LibLink: Alison Goldsworthy: Westminster’s treatment of women is stuck in the 1950s

Over at the Telegraph, Alison Goldsworthy, Vice Chair of the Liberal Democrats’  Federal Executive has written a thought provoking piece about the way young women are treated in the political bubble that is Westminster.

She paints an unedifying picture of life inside the Palace, across all parties:

Tales of parliamentarians in their 50s, heavy breathing that they may be giving up their seat, or promotions would be on offer whilst getting uncomfortably close to female staffers in their early 20s are commonplace. Go to the bars of Westminster most days of the week then you will see it in action. You don’t have to be a genius to understand these situations involve a gross abuse of power. One thing was consistent amongst those women who spoke to me: none of them had any confidence that their party would have dealt with the situation with a shred more competence than the Liberal Democrats.

She calls for more people to come forward to detail their experiences to force leaders to take action:

For that reason now is the time for more women (and men) to come forwards from all parties. For it is clear that only an avalanche of embarrassment will bring action from party leaders. My own leader, Mr Clegg, has been found wanting, but there appears little confidence that the others would do better with one peer uttering “there but for the grace of god go us”.

Speaking out forces people to decide if this is acceptable behaviour or not. It sorts the good men from those who are not – or not yet. It is time for Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband and David Cameron to decide what sort of culture they want at Westminster. That means investigations that aren’t absurd, sanctions that matter and above all making our parliament the sort of modern, safe, workplace that everyone has a right to expect.

She has a challenge for Nick Clegg on what he should do next:

Where there is a lack of clarity, it takes strong leadership to sort it out. That’s why we should look to Nick Clegg to firm up his position and show some of his moral courage. That would involve an ultimatum. If it was appropriate forJenny Tonge when she made some daft remarks about Palestine, then why is it not justifiable now?

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16 Comments

  • I totally agree with the sentiment expressed here by Alison Goldsworthy. I have spent a working lifetime in industry and it has been my experience that if a man behaved in an “inappropreate” way towards a woman or women, he would be very seriously disciplined. I have always assumed that such standards of behaviour were the accetped norm everywhere. And yes I have known men having been dismissed for such behaviour. To hear that our rulers are (again) failing to set a proper example is, I am afraid, as believeable as it is disgusting.

  • Frank Booth 17th Jan '14 - 2:32am

    I’m a little surprised by this. I seem to remember Abbot and Costello pooh pooing the idea that this sort of thing goes on at the Mother (Daddy?) of Parliaments when they discussed it on one of Andrew Neil’s programmes. I think we have come a long way as a culture but maybe Westminster attracts a particular sort of individual?

  • jenny barnes 17th Jan '14 - 8:43am

    “maybe Westminster attracts a particular sort of individual?” White male rich public school Oxford PPE ex SPAD.

  • If someone commits sexual harassment and the person who was harassed wants to make a formal complaint then that should be dealt with strongly but also fairly, which means the person accused of harassment must be allowed to defend themselves properly. It’s not enough for someone to say “he put his hand on my leg” if the accused says “no I didn’t”, because by that logic anyone could accuse anyone of anything and have someone punished for something they potentially didn’t do.

    That’s what is so disturbing about the way Chris Rennard is being treated. He denies all the allegations, which apparently would struggle to pass even the “balance of probabilities” standard of proof if they were tested in a proper hearing, and yet he is being asked to apologise for something he maintains didn’t happen.

    I don’t doubt there are some unsavoury characters at Westminster, nor do I doubt that some among the older generation have an outdated view of what is acceptable sexual behaviour (towards both women and men). But if Alison is proposing that we sacrifice the principle of innocent until proven guilty in order to deal with such behaviour then that is far too high a price – at least if she wants to continue calling herself a liberal.

  • From Nick Clegg’s CV. .?
    White male rich public school Oxford PPE ex SPAD.

    jenny barnes 17th Jan ’14 – 8:43am
    “maybe Westminster attracts a particular sort of individual?” White male rich public school Oxford PPE ex SPAD.

  • Well said, Alison.
    When Rennard hit the headlines, a female former lawyer I know (who is unconnected with party politics, as far as I know) came up to me out of the blue and confided how a senior colleague had indecently assaulted her as her a young trainee in her 20s. She had never complained, but remembered it vividly. She told me she was impressed that some in the Lib Dems were publicly standing up against this sort of behaviour.

    I doubt she’ll be quite as impressed by the leadership’s resolution of the matter, sadly.

  • 1) The trouble is, plenty of legitimate relationships (such as my own marriage) are started in the workplace. It is difficult to have rules that say that making an approach is not allowed unless it is retroactively legitimised by the other person saying yes (and I don’t think the way many corporations ban relationships such as mine is acceptable so how the rest of the world works is not a gold standard for me). I know the behaviour described above feels different – but what are the actual rules you put on paper? That it is not ok if there is an age difference?

    2) Presumably a female potential MP would reject the chance of career advancement if it was offered in return for intimate relations in the way described above?

  • Catherine “It’s not enough for someone to say “he put his hand on my leg” if the accused says “no I didn’t”, because by that logic anyone could accuse anyone of anything and have someone punished for something they potentially didn’t do.”

