«It’s about power». Someone said this to me once, when I was fairly new to Labour activism. And of course, it’s true. I had come into active politics in the 1980s, late in the period when the Trots, aka Militant, were being driven out of positions, and membership too, of the party. Something of a Stalinist and tankie in my youth, when I studied Soviet history (“you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” was my take on Uncle Joe’s excesses in my student days), I would have worn those near-mythical ice-pick earrings if I could.
I’ve been a Blairite, and a keen disciple of the Chicago Doctrine (liberal interventionism, since you ask), since the late 1990s, Euston Manifesto and a Gerasite, since. But that is another story. I was a Labour MP for eight years, from 1997 to 2005, and that is part of this story.
As I write this at least two male Labour MPs are under investigation for alleged inappropriate behaviour towards younger women. Another, a member of the Welsh Assembly, is dead by his own hand, following similar, but non-specified, allegations. At least two male Tory MPs are similarly under investigation, and at least one of them has claimed he has no idea what the allegations against him are all about. Michael Fallon has resigned as Defence Secretary because of instances of alleged inappropriate behaviour towards women in the past.
That’s just in politics. I say nothing of the men with high-flying and celebrity status in other walks of life (not of course the late Jimmy Saville, who was a special case in more ways than one) who have been variously dumped from their careers, driven out of public life, and in some cases are doing or have done prison time, for behaviour that was normal and unexceptionable, if deplorable, at the time they engaged in it, although not usually popular with the mainly young women at whom it was directed. The late John Peel got away with the same behaviour, self-confessed, and it is not clear why; perhaps he died before the mood changed, when only women and children were victims. He remains a secular saint. His widow is called Sheila, and that is how he referred to her in his later years; earlier in his career (though after he was famous) he always called her “The Pig”. That’s how it was, and that’s how it remains, despite fine words to the contrary.
It’s about power. Not about sex. If men with power truly acknowledged the women they associate with in professional life, they would not behave in these “inappropriate” ways – the hand on the knee under the table, the hand up the skirt where no one can see. We’ve all been there, girls. And most of us didn’t complain, because we knew exactly how seriously we’d be taken – and we also knew that it wasn’t about sex. Those men weren’t besotted with us. They didn’t want to have affairs with us. We were objects, to them. Young flesh, to be squeezed and then discarded. A clear message, in case we ever got the idea, once we were working in junior roles as researchers and assistants and so on, that we might one day play an equal part in professional life with the men. Oh no. Not you, girl. And we were the ones who persisted, who insisted that we too could be journalists and technicians and business executives, and, yes, MPs. How many more went away forever discouraged?
It’s about power. And so it is in today’s Westminster. I saw a government minister fall off a bar stool, having just made a grab for the rear of a passing female colleague. Who got into trouble with the Whips? You guessed it: the female colleague. In the 21st century.
I notice that former Labour Government Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong, a person who got her parliamentary seat through nepotism and who has no discernible personal, political or intellectual acumen or merit, said recently that the appointment of female senior Whips by Labour in government was intended to protect female colleagues from the kind of behaviour mentioned above. Was it, Hilary? Was it really? Didn’t work then, did it? Tell it to the family of the late Fiona Jones MP, hounded into oblivion and early death by her own Labour Party. For goodness’ sake, I was subjected to sexual assault by a fellow Labour MP myself. I knew better than to complain. It was done, not because said MP was bowled over by my charms, but because I wouldn’t be under his thumb. That’s how it is. Not about sex, but about power.
So don’t give me your pious bleating about inappropriate behaviour, girls and boys. Women in politics are routinely subjected to savage bullying and psychological torture, at least as much by women in power (yes, you, Hilary Armstrong) as by men. Read Harriet Harman’s excellent memoir, ‘A Woman’s Work’, if you don’t believe me. It’s not about sex, but about power.
An illustration: several MPs attended a lunch hosted by a defence minister in the then Labour Government. That minister let slip that he believed there “was no such thing as Gulf War syndrome” (post-traumatic stress disorder, as it would now be called, suffered by military personnel who had served in the Gulf – this was before the 2003 action in Iraq). This statement by the defence minister reached the attention of the media. Before it had become public, the other (female, Labour) MP present on the occasion, and I, had received letters from the Chief Whip instructing us to inform the media that the minister had said no such thing. Lie for us, girls. Lie down.
When I was the unwilling witness to sexual shenanigans involving a (female, Labour) MP and a military officer while on a parliamentary visit, my recounting of which tale on my return prompted a story in the News of the World headlined ‘Woman On Top’, I was contacted by a party apparatchik and instructed to tell the media the story was untrue. I declined. Because it was true. This was and is normal.
It’s not about sex. It’s about power. Why do victorious troops in war rape their victims, men as well as women?
Men are being made victims now, too. I take no pleasure in that. I thought, decades ago when I was a young feminist, that these battles would have been fought and won by the time I was the age I am now. I was wrong about that. But power can be fought for, and won, while treating opponents with decency and respect – can’t it? I’m not seeking a Milly-Molly-Mandy world of impossible saccharine niceness. I know that a measure of ruthlessness is necessary in politics. If I have a criticism of Tony Blair it is that he lacked it, rather.
Decency and respect. It would be nice to see it tried.