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