We're told repeatedly – usually by the MEEJA – that ordinary people LOATHE "professional" politicians.
And yet, the Liberal Democrats are condemned – by the SAME meeja – for our poor handling of the Lord Rennard allegations as "amateur hour".
Well HOORAY for amateur hour, I say, if it means that these allegations are uncovered and investigated.
I've been SHOCKED and NAUSEATED by people (Hard Labour AND Conservatory and EVEN Lib Dem) trying to make POLITICAL CAPITAL out of this.
'Cos I suspect that the Conservatories and Hard Labour are NOT better at taking harassment seriously, but ARE better at COVERING IT UP!
I've heard Hard Labour's John Mann on the The Today show showing off that he'd reported the Liberals (sic) to the police, an interview all about blaming Captain Clegg where Mr Mann failed to mention the VICTIMS even once.
I've read typical passive-aggressive hand-wringing from the likes of Hopi Sen who confesses to having heard "rumours" from within Hard Labour – and by his silence admits done NOTHING about them – but still opportunistically condemns Captain Clegg (or rather the Lib Dem "leader" – I guess he cannot quite bring himself to finger the current leader given that the allegations appear to date back five to ten years).
I've seen Nick "mate of Dave" Robinson rolling his eyed and blowharding about Cap'n Clegg "changing his story" when it is REALLY the MEEJA who have changed what they reported. The Cap'n was still in Spain on Friday when the meeja were coming out with one story; he made a statement, when he got back, that didn't match their line so obviously they blame him for not keeping to what they'd written.
And of course the Daily Hate Mail and the Tell-lies-o-graph have been having a ball, giving no-good Conservatory Chair Grant "Ms" Happs all the covering fire and plausible deniability he could wish for.
(I should add here that Chanel Four News – and the BBC radio World at One – do appear to have reported responsibly, and it is good – and surprising! – to see the Grauniad's Michael White and Pollyanna Toytown raising questions about the timing and ferocity of the attack from the other print meeja.)
Did Cap'n Clegg take action? We DON'T KNOW – that's for the inquiry to find out. Although there's every appearance that the Cap'n DID do SOMETHING, sending Danny Alexander to "have a quiet word" and removing Lord R "on health grounds". Similarly, Ms Jo Swinson has made a statement about what she did and – reading between the lines – it appears that she too did what she could, constrained though she was by the need to respect the complainants' requests for anonymity.
Inadequate? Perhaps. But in the absence of concrete allegations, natural justice – innocent until proved guilty – says we should not just fire people on the basis of rumour. A more serious question would surely be WHY concrete allegations either were not made publicly or did not reach the appropriate office. Nor should we bite the head off the Party Leader on the say-so of people who themselves say they knew of the rumours but self-evidently did less about them than the Cap'n and Danny. We've ALL got to ask ourselves some serious questions and we've got to change the culture of the Party so that it matches what a lot of us believed it already was!
It seems to me that there is a problem with WHISTLE-BLOWING processes generally, and not JUST limited to the Liberal Democrats.
Anyone blowing the whistle faces two problems:
The first is the obvious fear of being labelled a "trouble-maker" (and there are worse names too, as we all know!). The evidence certainly seems to point to whistle-makers not prospering, down to a great deal of victim-blaming or just old fashioned revenge. Who's going to volunteer for that? All the more kudos to the women who HAVE now had the courage to come forward.
The second is that, unlike in real life, once you report something it seems like there are no shades of grey. As we've seen from the way that some in the meeja have happily blurred the distinction between the Lord Rennard allegations and the appalling facts of the Jimmy Savile case, you can go from "everything's fine" to "you're a MONSTER" with NO intervening steps.
(And the flip side of this is that the offender, if called upon their behaviour, is forced into massive and hurtful denial. Instead of "I'd rather you didn't stand so close" / "I'm sorry, I will try to do better and to learn from this mistake" we jump straight to "SEXUAL IMPROPRIETY!" / "I NEVER RAPED YOU!")
That makes whistle-blowing a REALLY BIG THING and, perversely, a MUCH HARDER thing to contemplate doing. If, for example, you know that you've been hassled inappropriately, but you handled it and you're not distressed are you going to be happy raising the issue knowing that your only option is the NUCLEAR option? Or are you forced to suffer in silence and maybe allow him (or her) to get away with it until the next time when they do something worse?
