Harassment scandal mars Britain's Liberal Democrats – and Parliament's image
Suspension of a prominent MP rekindles calls for an overhaul of the political culture at the 'old boys’ club.'
Leon Neal / Reuters
A sexual harassment scandal in the Liberal Democrat party, the junior partner in Britain's coalition government, comes at a dreadful time. With slightly more than a year left before general elections, Chris Rennard, the party's former chief executive, stands accused of sexually harassing his female colleagues, in a bruising blow to the party’s image.
Critics say that the way Liberal Democratic party handled accusations against Mr. Rennard would never have occurred in other professional workplaces. But the imbroglio also highlights how far Parliament and political parties have fallen behind other professional workplaces in myriad ways, from employment practices to the position of women.
The case has also served as a stark reminder of the pitiful representation of women in Parliament. The institution is often described as an "old boys’ club," and this expression has been widely flung about in the wake of the Rennard scandal amid fears that it will further deter women from becoming MPs.
Brushed under the carpet
Allegations that Rennard, who is often credited for steering his party to power, had made unwanted passes at female colleagues, sometimes repeatedly, had swirled around Westminster for several years before any action was taken. Senior leaders took no measures despite being notified of concerns over Rennard, and he continued to train female candidates and advise the party.
After the allegations were revived in the media, the Lib Dems set up an internal inquiry. It reported this month that there was insufficient evidence to prove Rennard guilty of sexual harassment, but enough to suggest that he had "violated the public space" of his accusers and should apologize.
This indecisive conclusion ensured the saga would roll on. Rennard refused to apologize, saying he had been cleared. His party membership was suspended, and he is reported to be considering legal action.
Joni Lovenduski, a professor of politics at Birkbeck University, says the slapdash and tardy way the allegations were handled is likely to damage the image of the party.
"This almost certainly shows the Lib Dems don't take sexual equality seriously," she says, adding that the other two big parties – Labour and the Conservatives – may have acted more decisively thanks to their "strong centers."
But she says the peculiarities of British political culture make it generally harder to deal with issues like sexual harassment in the way that a company, say, would.
MPs are technically self-employed, which means there is little of the structure of accountability found in most modern workplaces. Social networking is essential for political promotions, making it particularly difficult to relay concerns about a senior colleague.
"In British culture there is a great deal of emphasis on party unity," says Prof. Lovenduski. "People are not going to report anything lightly. On the whole, the first option of anyone in this position is to deal with it quietly."
The low number of women in Parliament, meanwhile, means that men hold most of the senior positions.
Efforts have been made to encourage more women into Parliament in the past two decades. But Britain, where 22 percent of 648 MPs are women, ranks behind Germany, France, and Spain.
In 1997, when Labour won a landslide victory, more women were elected to the House of Commons than ever before: 120, or double the number elected at the 1992 election. Of these female MPs, 101 were Labour party politicians, dubbed [Tony] "Blair's babes," thanks to Labour’s use of all-women candidate lists in many constituencies. Their presence brought huge changes in the way women were regarded and treated in Parliament.
Reacting to the claims over Rennard, several older female politicians have said that enduring sexual harassment was part of the job.
"On the whole, the general view taken was that if you were a young woman in politics, well, what did you expect if you were trying to get somewhere near the top?" said Lady Shirley Williams, a senior Lib Dem who has been in Parliament on and off for half a century, in a recent interview with The House, a parliamentary magazine.
"People would take advantage of you. One famous cabinet minister used to chase you round the filing cabinets, which was a lot worse than a hand on your knee."
Margot James, a Conservative MP, notes, however, that "You would have to go back to the 1990s to really say Parliament had a sexist culture."
She entered Parliament in 2010. She was part of a female-heavy "A-list" of Prime Minister David Cameron's preferred candidates that he imposed on the local Tory associations that pick candidates, his alternative to Labour's quotas.
At the time, the Tories had 17 women MPs to the Labour party's 98, and they were losing women voters fast. About half were elected, increasing the number of Conservative women MPs to 49, or 16 percent of the total.
That, says Ms. James, is not enough. "There is such an imbalance between the sexes that some positive action is needed."
She adds that she doubts it will come again as it did in 2010: "There is resistance to interfering with the normal processes by which candidates are selected."
The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for sex equality, puts its more strongly than this, saying women considering standing as candidates frequently encounter sexist attitudes about the role of women in public life at party selection level.
In Westminster, meanwhile, while the culture may no longer be outright sexist, the gender imbalance colors the culture.
"In general, most of the men I work with are very decent to deal with, but there is an aggression in a lot of men's psyches," says James. "I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, but sometimes it can be quite difficult to get a word in edgeways."
Working conditions for MPs are tough, especially for those with families.
MPs are expected to work long hours, often into the evening. Constituents also often expect their MPs to work in the evenings and at weekends. MPs have no formalized maternity or paternity rights and have to live in two places: London and the constituencies they represent.
"Having a constituency some distance from London can be much harder for MPs who are also mothers," says Baroness Anne Jenkin, a peer in Parliament's upper house, the House of Lords, who is a co-chair of Women2Win, a group that campaigns to get more women into the Conservative party. "And without a supportive partner it is almost impossible."
Back in the Liberal Democratic party, more bad news followed in the wake of the Rennard case.
The week after Rennard was suspended, a Lib Dem MP, Mike Hancock, had his membership in the party suspended over claims he made inappropriate sexual advances to a vulnerable constituent. He had resigned as parliamentary whip in June after his alleged victim launched legal action. But he was allowed to continue as a Lib Dem councillor in the city and campaign for the party locally.
Lovenduski, though, thinks that while change may come slowly to Parliament, issues like sexual harassment make such change unavoidable.
"In the past, leaderships tended to pull together and hope it would go away," she says. "But something has shifted in the way people think about these things, and this won't go away."