The dearth of women at the top of the party and a laid-back approach to sex has left the Lib Dems open to accusations of sleaze and sexism
Mike Hancock: A constituent has accused the Portsmouth MP of “upsetting sexual treatment” and feels let down by Nick Clegg
Shirley Williams was right. In 2001 she accused her party, the Liberal Democrats, of writing the “second longest suicide note in history” after it rejected positive discrimination in favour of women MPs.
The debate at the party’s annual conference was fierce and polarised. Williams raised hackles when she said the Lib Dems would appear “profoundly backward” unless they addressed the gender imbalance in the party. She lost. Delegates overwhelmingly rejected all-women shortlists and other moves that would have ensured only women were selected in seats where the sitting Lib Dem MP was standing down, and instead opted for a “target” of 40 per cent women candidates in winnable seats.
Today, both the Tories and Labour have proportionately more women MPs than the Lib Dems. There are currently only seven female members (12.2 per cent) in the parliamentary party, which prides itself on being the most “female-friendly” in Westminster. That compares to 33.4 per cent for Labour and 15.7 per cent for the Conservatives.
The lack of women in senior posts, coupled with an “anything goes” approach towards sexual behaviour, has left the party open to accusations of sexism, sleaze and salacious behaviour.
From the Jeremy Thorpe trial in 1978, in which the former Liberal leader was accused and acquitted of conspiring to murder a former lover, Norman Scott, to the activities of former Rochdale MP Cyril Smith, whom police now admit ought to have been prosecuted for abusing boys in local children’s homes, the Lib Dems have proved to be the party of sexual scandal.
The recent cases of Lord Rennard, the party’s former chief executive, who is under investigation by Scotland Yard, accused by several women of sexual misconduct, and Mike Hancock, MP for Portsmouth South and a Portsmouth city councillor, who is being investigated by the Chief Whip about allegations of sexual impropriety by a female constituent, have left a stain on the party’s reputation.
Dr Elizabeth Evans, lecturer in politics at the University of Bristol and author of the book Gender and the Liberal Democrats (Manchester University Press, 2011), believes that the Lib Dem approach does not take into account the inequality between men and women and has little or no gender analysis.
In 2006 Ellie Cumbo, a former Lib Dem supporter, worked as a day-to-day organiser of the Campaign for Gender Balance, the party’s internal initiative to mentor and train female would-be candidates for parliament. Cumbo says that staff were made aware at the time of the allegations that Rennard had sexually molested female volunteers and staff.
But the Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has repeatedly changed his account of the allegations. At first he said he was unaware of the allegations, then admitted that he had been aware of “indirect and non-specific” concerns. Paul Burstow, the then Chief Whip, refused to answer a radio presenter as to whether or not he was aware of the allegations.
Neither Ellie Cumbo nor any of the other women who were working on the campaign during the time she was there have been approached by the internal inquiry into the Rennard affair.
“The dominance of individualist, Orange Book liberalism and its advocates over the last decade has pushed issues of [women’s] inequality further and further away from mainstream Lib Dem thought,” says Cumbo. “Couple this with the lack of women’s voices, especially at the top, and you end up with a serious gender problem. How do you tackle sexual harassment at the root if you don’t link it to the ways in which men still have more power than women, if, indeed, you don’t really see gender as socially relevant at all?”
I first took notice of the sexual politics of the Lib Dems in 1994. As a feminist campaigner against sexual violence I had recently become involved in the contentious debate on the sex industry. I took the approach that prostitution is both a cause and consequence of inequality, but the sexual libertarians argued that it was no different from other paid work.
That year, in a policy paper entitled “Confronting Prostitution”, the Lib Dems recommended that Britain allow state regulated brothels, legalise prostitution and introduce legally enforceable contracts for prostitutes. The paper was endorsed by the front bench and approved by the party’s national conference. It remains party policy.
In 2009 the Lib Dems vigorously opposed the Labour government plans to criminalise buyers who pay for sex with a trafficked or otherwise coerced person. According to former Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne, the government’s proposals would “drive sex workers underground”. He argued that the right way to protect the women would be to regulate the sex industry so that brothels were places of safety. Several key figures in the party argued that prostitution would always exist and should simply be regulated.
According to Elizabeth Evans, the party’s line on prostitution is entirely in keeping with its failure adequately to address wider issues of violence against women. “Viewing prostitution through the lens of choice rather than through a prism of structural violence means that for many within the party the issue of legalisation simply fits into wider debates concerning drug legalisation,” she says. “In short, the debate is about consent and protection rather than prevention and any attempts to tackle the root causes of prostitution.”
A number of individual Lib Dem politicians have behaved extremely badly. An Essex local councillor, Gary Scott, posted pictures of his erect penis on a social networking website in 2006 but was not sacked from his role and still serves the people of the Alresford ward on Tendring Council.
Mark Oaten was a senior member of the party and considered as a potential party leader until a scandal forced him to resign from the front bench. A tabloid newspaper revealed that Oaten had hired a 23-year-old male prostitute between the summer of 2004 and February 2005.
