So, what is your line on bottom-pinching, Mr Clegg?

Old assumptions about what is acceptable behaviour no longer hold, as the male-dominated Lib Dems are – painfully and publicly – finding out

Around 20 years ago, I went to see David Mamet’s play Oleanna at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was causing controversy, first because of the subject-matter – a false accusation of sexual harassment at an American university – and then because of the reaction at the London first night; when the academic beat up his female accuser on stage, some men in the audience cheered. The play was directed by Harold Pinter, who believed it was tough and unflinching. I thought it was a caricature and walked out.

In those days, a mostly male consensus still set the agenda in the arts, media and politics. Like most women, I had been groped at work and even, on one occasion, subjected to sexual assault. There wasn’t anyone to complain to and if you did, colleagues would rush to the man’s defence or suggest you’d mistaken his intentions. I never thought this situation would last once women started entering the workplace in large numbers. It hasn’t, as the Liberal Democrats are discovering in the most public way imaginable.

Whatever the outcome of the allegations against its former chief executive, Lord Rennard, the row which has split the party has a simple cause. Women are still not as widely represented as we should be in some walks of life, but old assumptions about what is acceptable behaviour no longer hold. Nick Clegg’s problem isn’t just the accusations against Rennard, who continues to deny them, or indeed the timing; last week the party also had to suspend one of its MPs, Mike Hancock, who faces civil litigation and much more serious accusations of sexual assault. It’s the impression that leading members of the party, who are almost without exception male, appear to be oblivious of a sea change in relations between men and women.

New rules apply, even in laddish environments such as Parliament, and many men as well as women welcome the change in the working atmosphere. Some even support the campaign to get rid of Page 3, which has become a litmus test of attitudes towards casual sexism. That isn’t to say that suggestive remarks or indeed sexual harassment have been abolished from the workplace, but it is much easier for both sexes to report behaviour that makes them uncomfortable.

Against this background, the failure of a party which has the word “liberal” in its title to embrace equality in its practices is little short of disastrous. The Lib Dems should have had procedures in place years ago to deal swiftly with allegations of sexual harassment. It’s tempting to think they might have done so if the party’s power structure wasn’t so resistant to women; there are only seven women among the party’s 57 MPs (56, now Hancock is suspended) and they haven’t said much about the current scandal. 

Meanwhile, like dinosaurs who have not raised their heads for many a year, one Lib Dem bloke after another has lumbered blinking into the unfamiliar territory of gender politics. Clegg, who is a decent man, must have been tearing his hair out when he heard the sexist nonsense they came out with. Chris Davies, who is one of the party’s MEPs, protested that Rennard was accused only of touching women “through clothing” and dismissed the alleged incidents as no more than “an Italian man pinching a woman’s bottom” a few years ago. Davies said a lot of other foolish things as well, and eventually apologised. But he isn’t the only man in the party who has a strange take on groping bits of other people’s bodies. A Lib Dem peer, Lord Greaves, opined that “at least half of the members of the House of Lords have pinched a woman’s bottom”. Did he really mean to suggest that some noble ladies are unable to keep their hands off a shapely pair of female buttocks?

Greaves did at least admit that such behaviour is no longer widespread and said he was not trying to justify it. Rennard’s legal adviser, Lord Carlile, decided to play the victim card, saying that his friend’s treatment “has made the North Korean judicial system seem benign”. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that Kim Jong Un’s unfortunate uncle died with the words “No, anything but the Lib Dem disciplinary procedure!” on his lips.

What’s been fascinating to watch is the change in the way sexual harassment is being discussed. Two decades ago, there was a default assumption that women who complained were over-reacting or had made the whole thing up, but that’s far from the case now. Unlike the Lib Dems, Labour has plenty of high-profile women who are ready to talk knowledgeably on the subject, while newspapers have more women in commissioning roles. A headline in The Daily Telegraph, which recently started a “wonder women” blog, is symptomatic of the change: “You don’t need breasts to know [Rennard] is wrong.”

For every columnist who’s demanded to know why a woman doesn’t slap a man’s face if he touches her in a way she doesn’t like, someone else has asked why women should be expected to resort to violence. It’s a welcome shift away from questioning the accuser’s behaviour – traditional in cases of alleged rape as well as sexual harassment – towards asking instead why some men still try to take advantage of their status. 

Of course this is about power, which is the only thing Mamet got right in Oleanna. In the past, many of us felt disbelief and anger when a colleague’s hand brushed our breasts, but there weren’t enough of us to do anything about it. That’s no longer the case and Nick Clegg needs to get his party’s line on bottom-pinching sorted, pronto.

Twitter: @polblonde

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