US television series House of Cards originally authored by the Tory Michael Dobbs, now Lords Dobbs. Photo: Netflix US television series House of Cards originally authored by the Tory Michael Dobbs, now Lords Dobbs. Photo: Netflix

How far will this challenge to male privilege be allowed to go, asks Lindsey German 

“The accursed power which stands on privilege
(And goes with women, champagne and bridge)
Broke – and democracy resumed her reign
(Which goes with bridge and women and champagne).”

The writer Hilaire Belloc summed up political power and patronage 100 years ago. The ‘Westminster sex scandal’ shows it hasn’t changed much. Whether there is always a lot of light shed on the subject is another question. The number of allegations is now considerable, but much fewer than the actual number of incidents that are likely to have taken place. The allegations are also very wide-ranging. The notorious Tory spreadsheet cites 40 names, including a number of ministers. The sexual activity cited in around a third of cases should really not be of concern to others. Engaging in consensual relationships, or sexual practice which may be perceived as outside the norm, is not wrong and is really not anyone else’s business. The key word here is consensual. Other accusations range from the most serious charge of rape to other forms of sexual harassment. 

There are already cries of witch-hunt from those masters of entitlement, the members of parliament and their most loyal acolytes in the press. We should reject this characterisation out of hand. There are serious questions to be answered, not just about the alleged incidents, but about the culture around parliament and the fact that some of those accused appear to have been well known for this sort of behaviour. It would appear that women – in time-honoured fashion that we learnt from our mothers and sisters – were warned not to be alone, to get into lifts, or to share taxis with certain men. 

I don’t want to comment on individual cases. I know that several MPs have defended themselves robustly against the charges and it is only right that there should be due process in finding out what happened. So instead I want to comment on some of the issues raised. 

The institutional sexism which characterises parliament I have always felt very strongly when I have had any dealings there. The place oozes privilege, held overwhelmingly by older men, many of them public school and Oxbridge educated. These men, and a much smaller number of women, are served by younger men and particularly women. The huge numbers of media journalists and lobbyists who frequent Westminster hold up a mirror to this privilege and are drawn largely from the same backgrounds and class. 

While it may be incomprehensible to these middle-aged MPs that they are not the last word in glamour and attractiveness, empirically they are not. What they have is a power derived from their position and often from the considerable wealth that they possess. It is their power that makes the institutional sexism so obnoxious, and is the reason why it is not the preserve of one party (although I will return to the special attributes of the Tories below). 

Sexual harassment is huge in workplaces. Again this is to do with power. The employment relationship makes it very difficult for those in a subordinate position and, although sexual harassment can come from anyone, it’s harder to deal with when the harasser has some power to hire and fire you. Put simply, if the guy working next to you touches you inappropriately you can at least complain to your manager. If your manager is doing it, that suddenly gets a lot harder. The nature of work today compounds this, with fewer union rights, pressure on young people to conform and to work for nothing as interns in order to get work, and an atmosphere where women are meant to sell themselves metaphorically if not literally. With the Westminster scandal, an additional element of this is the employment relationship between MPs and their assistants or researchers. Most of the accusations so far seem to be outside this relationship, but it helps to create a toxic atmosphere. 

The response to some of the accusations, privately if not publicly, is often to trivialise them. This goes along the lines of ‘well, of course we’re against rape and serious assault, but touching or even propositioning isn’t in the same league’ – or as one anonymous MP is supposed to have said to a woman journalist ‘am I still allowed to kiss you on the cheek when I meet you?’ It’s important to say that not every sexual assault or remark is rape. But it’s also important to recognise that a casual disregard for women’s equality and their right to be seen as something other than sex objects creates the sort of atmosphere where more serious sexual assault can take place. 

There has been much talk about this marking a turning point in how sexual harassment and assault is dealt with. I doubt it. Not because there is no appetite for it. There is, and many people are disgusted with it. But because it is part of the much wider system of power relations that dominate capitalist society. So it will take much greater forms of democracy than exists in the Palace of Westminster, and far more rights and control at work than exists at present. Don’t hold your breath. 

Not all sisters together 

As many have quite rightly said, this is an issue which cuts across parties. If, as I argue above, this is about wider issues of power and structural inequality, then it will affect all parties, and already the accusations cover people in different parties. Sexual harassment and assault affect all women, and the vast majority of women have direct experience of some sort of sexual abuse, occurring from childhood onwards. It is important to stress that these things happen regardless of class, culture and so on, because they are part of the oppressive objectification of women. But the attacks themselves, and the impact of them, are of course mediated by class, which affects the positions women find themselves in, attitudes towards them, and a range of other things. 

In particular, the relationship of exploitation at work means that working people are dependent on employers for their livelihood. For women workers particularly, this puts them in a very vulnerable place. The TUC has reported that around two-thirds of young women have experienced sexual harassment at work. One antidote to this is strong trade unions which organise and fight to defend their members against these and a host of other inequalities. So I get a little fed up with those Tories like Anna Soubry who speak out, quite rightly, about these issues but carry on supporting policies that weaken unions, cut women’s living standards through assaults on wages and benefits, and refuse to build the council houses which could make many women’s lives safer. 

And while it is right not to treat this as a party political issue, the two main parties have very different records on equality. Labour has supported progressive legislation on women’s rights since the 1960s, often opposed by the Tories. So there is a difference between the parties, and we should not forget that.

Tory women suffer from sexual abuse, that’s certain. But they don’t seem to be able to generalise from this to defend other women’s conditions. This highlights that while bourgeois feminism is a step forward in the understanding of women’s rights, it cannot deal with the levels of wealth and power which help perpetuate oppression. In failing here, it helps these inequalities to continue. 

Is the arrest of politicians in Europe really of such little concern?

I find it hard to believe that there is so little outcry over the jailing of elected politicians in Europe and the issue of a European arrest warrant for their leader. I think you would have to go back to pre Second World War days, when dictators and fascists ran much of Europe, to see a parallel. How coincidental then that the instigator of these profoundly undemocratic moves is the inheritor of Franco’s Spain, PP leader Mariano Rajoy. And how bad is it that much of the Spanish left and its European counterparts are silent on this question. This isn’t about whether you support independence for Catalonia but about the right of the Catalans to decide their future. This is an issue which will play a defining role in Europe for years, and basic solidarity along with opposition to draconian attacks on civil liberties should guide how we respond. 

The Russians are coming?

The new alibi of the neoliberal ruling class is Russia. Lose an election? Blame it on Russia. Vote to leave the EU? Blame it on Russia. Now I’m sure Russia interferes in other countries’ politics. So do most other powers. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War remember Radio Free Europe, a US-funded propaganda service aimed at Eastern Europe. The CIA sought to influence the National Union of Students until the late 1960s. We remember the intervention of Germany in particular against the revolutionary forces in Portugal and Spain in the 1970s. Didn’t various politicians, from the US president to the Irish prime minister, intervene directly to urge remain during the EU referendum? And it’s widely acknowledged that the US interfered in the Russian election which produced Boris Yeltsin as victor. 

Hillary Clinton must be one of the worst electoral losers in history, but she herself has a long record of interfering in other countries’ politics. Uncomfortable though it is for her, Trump’s victory was accompanied by Republican victories across the board. This was as much about rejection of Clinton and her party as about anything else.  Maybe those claiming interference should consider that people vote in particular ways because they don’t like what their present governments are doing.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.