There is no better example of Lib Dem sleaze than the Mike Hancock debacle. Hancock has been accused of subjecting a mentally-ill woman to “upsetting sexual treatment” over the course of ten months after she approached him for help with a neighbourhood dispute in 2009.
The constituent wrote to Clegg in March 2011 but did not even receive an acknowledgement. It has taken her two years of battling, with the support of a human rights lawyer, to force the Lib Dem party at national and local level to investigate the complaints against Hancock. He has not been suspended from his roles as MP or city councillor, despite calls from both Labour and Tory politicians in Portsmouth.
The constituent says that the party’s previous failure to deal with the allegations into Hancock left her devastated and depressed. “I feel let down by Clegg and the others in the party that have refused to investigate Hancock’s actions for so long. My mental health has suffered and I feel a great deal of stress and anger towards these people.”
Hancock’s fellow Portsmouth Lib Dem city councillor David Fuller was recently found to have been hosting sado-masochistic sex parties in a semi-detached house in a quiet residential area. When a local journalist turned up posing as a participant, a man dressed as a dog and a woman encased in plastic wrapping were discovered.
Lib Dems have long been keen on pornography. In 1996 the then president of the Libs Dems and life peer, Robert Maclennan, who had recently called for the cleaning up of parliamentary sleaze was found to be profiting as a non-executive director of the parent company of one of the leading providers of international telephone lines used by the “dial-a-porn” business.
In 2002 the party’s spring conference approved calls for laws on pornography to be relaxed. The delegates voted in favour of allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to visit sex shops, and to act in hardcore pornography.
During the 2005 general election campaign Lib Dem candidate and leading party member Mike Dixon said: “All I ask is to allow sexually mature and sexually active 16- and 17-year-olds the same rights as anyone else to look at pictures of bums, tits and willies.”
In 2009 the website Liberal Democrat Voice, the most widely-read website for party supporters, expressed sympathy towards Andrew Woolley, a former Somerset councillor who was disqualified from holding office after “illegal and pornographic material” was found on his council-owned laptop.
Even the woman who was, until the reshuffle last year, tasked with promoting gender equality gets it wrong. Lynne Featherstone, who was parliamentary under-secretary of state for women and equalities, fronted the 2006 proposal to grant anonymity for men accused of rape. Featherstone said at the time: “It is clearly appalling for someone who is innocent to find their life and reputation ruined by false accusation and trial.” In 2010 she failed to turn up to defend the policy as it was being debated and blamed a diary clash for her absence. The proposal was scrapped after opponents claimed that any tinkering that needed doing to rape legislation should focus on the minuscule conviction rates.
According to Ellie Cumbo, women do not carry much weight in the party. “At the 2006 conference motion on anonymity there was strong disagreement from the Women Liberal Democrats group, who tried to marshal opposition, but women are so lacking in influence as a caucus, they weren’t able to stop it.”
Another notable Featherstone faux pas was when she represented her party at a hustings to discuss issues relevant to women in 2010. When Featherstone painted her party as the most “female-friendly”, she was challenged by a young woman in the audience. Featherstone was asked if her concerns about sexual exploitation could be seen as disingenuous, as it had recently come to light that the party had accepted a pornographer, Anna Arrowsmith (who works under the name Anna Span), as a parliamentary candidate.
What did this great champion of women’s rights reply? “Some of us happen to like sex.” Unsurprisingly Featherstone was heckled by the crowd, and called to task by the other women on the panel, who included Theresa May, now Home Secretary, and former Labour MP Vera Baird.
According to Evans, the Lib Dems allowing Arrowsmith to stand is entirely in line with their libertarian approach to pornography. “The party views porn as an issue that speaks to freedom of speech and individual choice — this is an approach that utterly fails to address the issue of sex and gender.”
Yet this is a party that enjoys the forgiveness of its supporters, however sleazy the behaviour of its politicians. Take Lib Dem member for Birmingham Yardley, John Hemming, a former heavy-metal drummer. Hemming is Chair of the Justice for Families Campaign, which has links to groups such as False Allegations Support Allegations, and People Against False Allegations of Abuse, whose website reads: “We are concerned primarily with the current climate that makes it possible for anyone to be accused of abuse, especially of a sexual nature, and in particular against children.”
Shortly after his election in 2005, he made headlines when it was revealed that he was the father of a child with his personal assistant and (then) fellow councillor. His wife, with whom he has stayed, said the affair was “about number 26”.
Following the publication of details of the affairs, Hemming voted for himself in the News of the World‘s Love Rat of the Year competition. Hemming’s behaviour received much press coverage in Yardley but he increased his majority at last year’s general election, proving that his constituents did not hold such behaviour against him.
Since the Jeremy Thorpe scandal the Liberal Democrat party as a whole appears to have all but abandoned traditional morality and adopted instead an approach to sexual politics and behaviour that is nothing short of extreme libertarianism. But there are those in the party, in particular women backbench MPs and a few men, who are concerned about the effects of pornography and prostitution on women and other vulnerable citizens.
Some party activists are keen to return to an older tradition, when the focus was more on raising the moral standards of the nation than on debasing them. Let us hope that these are the voices that shout the loudest in the future.