Sex and power: What the Catholic Church and political parties have in common
Sexual shenanigans are never far from the surface in Westminster. If at times it feels like our politicians just can't help but jump into bed with someone they shouldn't, a report out today suggests there's a reason for that.
The Liberal Democrats' "haphazard" way of doing things has a lot to answer for in explaining exactly how allegations of sexual harassment dating back six years were not dealt with properly.
I briefly worked for the party in 2005 – a failed dalliance with active partisanship which established, beyond any doubt, I was best suited to deal with politics from the sidelines. During this time I was warned about the perils of spending too much time with this MP or that MP. My colleagues were obsessed with sex. The Westminster village is an inbred place; as at university, not much goes on before everyone else knows about it.
Westminster is not like university, though. Today's independent report from Helena Morrissey, the chief executive of Newton Investments, goes out of its way to flag up the underlying reasons for the Lib Dem mess. The very nature of party politics tends towards bad behaviour, she suggests. It's an intense, harsh environment, one facing media intrusion and, now, "menacing social media commentary". There are winners and losers and, Morrissey says, this competitive aspect makes it unappealing to many.
"It is an environment that will not appeal to everyone and as things currently stand attracts fewer women than men," her report notes. "This in turn makes the culture more traditional, more masculine and at risk of falling short of the behavioural standards expected in modern society."
The hint here is that badly behaved men just can't control themselves – especially when placed in the context of "young" – ie, attractive – researchers and interns working for powerful men. "These young people may sometimes also be physically attracted by this power."
It is not the first time we've heard these warnings. Paul Flynn, the veteran Labour MP, told me back in 2011 that MPs wishing to "stay married" need to be aware of the perils of parliament.
"There does seem to be an atmosphere in this strange place – possibly inevitably, because there's a large number of sexually active people who are present here," he said.
"Inevitably there will be dangers of couplings that might well be fruitful or beneficial, but others that might be potentially dangerous."
The question now becomes whether attitudes to these issues are shifting over time. Morrissey is of the belief that something has changed in the last decade; "life was not exactly the same," she insists. I'm not so sure. The researchers may have moved on, but many of the Lib Dem MPs are exactly the same. The same structures are in place. Ultimately the same culture persists, which is why Morrissey has been called in to clean this mess up in the first place.
We've asked the other political parties for details of their own arrangements in dealing with these issues. In the meantime, Morrissey is making excuses for the political parties. As organisations go, they're unusual: they have "intense shared political beliefs" and a clear hierarchy of power. It's all very reminiscent of a religious community, "where the belief set overrides personal disappointments and where the 'church', a complex organisational structure necessarily overseen by people with human failings, is inevitably weak compared with the belief that binds them together".
Just as the Catholic Church, for example, struggles to deal with its own bad applies, so politicians must now confront the inherent weaknesses of their own arrangements. This sort of behaviour remains unacceptable – and our political parties must now deal with it.