One possible solution to this might be to set up an INDEPENDENT organisation that will do the whistle-blowing for you – a kind of CHILD-LINE for GROWN UPS, if you like. Not just for the Lib Dems, but for any Party, or indeed companies or other groups like trades unions or the scouts or the WI; it might be especially useful for smaller companies without HR departments.
The person with the problem might find it easier to talk to an independent organisation that hasn't got power over them. This organisation could have staff trained to make sure that all complaints are listened to with sympathy and advice can be offered with compassion. And then they would be able to approach the right people at a senior level and talk frankly to them because they have no need to fear reprisals. It would allow people to – in a first instance – blow the whistle anonymously so that a problem could be addressed at a much earlier stage and without it having to be a full melodrama. If the problem DIDN'T get resolved, THEN you could move to full accusation and investigation.
But there's a more important issue.
Institutional changes might help correct one flaw – the instinct to protect an important figure, or at least to ignore it and hope it goes away – but not the societal reason beneath it: that people are AWKWARD and UNCOMFORTABLE talking about SEX and don't know how to deal with it.
Frankly, I'm afraid that there is a "NEW PURITANISM" abroad, seeking to supress ANY expression of sex or sexuality in the name of protecting people.
If we cannot talk about this – and CLEARLY we CAN'T – then the problem IS going to get ignored and it IS going to get WORSE!
This comes from the same culture where it is (bizarrely) HUMILIATING rather than LIBERATING to ask a political leader how many people he has slept with.
It's clear from the way that – salacious headlines aside – the meeja have concentrated on the alleged cover-up as though THAT is more important in and of itself. It is important but only in as far as it encourages and perpetuates a culture that says sexual harassment is "okay", that turns a blind eye to assault and rape. Sex is NAUGHTY! Sex is BAD! Sex, above all, is NOT TO BE SPOKEN OF!
The Liberal Democrats are supposed to be the Party that says the sex is ok! (And then blushes furiously!)
Conservatories think ALL sex is bad; Hard Labour think it should only be allowed when practised in the prescribed fashion (probably on the orders of Harriet Harman).
But WE'RE supposed to be the ones who say it's fine to fancy, to flirt, to snog, to (deep breath) shag.
This is about how grown-ups, adults, deal with sex – no, not even that, but sexual suggestiveness. Obviously this is about INFORMED CONSENT. That's why we have an AGE of CONSENT, so that there's a clear dividing line between children who don't understand and grown-ups who do. But where to draw the line between grown-ups is much more difficult. You can't just BAN everyone from making risqué remarks.
If you treat adults like children all the time, pretty soon you won't HAVE any more children!
Power relationships make it more complicated still.
The popular media image would certainly be the "stranger in a dark alley" is "worse" than an "unwanted grope". But is it? As a wise Auntie points out to me: consider the situation where, if you want to keep your job (to which by its very nature there are limited alternatives), you are forced to spend the next ten years working with the knowledge that that "unwanted grope" could happen again at any moment. Or worse.
We need to be more about EDUCATING people on where those lines are, and how to not get the signals wrong, and empowering people to explain when the line IS stepped over and to be accepting of being told that, and to be forgiving when people make a first mistake so that we can stop it becoming a "pattern" of mistakes, to becoming actual evil.
Today is by-election day.
Hundreds and hundreds of people have spent their time and their money supporting Mike Thornton, explaining why he would make a good and hard-working local MP... just as Mr Huhney-Monster (for all his other, more egregious faults) was a good and hard-working local MP... and with justification pointing out the shortcomings of his Conservatory rival the hardly-to-be-found Ms Hutchings. And it is terribly sad for all those people that the coverage in this last week has totally ignored the issues and the candidates.
It is to be hoped that the people of Eastleigh WILL decide on the issues and the candidates and will NOT be swayed by the meeja storm that the press have whipped up – flagrantly against the spirit of Leveson – because that would be a victory for the WORST kind of DIRTY TRICKS!
Along with every single Liberal Democrat that I've talked to or heard from, I'm appalled by what, if the allegations are proved, would be (yet another) failing by my Party. After covering up Charles Kennedy's battles with alcoholism, this looks all too like another conspiracy of "don't rock the boat"-ism.
But I'm also reassured that the Party is NOT putting electoral convenience ahead of moral necessity. Whatever may or may not have been swept under the carpet in the past, there is a clear determination now to lift that carpet now and clean our house properly.
Winning the B'Eastleigh By-Election is DESPERATELY IMPORTANT... but NOT as important as building a Party that DESERVES to WIN.