Dealing with Sexual Harrassment at the Grassroots
As you no doubt will have noticed if you’ve looked at a newspaper in the last few months, the Lib Dems are currently being ravaged by scandals concerning sexual harrassment, largely revolving around Lord Chris Rennard and Mike Hancock MP. I’m not going to comment on those particular allegations – I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said before. All I will say is that it’s a shame that some in the media and at the grassroots of other parties are trying to frame this as a Lib Dem specific problem. A culture of sexism and abuse of power exists across all major parties, and what I’ve heard about other parties in private is far worse than anything that’s now public about the Lib Dems. The other party leaders aren’t seeking to make political capital out of the allegations because they know they could rapidly find themselves hoisted on the petard of any criticism they make.
LDHQ is making changes – bringing policies and procedures up to date (which doesn’t affect any of the cases in progress as they can’t be applied retroactively), and appointing a pastoral care officer who can be a point of contact for all party members and staff. That appointment was one of the recommendations of the Morrissey Report commissioned by the party. The Report seems to have filtered into party culture – most people I talk to are aware of its existence, broadly aware of its content, and actively mention it in conversations.
Rock The Boat is putting pressure on the leadership from the grassroots, to make sure that the overarching problem isn’t ignored. However, as a party we’re naturally resistant to top-down edicts from the Leader or President about how we should behave, and that’s a good thing. For everybody complaining that Nick as leader doesn’t have the ability to impose his will on the membership on this issue, imagine how it would be if he had the ability to do so on other issues! Some people may be resistant to change because they themselves have skeletons in their closet – many of our members have been around for decades, since a time when it was more culturally acceptable (though obviously not morally OK) to behave in certain ways towards subordinates, women etc. and are concerned that their past behaviour will be judged by modern standards. Still, we should look at ways we can improve awareness from the grassroots of the party and reduce the risk of harrassment within our ranks.
One thing that’s clear is that the cases currently in the public eye have one thing in common – that complaints were made early on, but either ignored or not handled correctly. As a local party officer, I’ve not had training in how to recognise problems or handle complaints, and I believe this is common for volunteers across parties. I’m hoping that up-to-date training will become available post-Morrissey Report, but if it’s run only as a voluntary effort at Federal Conference, then only the people with the time and money to attend Conference, and the will to attend the training. The latter part is crucial – the kind of person who would voluntarily attend such training is probably the kind of person who doesn’t need to. Unfortunately, the Federal Party has no ability to mandate officers to attend training.
At the North West Lib Dems executive yesterday, I made a proposal which was accepted by the rest of the Executive. I think it combines the best of carrot and stick – making training on harrassment part of a wider package to increase its overall value, and providing an incentive to attend / disincentive not to. I also think that regional parties are close enough to local parties for this to work without seeming like a diktat from on high. In outline, we agreed that the region should:
- Create a package of training for local party officers focussed on:
- Dealing with complaints and recognising harrassment
- Valuing and improving diversity
- Local party officer roles and responsibilities
- Work with party trainers throughout the region to make it available as locally as possible
- Advertise the package to local party execs and invite them to attend it (not until after the Euros this year; in Jan/Feb in future years)
- Consider the local party’s attendance on the training when it comes to allocating support and resources from the Regional Party to local parties
- Work with the party’s national Pastoral Care Officer and Training Officer on the above
I’m not sure how this’ll work in other regions – I get the impression that the NW regional party is particularly effective compared to others. But it’d be good to see other regions be proactive on this as well, and by working with LDHQ we can include whatever they’re doing in our work. I have offered to lead on this for the regional party and will make sure I monitor progress, and I hope we can begin to offer the training after the European elections and as ongoing work in future years. Everybody has a responsibility to challenge the harm done to our fellow party members by abuse of power – whether it’s the particular power afforded by elected office or employment, or the general power imbalance of the patriarchy. We must make sure that all party members, particularly those in positions of responsibility, have the tools they need to meet that responsibility.