There are always two sides to every story, and in the case of Ukip’s “first sex scandal”, both sides emerged very quickly. Within hours of Natasha Bolter, one of the party’s election candidates, alleging that she had been sexually harassed by Roger Bird, Ukip’s general secretary, he hit back by making public a slew of text messages apparently sent by her which seemed to suggest they were in a relationship.
Bird has been suspended, pending a Ukip inquiry, and Bolter has resigned as candidate for South Basildon and quit the party in disgust. It is a pity that Bolter, one of the few ethnic-minority candidates in Nigel Farage’s party – and a woman in a winnable seat – will not be seeking election next May. The saga also underlines the Ukip “Whatever next?” factor – the party seemingly at the centre of no end of upsets, calamities and mishaps, thanks to its roll call of characters who range from the colourful to the downright unsavoury. But still Ukip bobs along in the polls like a bright purple, unsinkable boat. We can even titter at the names of the protagonists, because it’s just good ol’ Ukip, isn’t it?
Yet this is a serious case. Bolter alleges that Bird – the man who was responsible for vetting Ukip’s candidates – propositioned her on the same day she was interviewed for a seat. She rejected his advances, she says. A second time she says he bought her an expensive dress to wear to a private members’ club, and said she “now looked like a girl who could get in a taxi”. On a third occasion, she claims, there were further unwanted advances, and again she rejected them. Bolter complained to party officials when, after this third incident, she says she received anonymous emails claiming she had slept with Bird.
Bird claims the pair were, in fact, in a consensual relationship and he released 10 text messages he says were from Bolter to back up his case. The messages, sent between September and November this year, included, “I am really missing u bird…” and “I love u bird and wish u let me look after u. Hope u feel better xx”. Bolter has denied that she ever slept with Bird, saying perhaps she would not have been “thrown to the wolves” if she had.
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So does the content of Bolter’s text messages mean Bird is in the clear? That is what some Ukip supporters are saying. But they can be read in different ways. It is difficult to tell whether someone who puts “xx” at the end of a text message, or even says “I love u”, is in a relationship with that person. Text messages are notoriously unguided weapons of misunderstanding – nearly everyone puts an “x” in their texts, for a start. Bolter writing “I love u” could mean she was in a sexual relationship with Bird, or it could mean they were in a platonic friendship, offering advice and support. It is not decisive proof either way.
And Bolter showing any friendliness or warmth to Bird would not have excused, nor should have invited, any alleged sexual advances towards her, in the circumstances. There would have been nothing appropriate about the general secretary of a political party coming on to a candidate on her interview day. He was in a position of power and control over her – any alleged advance or suggestion of going back to a hotel could have carried – even unintended – a whiff of consequences. Even if she had slept with him, the power in their professional relationship was all his.
That is only what Bird is alleged by Bolter to have done. But more than that, what he actually has done is released seemingly private text messages from her. This is despicable behaviour, barely more dignified than an ex-boyfriend posting “revenge porn” on the internet, only in words not pictures. This public response looks like an act of sex-shaming designed to make her pay the price for bringing sexual harassment allegations against him. In this sense Bird did, after all, exert power and control over one of the candidates he vetted. If he is innocent of Bolter’s claims of harassment – which are serious and need to be properly investigated - then let Ukip’s inquiry deal with it. Let the inquiry see the texts, and hear both sides of the story.
Bolter now says she wanted to speak out to highlight the pressure exerted by men in power on women in politics and other professions. In doing so, with the backlash from the accused, she now feels she has ruined her life. So the next time a woman candidate feels she could be in a similar position, she will be less likely to speak out.
This is a sorry, miserable saga. But there is one aspect which is encouraging: the response by the Ukip leadership. Farage has said he is determined his party can stand up to the scrutiny that being third in the polls brings. Bird’s immediate suspension, the holding of an inquiry, and the suggestion by party sources that any relationship between them would have been inappropriate are the acts of a grown-up professional party. Just like this scandal, Ukip is no longer a laughing matter.Reuse content