It appears it might not be government policy that will break the Lib Dem base’s support, but women activists leaving the party over the handling of harassment scandals concerning Lord Rennard and Mike Hancock. As ever, poor PR (Note not proportional representation, but public relations) has exacerbated the tensions between the Lib Dem leadership and activists as Nick Clegg called women making the claims “shrill”. While the Lib Dems have a ‘women problem’ in that only 7 of 57 MP’s are women – allowing Rennard and Hancock to thrive – there is a broader problem; it is more ‘disruptive’ to take on harassers and abusers than for self-identified women to be harassed and abused.
When self-identified women bring up harassment or abuse, the response even from the left is to dismiss it. It is easier to tell women to cross their legs and cross the street from potential attackers than to take on privilege and rape culture. Harassment and assault scandals also take place on the right. But in the choice between taking on a right-wing figure accused of harassment and casting adrift harassed women, many on the left choose the latter – the Lib Dems wouldn’t even tackle one of their right-wing MPs Cyril Smith, who used his position to assault children. Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation as a US Supreme Court justice in 1991 is the best example of this. Democratic Senators, namely current Vice-President Joe Biden, did not want to vote against a black Supreme Court nominee, no matter how right-wing. But there was a more complex politics going on. As Melissa Harris-Perry has argued, there exists no tropes for the sexual assault or harassment of black women whereas there does exist tropes for false accusations against black men. There was sexist and racist distrust of a black woman like Anita Hill by an all-white male Senate Judicial Committee – black women prove too disruptive when they try to form spaces for sexual and non-sexual autonomy.
Women’s rights can be narrowly considered by mainstream parties. But tackling harassment culture threatens overwhelmingly male spaces. The abuse and harassment of self-identified women becomes part of how the system is used to functioning, and tackling it threatens this system. Less than a decade after Hill’s testimony, many liberals jumped to dismiss women who said Bill Clinton had assaulted and harassed them. Juanita Broaddrick said during the Lewinsky scandal she was raped by Bill Clinton in 1978. She was put with Monica Lewinsky (who had a consensual relationship with President Clinton) in the same category of an “accuser”. The Democratic Party’s disregard for the feminist movement as falling in line no matter what was echoed back, with no push for contraception coverage or a revived Violence Against Women Act; Joe Biden, who introduced the original version of VAWA, shut down much of Hill’s testimony. It is not simply leftist men being protective of their own. If Clarence Thomas were white, there is very little evidence the Democratic Party would have created a space to tackle sexual harassment and assault of black women.
Misogyny is pervasive throughout the whole left and not just nominally centre-left parties. Rape apologism has joined antisemitism as the ‘socialism of fools’ in defending Julian Assange. Russell Brand’s misogyny was (and still is) ignored at the time of his prank phone call scandal in 2008, seen by the left as an attempt to attack the BBC. But misogyny and sexual harassment was revealed to be deeply embedded in the BBC’s institutional failures to prevent child abuse in the 1970’s. When Anthony Weiner’s unsolicited pictures are not seen as harassment, when Dominque Strauss-Khan’s history of assault reflects misogyny in the French left, when a major British trade union votes down an anti-domestic violence motion, when parties on the British far-left cover up cases of rape and domestic violence, any support for the liberation of self-identified women is conditional. It is almost always inconvenient because it prevents the world from being simple. As Selma James said, “if sex and race are pulled away from class, virtually all that remains is the truncated, provincial, sectarian politics of the white male metropolitan Left.” The sex workers James has fought to include in the left’s considerations of class are cast aside when their existence threatens individual male saviours like former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer. Because of their proximity to politicians like Spitzer, but also their threat to notions of the working-class being made exclusively of men, they can be easily dismissed by left-wing men.
It is not simply that left-wing forces will defend harassment and abuse by powerful men against non-powerful women for the sake of political cohesion i.e. the attempt to dismiss sex workers or Anita Hill no matter how ‘respectable’ she appeared before the US Senate – they would rather dismiss these women altogether. The case of Julia Gillard here is interesting. Gillard was the most legislatively accomplished PM in post-WW2 Australia, all with a minority government, while Kevin Rudd’s majority government had fallen over policy. She famously stood up to the misogyny of right-wing politicians, of whom many stood with signs calling her “bitch” and “witch”. But the left acquiesced with it. They preferred to side with Rudd – less accomplished than Gillard – for the sake of ‘unity’. Even the most talented Australian politician of her generation proved inconvenient to the left.
When left-wing forces dismiss abortion and domestic violence and sex workers’ rights as issues that can be “dealt with later”, they are just as complicit in rape and harassment culture as those who do not pay lip service to feminism. The American left’s failure to push Bill Clinton further, and to show solidarity with Anita Hill, perhaps paid a long-term contribution to stalling a more effective Violence Against Women Act over a decade later. In the UK, the inability to respond to Russell Brand’s harassment prevented an effective response to the BBC’s child abuse and harassment scandals. The implosion of the SWP over rape cover-ups has so far stalled unions from building coalitions to end violence. The case of Lord Rennard is not just worrying for what it says about one man or party, but of the left’s complicity in silencing “shrill” women.