As a lifelong Labour voter I was disgusted when some of my feminist friends voted Liberal Democrat as a protest against the Iraq war or because they “wanted a change”. The extreme libertarian policies the Lib Dems adopt can only result in harm to women, and there are barely any MPs remaining on the Left who would challenge such dangerous ideas.
After more than 30 years of campaigning to end violence and abuse I am so concerned about the damage being done to a whole generation of young women that I have come to a surprising conclusion: I would rather work with the Tories than the Lib Dems on any policies relating to discrimination against females.
Lib Dems have it so wrong about the key issues that face women today — rape, prostitution, sexual exploitation, pornography and lack of political representation. Liberals believe that individual rights should be given precedence over concerns for social good and that government should stay out of the private affairs of its citizens. But most abuse of females, such as domestic violence, rape, and child sexual abuse, takes place in the private sphere within personal relationships.
In 2002 moves to adopt liberal policies on hardcore pornography were rejected at a Lib Dem conference by a mere 31 votes. Just as well. Had they been passed they would have supported reducing the legal age when youngsters could both view and feature in hardcore pornography from 18 to 16, as well as making it easier to set up licenced sex shops.
The party has long supported the decriminalisation of brothels and prostitution in general. Official policy documents say: “We would establish a system to regulate the activities of privately-operated brothels.” The policy on lap dancing clubs is to allow them to flourish with the proviso that licence-holders advertise alongside a free-phone trafficking hotline number.
It is no surprise that the minister tasked with representing the views and needs of women in the country also appears to have no clue as to the most basic issues affecting them. Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone is known to be gaffe-prone, and yet is one of the most senior women in the party.
At a women’s hustings in 2010 Featherstone appeared on the panel alongside former Solicitor General Vera Baird QC and Home Secretary Theresa May. When a young woman in the packed audience asked Featherstone to explain the apparent contradiction between claiming to be a party that hates the sexualisation of young women and accepting Anna Arrowsmith, a director of pornographic films, as a candidate in the general election (her best known film is Where’s the Rent Boys?) Featherstone replied: “There’s nothing wrong with sex.”
Baird, a feminist, has no time for Featherstone or her party. “Lib Dems are not reformers but laissez-faire,” she says, “hence they won’t do anything artificially to increase the number of women MPs. They have little to no understanding of institutionalised discrimination and are far more concerned with the rights of the individual man than anything else.”
Despite having launched the “Body Confidence” project last year, a campaign to challenge the pressure placed on girls and women to conform to a perfect body image, Featherstone was recently quoted in a newspaper interview as saying that there could sometimes be a good rationale for plastic surgery — “when you’ve had five children and your breasts are hanging around your waist”.
The Lib Dems cannot sustain a concept of equality that is anywhere near robust enough to eliminate women’s subordination in both the public and private domains. Days after the formation of the coalition government in 2010 it was announced that men accused of rape in England and Wales would be granted anonymity. The Lib Dems first voted for the proposal in 2006, but it did not feature in either the Lib Dem or the Conservative manifestos. It was widely criticised by anti-rape campaigners, who considered it a disgrace that the one policy relating to sexual violence was aimed at helping the accused and not the victims, and would boost the widely held belief that most women who report rape are lying. Fortunately the plan was dropped only weeks later.
Then there is the wilful refusal of the party to investigate one of its own MPs despite allegations of serious professional misconduct. Mike Hancock, MP for Portsmouth South, was approached by a vulnerable constituent in 2009 for help with her housing problems. Over the following months he began to see her regularly, bought her gifts and once took her out to dinner at the House of Commons, all of which he admits. Hancock also admitted to sending “sexy” text messages to the constituent, who suffers from mental health problems. One read: “Please give me a chance you never know my princess XXX”. Hancock was arrested by Hampshire Police in October 2010 but the Crown Prosecution Service later decided that there was insufficient evidence to charge him.
Even though only seven of the 57 Lib Dem MPs are women, Clegg opposes all-women shortlists. (The Tories have 49 out of 306.) The Lib Dems set up a Campaign for Gender Balance nine years ago but it has been a relative failure compared to Labour’s all-women shortlists or the Tory A-list. (This may be why the party took so long to expel the Lib Dem peer Jenny Tonge for her anti-Semitic ranting.) At the 2009 Speaker’s conference on making parliament more representative, Clegg suggested the problem was not the selection process as such, but the fact that not enough women were coming forward in the first place. Is it any wonder, with the policies the party has adopted?
The stark reality is that the Lib Dems face the prospect of having no female MPs at all after the next election if their current poll ratings do not improve, because five of the seven represent marginal constituencies. Would that really make any difference? They hold a skewed idea of personal freedom and liberty, and claim that it is beneficial to everyone. What they refuse to acknowledge, however, is that women and girls who face sexual violence desperately need state intervention and tough law and order responses both to feel and to be safe.
The party says it stands for “the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals”. But it is the freedom of men rather than women that is prioritised. Any rights of the individual must include effective public remedies against private violence. The Liberal Democrats are the last party to recognise this truth.