In the wake of sexual impropriety allegations about Lord Rennard, Channel 4 News Presenter Cathy Newman writes about her own experiences in Westminster.
Allegations about the Liberal Democrats’ former chief executive Lord Rennard, first aired by Channel 4 News last week, are now shaking the party to its core.
Nick Clegg has already had to concede that “indirect and non-specific concerns” were made known to him five years ago, and now this newspaper has revealed an email exchange from 2010 in which five specific allegations about Lord Rennard were put to Jonny Oates, then the party’s director of electoral communications and now Nick Clegg’s chief of staff.
There’s no doubt that the Liberal Democrats are now taking very seriously claims that Lord Rennard behaved inappropriately towards women by propositioning and touching them. That’s some comfort, at least, to those who were allegedly the subject of his unwanted attentions. Because, as one woman told us anonymously on Friday, senior members of the party who witnessed Lord Rennard’s alleged sexual impropriety at the time did nothing but giggle and smirk.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that one story might help change politicians’ attitudes towards women. But let’s be honest, those attitudes badly need to change. And it is not just the Liberal Democrats who have a problem – which perhaps explains why Labour has been relatively quiet about Mr Clegg’s troubles in the last few days.
One of the women we spoke to, Bridget Harris, who was until recently one of the deputy prime minister’s special advisers, said that although her story happened to involve Lord Rennard, it’s a “depressingly familiar tale”.
“When I was a young woman, and I was starting off working in Westminster, I came across a lot of behaviour from MPs and people from all parties that was just essentially condoned by a system that didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “So, over the years, there have been countless numbers of women who have experienced the kind of things I’ve experienced, and basically didn’t know what to do, and told people – like I told people – and those people didn’t quite know what to do.”
The claims against the Lib Dems’ former chief executive – claims that he strenuously denies – reinforce the impression that Westminster can be a potentially hostile environment for women.
The trouble starts with casual sexism – throwaway remarks that might seem harmless to some but which create the conditions necessary for the kind of behaviour of which Lord Rennard is accused.
Sarah Teather, a former minister who also happens to be a Lib Dem, once remarked that the atmosphere in Parliament was “like a public school full of teenage boys”.
Barbara Follett, who used to be a Labour MP, complained that Tory backbenchers used to cup their hands under pretend breasts and mouth “melons” when she got up to speak. And the Conservative Gillian – now Baroness – Shephard recounted how one MP called her Betty when she arrived, explaining that “you’re all the same: it’s easier”.
I was a political correspondent, based in the Westminster lobby, for more than a decade before I started presenting Channel 4 News. I can vouch for the fact that it is a male-dominated environment, reminiscent of a public school or an Oxbridge college. And yes, there was the odd instance of sexism directed at me: the peer who sent salacious texts; the MP who assumed I was a secretary because I was a woman.
Yet as I think back, I realise that some of the most glaring instances of sexism directed at me took place in newspaper offices or at the hands of newspaper executives. When I worked for the Financial Times, I confronted a senior executive about the fact that a man who was significantly junior to me was getting paid a lot more. The executive asked me what I needed the money for, since I didn’t have a mortgage or a family.
I laughed it off and made sure I got a pay rise. Slightly more intimidating was the time, ironically at a political party conference, when a man who was then the editor of a national newspaper started propositioning me in the bar, despite knowing I was in a long-term relationship, and despite my making it patently clear that I wasn’t interested. I quickly made my excuses and left, as did the women allegedly targeted by Lord Rennard, but the minute I got up to my room, my phone rang. It was the very same editor asking if he could share my room because he had omitted to book himself into a hotel. I gave him short shrift, but the experience was intimidating and unpleasant.
The worlds I inhabit are politics and the media, but women in all walks of life know that this kind of routine sexism exists in any workplace. The law is no different. One lawyer friend told me recently how she used to be described by a clerk according to her chest size. And if you think of the number of women taking their bosses to court on charges of sexism, you know the situation is no better in the City.
But I have the sense that Westminster is worse. In part that could be down to sheer numbers: there are still only 144 women out of 648 MPs. Get a lot of blokes together in one place, add copious quantities of subsidised alcohol and the fact that homes/wives/partners are far away, and it’s not surprising that the atmosphere is more public school than public service.
So if the culture is to change, and political parties are to start getting serious about rooting out sexism and men behaving badly, getting more women into Parliament is a prerequisite. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are struggling with this. Just 16 per cent of Tory MPs are women, and just 12 per cent of Lib Dems – a paltry seven MPs.
Baroness Hussein-Ece, a Lib Dem peer since 2010, acknowledges that Parliament has particular problems that set it apart from other institutions.
“Women are in such a minority in politics and Parliament,” she says. “There’s a white, male-dominated culture. It’s very hard for women who have felt they have been treated badly in any way to come forward. They’re often told: if you want to get on and become a Member of Parliament you don’t want to rock the boat.”
So as the Lib Dems scramble to deal with the fall-out from the Rennard story, they have correctly identified that the system of dealing with complaints of the kind levelled against a man who was once their most senior employee needs an urgent overhaul. MPs and peers are self-employed, so they are in effect accountable to no one but themselves. As Ms Harris puts it: “You have no cultural knowledge, or system, awareness or processes to deal with this sort of thing.”
One of the Lib Dems’ two reviews, set up by the leadership in response to Channel 4 News’s investigation, will look at how the party handles allegations about inappropriate behaviour. Perhaps that will ensure better processes are put in place.
Certainly, some of the women I spoke to for my report are optimistic about the future. They tell me they are encouraged by the public response to their allegations. One says she had been worried that having had the courage to speak out, her claims might be belittled – that people would tell her, as it were, to “calm down, dear”.
That hasn’t happened. The reaction has been one of shock, respect for what they’ve had to say, and a determination that political parties should think carefully about how they treat the women in their ranks.
Baroness Hussein-Ece agrees. “I think people are beginning to wake up to the culture, that it’s not acceptable,” she says. “This country needs to take a long, hard look at its institutions and how unrepresentative they are.”