Comment: The truth behind sex and the Liberal Democrats

By Jane Fae

This is not about the sexual mores of the Lib Dems, though you might be forgiven for imagining, half way through, that it is. I was there. I know the closets in which certain skeletons reside, and it would be easiest thing in the world to join the handwringers.

Who knew what and when? Weren't they all awful and aren't we so much better now? My answer to that question is, sadly, no. I worry that all this past muck-raking is becoming a serious distraction from the real issue – and not just in the Lib Dems. Harassment and violence against women remains a serious daily problem, compounded by a refusal of men, generally, to take it seriously.

Let's start with the Lib Dems – or Liberals as they then were. I blame myself for some of it. I was a prodigious, bratty early political developer: campaigning locally at 14, nationally at 16, the UK's youngest parliamentary candidate in the 1979 general election. As Young Liberal organising vice-chair, I helped some individuals take their first stumbling steps within the party. I can hardly claim personal credit for inspiring them: still, I supported a young Chris Rennard, as well as some who later went on to minor greatness.

Oh, what days! The Liberals then possessed an aura of blithe sexuality not shared by other parties. Especially not the Young Socialists, who allegedly enforced a strict lights out policy at their summer camps and NO HANKY-PANKY! That reflects both the gaying of the Liberals in the 70’s – direct consequence of being the first mainstream party to back gay rights – and a hang-over from the 60’s idea that the best way to screw the system was, well, to screw!

We had a charismatic and attractive leader, Jeremy Thorpe, who would probably have given anything to have had problems as slight as those faced by Nick Clegg today. Thorpe's career imploded in tragicomedy, as he was tried for his alleged attempts to deal with rumours of a gay affair with one Norman Scott, first by paying him off and then by arranging his murder. The public reeled in astonishment at tales of threats, a dog – alas, poor Rinka – shot "as warning", and a bungling hit man who confused Dunstable with Barnstaple.

The 70's were a time when a carefree, libertarian attitude to sex and politics still operated: a time when serious politicians such as Peter Hain might associate with campaigns to legalise cannabis (though, he claims, he never toked!) and young liberals, who later morphed into grown-up politicians, might run the corridors of a family hotel, late at night, entirely clothes-free; or rockstar style, leave hotel rooms scarred and in need of redecoration.

Still, that didn't work so well for politically active women and behind the scenes another bleaker, less cheerful narrative operated in respect of men and women alike. If everyone was into sexual liberation, then not being so must mark you down as spoilsport or prude. There was pressure to join in. There was harassment.

In total I recall three incidents. One, almost high comedy, involved my feet being fondled, suddenly, non-consensually by an individual who later grew up to be a respected councillor. The violation stopped when I informed him that if it didn't he would shortly be getting to know my feet a whole lot better – though maybe not as he would have liked.

The other two left me considerably more shaken: the worst involved a candidate who'd agreed to accommodate me the night before council elections entering my room and leaping on me 'playfully' in bed. I coped. I shrugged. I moved on: don't see the point in dredging memory or diaries for his name now.

In the late 70's a group of courageous young women spoke a word – 'feminism' – that though at first greeted with incredulity by the party’s male hierarchy gradually took root. Superficially, at least.

The problem, of course, as commentators and politicians alike reflect on 'the past', is that these long ago cases may distract from the real issue: that abusers don't just look at the calendar, remark that it is now the 21st century, and stop. They go on.

I have no knowledge whatsoever of whether Lord Rennard did anything inappropriate then, when I knew him, or now, when I don't. What I do know is that the current allegations relate to events that happened recently – and that Nick Clegg's problems relate to his manner of dealing – or not – with those allegations in the last few years.

So this is where I change gear. Last summer, returning from an event in London (my work means that I cannot always travel at those times of day when all good girls are meant to do so), I found myself on the receiving end of harassment and abuse by a group of 'lads'.  Prolonged, vicious, verbal – but also scary and, I feared, at any moment capable of turning to real violence.

I finished my journey in a state of near breakdown: went to the nearest women's loo, locked myself into a cubicle and cried. I got over it.

But the next day, discussing a related story with a press officer, I found myself being sharper, more confrontational than usual. I apologised. I had, I explained, suffered some abuse in connection with this story.

I wish I hadn't.  My conciliatory gesture instantly reduced me in his eyes. "What do you mean by abuse?" I could hear the sense of 'oh-my-god, not another hysterical woman' incredulity in his voice. My next mistake was to take him at his word: to presume that when he asked, he wanted to know.

I told him, graphically. "I didn’t want to know that," he informed me, all sense of rapport now out the window.

Which really is where this story comes full circle. Some individuals – from cardinals to TV megastars – may once have done awful things. No doubt, in time, we will better understand the extent of their culpability. Or not.

But to obsess about the past – or worse, to become locked into a sterile debate about prosecuting actions then by standards now – is to miss the big point. Women today are still on the receiving end of harassment and abuse in every part of their lives. But to even talk about it, to attempt to open up, is to diminish yourself, your status, your career potential in the eyes of far too many of your male colleagues.

Until that stops, exploration of the past remains important: but it must not be allowed to become distraction from the main event.

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