Attention is focusing ever more on the Liberal Democrats and their former election strategist Lord Rennard, (pictured*) who denies claims of sexual harrassment. Against this backdrop we have been offered an account from a female party worker who has asked to remain anonymous.
Like many women working inside Westminster the current LibDem scandal has prompted me to reflect on the culture within the bubble. I started working there in 1996. During this time I have been propositioned by members of all three parties, a couple of journalists, a senior No 10 advisor, party donors, one or two MPs and handful of peers. Some even have nicknames which should be a warning to stay clear. There were invitations in for coffee after shared taxis, bottom patting, innuendo and blatant suggestions. I have been told that I was “asking for trouble”
when I arrived late for a 730am meeting still in my cycling gear. And then there is conference, certain men will be up late in the bar surrounded by a handful of young women or men plying for his attention. And that’s another thing this culture is not exclusive to straight people.
I am confident enough to get my firm “No” accepted at its first utterance, others are not and this is my point. There are vulnerable, naïve but intelligent women in the work place who are just “staff” in the eyes of the powerful. They dedicate themselves to their Party, give up their free time to campaign and pretty soon their only life is in politics.
Is power sexy and to whom? It is of course human nature to flirt, but what I learnt very early on, and what I had thought other women knew, was that there should be a boundary between your professional and private life. Your work reputation will not stand up long if it is built on personal likeability. You can have trusted colleagues but your colleagues are not your friends. It would be harmless to go to a friend’s house late at night after a lot of alcohol for a night cap, but do you really need to do this
as part of your career development? No. I am worried that there are women who are given the impression it might be compulsory and in trying to build a professional reputation openly flirt with grey old men.
Is this culture unique to Westminster? No, misdemeanours at office parties and the company perv to avoid at the photocopier are everyday experiences across all sectors. Do the people who work in Westminster have a moral responsibility to behave in the workplace any differently to people in other industries? Well, yes.
It is time for Westminster to look in on itself. We have allowed some in
positions of power to take advantage of the discretion and loyalty that is
required to be successful in Westminster. We must not accept this behaviour any longer. It is proper to put in place systems to report incidents, we must ensure our junior colleagues have mentors who can show them how to manage the boundary between their work and private lives but above all we should all leave our flirting for outside of the bubble.
* copyright: Charlie Bibby