oh.    

Rod Liddle.

Yes, people often form relationships through work, but there’s a big difference between inviting someone out for a meal or succumbing to some mutual flirting across the photocopier, and exploiting your power and position in such a way that the target of your attention feels degraded, intimidated and unsafe. Just for a moment, stop imagining yourself as Don Draper in Mad Men, all suave, sexy allure, wearing your dominant position like an aphrodisiac cologne. 

Chances are you’re not Don Draper, you’re Uncle Monty. Remember that scene in Withnail and I when Paul McGann’s character is being chased around an isolated cottage by a randy old goat, bursting with sweaty, menacing, terrifying lust and refusing to take no for an answer? That is much closer to the reality of sexual harassment for most of those who experience it. Now imagine being told that you might have to expect this to happen any day in the office, throughout your career, and that you should toughen up and get used to it. It is more easily said than done.

Finally chaps, since it is just us here together, one final chat about tactics. You know how we’ve been spinning the line about how men can’t help ourselves? That when the blood rushes to our loins it drains from our brains, rendering us incapable of behaving in a vaguely grown-up way? I know, I know, it is hilarious that we managed to pull that one off for so many centuries, but the bad news is I think they’re on to us. Seems women have noticed that there are lots of men, indeed a large majority, who are quite capable of going through life without sexually assaulting and sexually harassing their colleagues, who can treat women generally as equal human beings, which has rather blown the lid on the racket for the rest of us.

So, chaps, if we can’t just toughen up and ignore this, if we can’t dismiss it as trivial or excuse it as inevitable, what is there left to do? Perhaps there is only one way to stop such unpleasant media attention in the future. Those few of us who behave like the feral tom cats who got at the Viagra might just have to start acting like decent, self-aware human beings instead. The rest of us could stop excusing them, indulging them and covering for them. In one sense, those who say sexual harassment is no big deal have a point. It is not necessary, it is not inevitable, it is not the glue which holds the universe together, we could stop it in a second if we decided, collectively, to do so. Perhaps that time has finally come. 

Not Rod Liddle.
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide