When I first heard about the allegations against Lord Rennard, I was not surprised. Not because I had any information about him specifically – I knew him only as a master strategist and former Lib Dem party chief executive – but because there is a culture of women being patronised in politics, and men in positions of power using that position to get sexual favours.
By no means is every man like this, of course. But as certain figures become more important and egos get bigger, there is a sense that they have a sort of sexual power.
From my experience in the Commons, it was not uncommon to have a new woman MP having an affair with a much senior colleague, often in the Lords. And this was encouraged as a means of progressing in one’s career. Despite the fact there are now about 100 women MPs, we have yet to see a culture shift – a recognition that women are not content to be patronised and won’t appreciate being patted on the bottom.
That is not a hypothetical example – I remember one day seeing an older Labour MP pat the bottom of a much younger female MP as she passed through the lobby, as though she was his possession. Did she do anything about it? Well, she took serious exception to it and came over to tell a group of female MPs how outrageously he had behaved, but she didn’t take any action over it. There is that sense of just trying to stick together and trying to keep the worst culprits in their box.
This is fine if you are strong and part of a group of women who all look out for one another, but the insidious thing is the woman affected may not be part of a group or have any protection. There are several well-known sexual predators in the Commons whose office will always be staffed by young women.
There have been occasions when women in the Commons have heard of women applying for a post with certain MPs and have warned them off. I did so once. There remains a lack of understanding among some that this isn’t a game, you can actually injure someone’s personality. If a young woman is inexperienced and taken advantage of – under the guise of being given support – that can be confidence-shattering and very undermining.
An issue here is the lack of anyone obvious to whom you could report sexual harassment. Who would you tell? There is no HR department in the Commons which would fit this bill, and I can’t think of a single example of a woman employed in parliament going to the police. Perhaps you could speak to the whips office, but although the nicer ones would listen, there would be no promise of confidentiality.
As a young woman, you might wonder who is going to be believed, me or a man in a position of power? A lot of women aren’t prepared to stick their neck out before they know other women will, too. As an MP, perhaps you would get sympathy but that is not necessarily what you would want when you want to appear in control. I think women would be worried about their professional status taking a nosedive.
So how common is it? If I include women who have been talked down to and undermined, sneered at, patted and poked around or had a lingering hand left on their knee – I would say a sizeable number of women in politics have experienced that. Is it worse than in other large testosterone jungles? Probably not. It is not to do with looks, or even age – it is to do with power. The Commons is a place were women’s liberation is yet to be fully realised. Too often in the chamber women are made to feel like strangers, who have to prove themselves, and are going to be demeaned until they do.
Vera Baird QC, a former Labour MP and minister, is now police and crime commissioner for Northumbria
Lord Rennard allegations did not surprise me – The Guardian
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