The very nature of being a volunteer for a UK political Party in this day and age could be described as exploitative. Your time and labour are given freely to the service of the promotion of others – those you believe can best embody your shared ideals and values. We do it because we believe in the cause and we do it in the most part willingly and joyfully. Volunteering for a cause you believe in can be and should be a fulfilling experience.
As should working and dedicating your life to that same cause. Choosing to go into politics – whether it be working for a Party or standing for election at any level – can be a daunting thing to do. It is frequently low paid and always highly stressful. When you work in such an organisation the intensity of the experience can and frequently does lead to a very distorted relationship with the organisation. A fierce loyalty to the thing to which you are dedicating so much of yourself to is only natural. A sense that the organisation - and it’s higher purpose – come first is completely natural. Belief in a cause or simply in the people you admire who lead you is an essential part of working for or volunteering for an organisation.
But there are some people who will corrupt that loyalty and abuse it for their own ends. Who do not understand the boundaries of the exploitation of the free labour and abuse the wielding of their power over those with none. And all too often, they are allowed to do so because their talents and use to the Party is seen by many with the power to act as more important than the rights of the more vulnerable workers involved. They are wrong. By doing so they corrupt the values for which they believe they stand and forfeit the moral authority of the Parties they seek to protect. Whether it be the SWP, Wikileaks or the Lib Dems, those whose instinct was to protect the alleged perpetrators at the expense of the alleged victims have harmed the reputation and moral authority of the organisations they sought to protect. By looking the other way to avoid the harm of having to discipline their senior and powerful figures, they cause exponentially greater damage to those they should most seek to protect and to themselves and the organisations they sought to shield from harm.
As the most mainstream of the Parties currently besieged by such accusations, it has been really sad to see how badly many Lib Dems have resp0nded to the crisis. The initial statement from Nick Clegg (issued several days after the allegations were first broadcast on Channel 4 News) was mealy-mouthed about the process and whiny about the press coverage. It attempted to make the Party and its leadership the victim. It also seems that there may have been significant inaccuracies in that statement as he has had to row back on a number of the details.
Some activists and journalists on Lib Dem sympathetic newspapers have also been vocal both in their diminishing of the importance of the allegations and again tried to make the Party the victim of malicious media coverage. it is worth saying that some other Lib Dems have not. Notably Stephen Tall who has been leading the call to make any inquiries independent.
I’m not a Lib Dem and I never will be. So why does it matter to me that they get this right? That all parties involved get justice and that the internal culture that allows and even tacitly supports this kind of behaviour is tackled? Because the macho, testosterone nature of politics that views volunteers and junior staff members as “fair game” doesn’t exist simply in the Lib Dems. It infects the whole of politics to a certain degree. When women like me complain about the “boys club” we mean this affects the whole of the political arena from the feeder organisations to the branches to the national offices. The invisibility of women and their marginalisation in public and political spaces create the conditions in which these kinds of abuses of power thrive.
One depressing aspect of this story has been the Labour voices counselling we be quiet about the Lib Dem scandals as we don’t want to expose our own skeletons. They could not be more wrong. Not because our own skeletons don’t exist. While I have been lucky not to experience too much of it directly (though there are MPs who couldn’t tell you the colour of my eyes after talking to my breasts for an hour) I have heard stories: the friend who had her neck licked by a former minister at the bar at Labour Party conference; the male employer at a left wing organisation who described to a male friend his new (quite senior) employee as “the teeth and tits”. These aren’t my stories to share beyond these anonymised versions, but be under no illusion that such things don’t happen.
But it is because such things happen that we must speak up and speak out. We have to change the culture of the whole of politics. We must use the opportunity of the crisis in the Lib Dems to examine our own processes at every level and be confident that they are robust enough. We must protect young, ambitious women from being put off politics by abuse from men they thought they admired. We must ensure that there is never a culture of acceptance but of challenge to poor behaviour and welcome to all those who share our politics. We must never allow ourselves to cheapen politics or our Party by passing by and accepting them.
Monica Lewinsky was an ambitious and clearly extremely talented (I suspect internships at the White House are pretty competitive after all) young politico. She made some bad personal choices and had a sexual relationship with a man much more famous and powerful than herself. He remains a senior political icon. A figure of huge respect in his Party and internationally. She has no political career. Their sexual activity was mutually consensual, she was single, he was married. Why has the fallout for their careers been so disproportionate? Because she had neither the power nor the status to get the machinery to protect and continue to nurture her talent. He was too important to lose. We can’t allow ourselves to lose talented young women from politics because of a culture in which protects the predatory powerful at the expense of the careers of young women.
This is not to say that people who develop relationships within politics should be punished or discouraged from doing so. But if their power statuses are disproportionate, how do you protect the weaker party from being sidelined? A modern organisation needs to look at this kind of question arising from the fallout of consensual relationships as well as from abuse and harassment. Because both feed into the sidelining of potentially great and important political women.
The Lib Dems are going through a difficult time because they clearly put the momentary interests of the powerful before the interests of the less powerful. Parties are insular creatures and their natural instinct is to do just that. I strongly suspect that there is someone senior at the labour Party and within the Conservative wondering about what is going to come out now that open season has been declared and what to do about it. I can’t speak for the Tories. I’ll never be one of them either. But if Labour are aware of anything they should be acting on, I urge them to do so, properly, now.
In the end it might well be the cover up that could end the careers of several senior Lib Dems. But it is the culture that encourages that cover up that is choking politics. And it must end.