    This came up when we had other high profile cases such as Stuart Hall and the current cases in the “Savile – others” category of which are in the courts this week. It seems that if there are a number of people who quite separately complain of similar behaviour then that is more powerful than the “he said, she said” scenario you describe and the CPS believes that in such cases is worth pursuing and letting the jury decide who is more credible. In the Rennard case, several women made allegations and the QC did say he found the women credible.

  • @Richard S, are you seriously suggesting that there isn’t a distinction between a legitimate approach in a context where that’s appropriate and sexual harassment?

    Have you time-travelled from the 1970s last week?

    What you put on paper is that you don’t harass people. If you physically touch someone without their explicit or implicit consent, then that’s wrong; if you do it repeatedly, it’s harassment.

    There are times when I want to resign from my gender, never mind from the party!

  • Phyllis – agreed, when there are several independent complaints that strengthens the case but those complaints still have to be tested in a forum where the accused has the opportunity to defend himself. Not only has that NOT happened here, the report concluded that if it did happen the case would be unlikely to succeed even at the civil level (and the police investigation previously concluded there was no criminal case to answer).

    It’s odd that the author said that he found the stories credible but in the same breath said they wouldn’t even convince a hearing that the allegations were true in the balance of probabilities. I could understand if he said “I believe them but they wouldn’t convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt” but to say he believes them but they wouldn’t convince a hearing there’s even a 51% chance the allegations are true? Perhaps it’s a case of saying he believes they are telling the truth as they remember it but there is insufficient evidence to show that the events really transpired the way they have since been described.

  • George Potter and Richard Gadsden – it’s quite clear that’s not what Richard S is saying. He was very careful to point that out. I will paste one sentence again here since you seem to have missed it: “I know the behaviour described above feels different – but what are the actual rules you put on paper?”

    That is a valid question. What are the rules you put on paper? Alison makes a point of alluding to men in their 50s going after women in their 20s. What about men in their 20s going after women in their 20s? Is that ok even if one is more senior. If one is an MP and the other is not? What about Chris Huhne and Carina Trimingham? She was working for him when their relationship began. He was in the more senior position. He could have influenced her career either positively or negatively. But few would say she is a victim of “abuse of power”. Is it somehow different because she is not in her 20s?

    And yes, much of the behaviour Rennard is accused of is very different – inappropriate touching etc. That’s another matter. But Alison is talking about propositioning not touching. And one of the allegations against Rennard was that he asked a woman at conference if she wanted to come back to his hotel room. She said no and that, apparently, was that.

  • Liberal Neil 17th Jan '14 - 4:58pm

    Catherine – the inquiry did not conclude that the evidence would not pass a balance of probabilities test, which would be the normal standard of proof for low level sexual harassment allegations in the workplace.

    In fact it concluded that the complaints were credible.

    Richard S – there are plenty of ways of making an approach to someone you know through work that would not be considered to be sexual harassment. I met my wife through my then job for the party but didn’t approach her in a way that would be considered in that way, I simply asked her after a meeting if she would like to go for a drink and it developed from there.

  • @Liberal Neil,
    My point is, what is the actual rule that says you in the bar with your future wife after she accepted your invitation is different to the behaviour described in the first quoted paragraph of the article, also taking place in a bar between a man and a woman (again presumably after she accepted an invitation there)?

    @George Potter
    The behaviour you describe (and some of the behaviour Rennard was accused of) is obviously unacceptable and potentially criminal, but is different to what is quoted above.

    I think there is a danger in effectively saying “down with this sort of thing” without being clear about what that sort of thing is, and when it covers a range of quite different things. The references to heavy breathing, and the age difference seem to me to be an appeal to make rules based on the yuck factor and are offensive to people in relationships with an age difference (the difference between being liberal and merely politically-correct is that you are also fair to people who are not on the usual anti-discrimination check-list when a particular situation comes up). Also, the party seems unable to decide on whether or not inviting a woman to one’s hotel room is or is not acceptable, which is a poor recommendation for a party which seeks to pass laws binding on every other organisation in the country.

  • Liberal Neil – both Lord Carlisle and C4 News said that the report found the allegations would be unlikely to meet the civil standard of proof, which is “balance of probabilities”, ie 51%.

  • If Nick clegg had been effective as party leader we would not be in the mess we are now.

    The ongoing dispute rumbles on in the media. It seems as though the star of LBC’s ‘Call Clegg’ should just call a taxi —

    The Sunday Telegraph says “this is the time for Mr Clegg to show that he is in control of his own party”. Simply demanding an apology “smacks of indecisiveness”, it says, asking: “If Mr Clegg really thinks the peer has something to say sorry for, why does he not immediately set aside his party’s rules and move to expel him?”

    The Independent on Sunday is critical of the way the Webster investigation was carried out into Lord Rennard’s conduct. The full report has not been published or shown to any of the parties involved. “It means that a party that became so exercised about secret courts seems to be conducting its own affairs with less than full transparency,”

    Rod Liddle, writing in the Sunday Times, says the women who accused Rennard “have accused the party of a whitewash, despite the fact that Webster’s verdict was the last thing Clegg or the party wanted”. He adds: “They wanted Rennard nailed because they knew this was the only way everyone would shut up about it.”

    Lord Carlile, friend and legal representative of Lord Rennard, tells the Mail on Sunday the peer has been “made ill by the party’s unjust and arbitrary conduct of the case”. He goes on: “It has been said that Chris should apologise. But how can he apologise for that which he denies. A false apology would be dishonest, the kind of thing a Liberal should abhor.”

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