Power Games

When Lord Rennard was first accused of sexual harassment, I challenged him publicly over his alleged behaviour and demanded that the Liberal Democrats investigate the claims. Nick Clegg has lamentably failed to deal with the issue.

His barrister-led enquiry was legalistic, and concluded that no criminal threshold had been breached. This was a fundamentally flawed approach to the matter. Issues of criminality rest with the police, the crown prosecution service and the criminal justice system. For employers and for membership organisations there are no set thresholds for acceptable behaviour. Each case must be dealt with on its merits.

So a political party member who is continuously and aggressively disrupting meetings is not creating a public order offence, threatening behaviour as defined by criminal justice or a breach of the peace. However the behaviour might warrant disciplinary action by a political party. Similarly racist and sexist behaviour might warrant internal disciplinary action.

In the sports world, such as football, such approaches are commonplace. For good employers they are routine. Behaviour in all good workplaces is expected to be tolerant, respectful and inclusive.

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In Westminster there have been different rules. As Saville and other sex abuse cases are demonstrating, other parts of society have failed to act on harassment and worse still have turned a blind eye when it has been perpetrated by those in positions of power.

This of course is what these cases are all about.

Let’s take MPs. A Cabinet member having an illicit affair with a junior colleague would not be new. At what stage does it cross into the area of potential disrepute?  Most people would regard such an issue as an entirely private matter. But the media would view this as reportable because its in the public interest.

So a senior male politician making overtures to younger colleagues, staff or interns is not rare. But what if it happens repeatedly? And what of the consequences?

Young female staff in Westminster have long had lists of politicians to avoid because of the likelihood of undue attention. Party headquarters have been very aware of some of the worst offenders. But what does worst constitute? It remains subjective, but because of this all the more pernicious.

I have seen young women in a terrible state because of the attentions of older male politicians. I would like to name and shame them. But then I also invade the rights and privacy of the people I believe to be victims and that is as invasive as the offending behaviour.

We do not need a morality police pursuing people’s affairs, which is none of our business, despite the prurient curiosity that we all have and which therefore sells newspapers and magazines. But we do need an environment where women are confident of coming forward and when they do that the political parties will be decisive in their support. This is also the case with young gay men.

Politics is about power and power is easily misused. If several younger women complain about the actions of an older more powerful politician, then either it is a criminal conspiracy to destroy someone or there is a serious issue to be addressed. Between these two alternatives there exists no grey area.

John Mann is the Labour MP for Bassetlaw

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