While the news media were pre-occupied with covering the outcome of the Scottish Independence referendum, Mike Hancock, MP for Portsmouth South, and Portsmouth City Councillor, resigned from the Liberal Democrat party, having previously been suspended for sexual misconduct. At the very least, it would seem, Hancock, conducted an inappropriate sexual relationship with a woman with serious mental health problems whom he met through his constituency work, she further alleges that his advances were unwelcome. He also used his official positions to support her in disputes with her neighbours and various agencies. The full (and creepy) account of her allegations alongside messages proving at least some degree of sexual impropriety can be found in a report by Nigel Pascoe QC, commissioned by the Liberal Democrats to investigate the matter. It isn’t the first time that his libido has got him in trouble. Hancock, who has often adopted pro Russian positions, was noted in Europe for employing a string of young, female, Russian aides, one of whom was believed by the Government and MI5 to be a spy, although she was cleared of this at a special immigration panel. The Daily Mail details a string of affairs, including a “close and affectionate” relationship with a 17 year old girl. While Hancock is a popular and dominant figure in Portsmouth local politics, perhaps why Portsmouth Council attempted to hush up the investigation and report for such a long time, he is a maverick on a national level and was quickly cast aside when the embarrassment he caused became too great to sweep under the carpet.
In contrast to Mike Hancock, still a Liberal Democrat , is Lord Rennard, despite multiple allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching first exposed by Channel 4 News in the February of last year, by many women, including successful academics, political aides, and at least one former Liberal Democrat Councillor deemed suitable to run for Parliament under the party’s banner. All of the women mentioned above have put their names to the allegations, and there are more who haven’t. Lord Rennard had been a very senior figure in the Liberal Democrats for many years, and was regarded as the architect of the party’s “by election strategy” that transformed it into a major player in national politics. An email was sent in 2008 by a Lib Dem campaigns Officer to women he had reason to believe may have been targets of Lord Rennard:
“There has been a long-standing problem with a number of women where the abuse of Chris’s [Lord Rennard’s] position was clearly inappropriate. I’ve discussed this today with Jo Swinson, who was aware of a number of cases … Jo tells me that a recent conversation has been had by somebody senior in the party with Chris, and he has been informed that the behaviour has to stop.”
The Spectator and the Mail outline how the abortive processes to deal with the growing concerns around his behaviour came to involve many of the party’s most senior figures right up to the leadership level. The outcome of all of this was that Lord Rennard stepped back from his frontline work for the party, and left with a standing ovation at national conference, but continued to attend events where young female Liberal Democrats were present prompting the aggrieved women to go to Channel 4.
The response of the Party to the sudden public airing of the allegations was to institute an investigation by Alistair Webster QC, the terms of reference of which, were to determine whether there was a greater than 50% chance that the charges- namely bringing the Party into disrepute (something that he manifestly has), to the necessary standard: beyond reasonable doubt. Under heavy lobbying from Lord Rennard’s chief supporter and spokesman, Lord Carlisle, this seems to have mutated into whether there was a greater than 50% chance that he could be found beyond reasonable doubt to have intentionally acted indecently, essentially one man’s prognostication of what twelve people would decide, a bizarre standard in what is essentially an employment and membership dispute. The conclusion of the report was that while the allegations were “broadly credible” that he had “infringed on the personal space and autonomy” of the complainants- unsurprisingly since these women had everything to lose and nothing to gain from fabricating the allegations, and some put there faces and names to them- nevertheless the necessary intent had not been considered proved.
Now, let me tell you from personal experience that multiple women do not end up complaining as a result of accidental contact or being innocently over-tactile, in fact in that kind of situation, you tend to extend the benefit of the doubt beyond the point where it is unreasonable, mainly because it is shocking and your mind goes into denial. Bridget Harris talks about wondering whether it was an accident and moving her leg away several times before it became evident that it was not. Further those accusations do not proceed to high level emails discussing, “a long standing problem,” internal recriminations and ultimately media exposes because of a few petty faux pas. There are recent Yewtree convictees with less compelling evidence against them. Nevertheless the outcome is that Lord Rennard retains his Lib Dem membership and the party leadership seemingly find themselves unable to do anything about it. Lord Rennard has now threatened to sue anyone who repeats the allegations.
In a widely read and shared post the American blogger “Captain Awkward” outlines common patterns of response (or lack thereof) to sexual harassment in social circles:
“Step 1: A creepy dude does creepy, entitled shit and makes women feel unsafe.
Step 2: The women speak up about it to their partners.
Step 3: It gets written off as “not a big deal” or “he probably didn’t mean it” or “he’s not a bad guy, really.” Any discussion of the bad behavior must immediately be followed by a complete audit of his better qualities or the sad things he’s suffered in the name of “fairness.” Once the camera has moved in and seen him in closeup as a real, human, suffering person, how can you (the object, always an object, as in “objectified,” as in a disembodied set of tits or orifices, or a Trapper Keeper, or a favorite coffee mug or a pet cat) be so cruel as to want to hold him accountable for his actions? Bitches, man. [NB: The complaints against Lord Rennard were pooh-poohed by many older and more senior Liberal Democrats including, regrettably, Baroness Shirley Williams . In one segment on Channel 4 News Susan Gasczak was put in the position of having to comment on Lord Rennard’s complaints about the effect of the allegations on his physical and mental health].
Step 4: Everyone is worried about hurting creepy dude’s feelings or making it weird for creepy dude. Better yet, everyone is worried about how the other dudes in the friend group will feel if they are called out for enabling creepy dude. Women are worried that if they push the issue, that the entire friend group will side with creepy dude or that they’ll be blamed for causing “drama.” Look at how LW #323 put it: “how can I approach this subject with my boyfriend, and make him understand a) how serious this is, and b) that he is not responsible for Ben’s reactions, without making him feel defensive?”
Wouldn’t want someone who covers up for and defends a proto-rapist to have to have SADFEELS, right? (LW, it’s not your fault you’re asking the question this way, it’s just that our culture sucks about this and your boyfriend and his friends have been giving you constant messages that Ben is to be coddled while you are to be shushed in the hopes that it will all blow over).
Step 5: Creepy dude creeps on with his creepy self. He’s learned that there are no real (i.e. “disapproval & pushback from dudes and dude society”) consequences to his actions. Women feel creeped out and unsafe.Some of them decide to take a firm stand against creeping and not come to parties anymore. They slowly slide out of the friend group. Some of the woman decide to just quietly put up with it, because they’ve learned that no one will really side with them and it’s easier to go along than to lose one’s entire community. The whole group works around this missing stair.
Possible Step 6: Creepy dude rapes someone. If he does, there’s a less than 50% chance that the woman will report it. Why?
Could it be that all the people who surround her have taught her that if she speaks up nothing will really come of it anyway? Could it be that she doesn’t trust her friends and the people who love her to have her back on this? I CAN’T IMAGINE WHY. They couldn’t even kick this dude off their weekly trivia team.”
Now, when I first read the article I found it hard to imagine that significant numbers of people would tolerate let alone excuse the types of overt behaviour described, even in social settings, and wondered if it was, at least in part, an American thing. And yet it would seem that behaviour of this nature was allowed to go unchecked in what was, if perhaps only briefly a major political party, despite being widely acknowledged. This is not just about the Lib Dems, the Socialist Workers Party has recently torn itself apart over the failure to address a senior member’s predatory behaviour adequately, and, of course, Julian Assange still has his implacable supporters. The allure of the powerful and important man, the central embodiment and indispensible catalyst of a deeper cause remains strong, and, all to often, women are seen as the disposable subordinates to be sacrificed rather than threaten what he represents.