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Sunday, 16 June 2013

My take on the Morrissey Report

It's been a while since I wrote anything. An uncharacteristically long time, I should add.

Such is life when the combined challenges of a full-time job, running a business, trying to be the best possible parent to Xanthe and dealing with what at times can be debilitating depression. There are at times other things to concern myself with than attempting to make sense of political developments.

However, I want to respond to the Morrissey Inquiry's report, published earlier this week.  This is not least because I provided evidence to the inquiry, but also because it touches on issues of such significance that it has the potential to act as an antecedent to a cultural shift of enormous proportions if acted on appropriately and responsibly.

I stress the word "potential", because it is by no means certain what the response will be.  But it has laid down a very clear challenge not only in relation to sexual harassment and how the party deal with complaints, but the more general but equally pressing matters of inclusion, increased participation of women in politics, and power abuse. It is a challenge that the Liberal Democrats cannot shirk, and one which I imagine also applies to other political parties.

I should firstly make clear what my own participation involved. When the allegations of Lord Rennard's impropriety became public, I was involved in a conversation with one of the female complainants. While concerned about the sexism and blatant abuse of power at the heart of the allegations, I was equally (if not more) troubled by the fact that this also seemed to be merely the tip of an iceberg; the by-product of a culture in which such attitudes thrive and through which such inappropriate behaviours become tolerated and in fact commonplace.

I discussed my own experiences  - some of which affected me directly and some of which was directed towards others that I knew. What became very obvious through the sharing of personal experiences was that there exists a culture - or a sub-culture - in which sexual harassment, and the attitudes that inevitably lead to and stem from it, is at best not seen as a problem.

It is this culture that needs to change and so, after a little encouragement I made a complaint to Tim Gordon and then to Helena Morrissey.  I did not wish to go public, or even to seek any action against the person in question. I did not want to open old wounds. What I wanted to do was to inform the conversation and hope that, in some small way, I may be able to contribute to changing a culture that is oppressive and archaic in equal measure.  Researchers should not expect to be propositioned, just as party workers should expect better behaviour from parliamentarians and senior figures than for them to be putting their hands where they don't belong.

And that is the extent of it. Of course, I advised Tim and Helena of the detail of my experiences, including when and where events occurred, but making a complaint against a particular individual was never at the forefront of my mind. I was very pleased that I was allowed to contribute anonymously and that my wish for the detail of the events not to become public knowledge was respected.  You may well ask why I didn't come forward previously and there is a quite obvious dual pronged reason: a) I didn't think I would be taken seriously, given how ingrained in the Westminster culture acceptance of such behaviour evidently is, and b) as is often the case, it is only when someone else makes that initial decision to talk that others find the courage and confidence to also come forward and confirm that (irrespective of whether Chris Rennard is not is not guilty of the alleged offences) there is a problem here that urgently needs to be remedied. Another reason for my reluctance to talk, and something only understood when considering these events retrospectively, was that in making my sexuality blatantly obvious to the individual concerned I subconsciously blamed myself for what later happened.

This is, of course, all in the past. I mention it only as background information, as well as to demonstrate an active personal interest in Helena Morrissey's investigation and what it may mean for our party and the (apparently widely held) view that sexual harassment is an inescapable inevitability.

Moving onto the report itself, it is a 60 page document which can not be done justice in the few words I am able to offer here.  However, I am of the view that it should be applauded and welcomed for the courage it has shown in daring to address questions which have, for too long, been ignored. I also think that its recommendations should be adopted in their entirety, but that we should not stop there. The many useful recommendations are but a step, albeit a significant one, in the right direction. But if we genuinely wish to become a party that "champions the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals", as we ambitiously claim, we have do go beyond these initial recommendations and find additional and alternative ways of creating a new culture of inclusiveness and accountability. In this sense, the Morrissey Report is merely a starting point.

So, what's good about it? Quite a lot. Of course, a great deal will already have been said elsewhere and I don't wish to labour the same points.  But here's a quick summary of what I'm most impressed with:

* the inherent honesty in the report. Helena Morrissey was not afraid to point to some uncomfortable and inconvenient realities. The commitment to truthfulness was of course necessary, but that does not diminish from her achievement. This honesty requires an equally honest response and a recognition of past failures, many of which are painfully difficult to accept.

It makes a welcome examination of the party structure, internal accountability and process.  While not stating it explicitly, I would suggest the report urges a rethink of the party organisation and a new review into the mechanics of how the Liberal Democrats function as a party.  Highlighted is a need to cut through the unnecessarily bureaucratic organisation - not before time. A radical overhaul is required, and one which enhances accountability and facilitates broader participation.

* Again, without making an explicit statement, the report manages successfully to challenge the apparent complacency within the party. We are, without doubt it would seem, very well intentioned. And yet it is clear that on crucial points we have failed - and are failing - spectacularly.  While a cover-up in respect to the Rennard accusations is denied (not altogether convincingly in my view) there is real and deserved criticism for the way the complaints were handled.  Without going into the detail, it is apparent that the Liberal Democrats have not been a model of fairness and equality in recent years, and we have patently failed to match our positive talk on women with action. Morrissey refers to "low-level sexism" and it the fact that we are deemed to be an institutionally sexist party is distinctly unsettling, whatever the level of sexism.

So much of what we thought we were doing well, we clearly were not. That's tough to take, but the complacent attitudes needed to be swept away for progress to be made.

* It manages to listen without making judgments and in doing so has put the party in a better position to deal with the various problems that have been unearthed by the investigation. Whatever the truth of the allegations against Rennard, the complaints were dealt with in a way that was at best ineffective and at worst dismissive. The report does not concern itself with the allegations themselves and is the stronger for it. What it does do is  examine the practice for dealing with such complaints and has found them to be woefully deficient, in the process asking serious questions of Danny Alexander, Jo Swinson and Paul Burstow (and to some extent Nick Clegg).  One can only imagine how much better a position the party might have found itself in if it had been better geared towards listening in the first instance.

* It recognises that harassment is not always sexual by nature and that all forms of harassment should not be tolerated.  The report recommends amending all standing orders and codes of conduct to incorporate the following: "You must treat others with respect and must not bully, harass or intimidate any Party member, member of Party staff, member of Parliamentary staff, Party volunteer or member of the public. Such behaviour will be considered to be bringing the Party into disrepute."

* It proposes not only a new system for dealing with internal complaints but a new Pastoral Care Office. I'm slightly uncomfortable with the proposed name, but the principle of an independent paid employee with responsibility for dealing with complaints, harassment and other grievances is a positive one.

* More effective monitoring of complaint handling is a somewhat obvious recommendation, as is finding ways of "preventing issues [from] festering". But as a result of the report, there can be no doubt as the need for action on these fronts.

* The report looks in some detail at the party's approach towards women. In doing so it speaks of an "unconscious bias", for which is recommends that "training at Conference" should be used "to help people recognise and counter the biases we all suffer from." Again, this touches on the institutional low-level sexism referred to previously and challenges our complacency.

The report is critical of much of some of what has been done to date. It considers much of the training currently provided for women "to be focused on the women rather than on the Party itself" and argues that ensuring "there is diversity training provided to men as well as women" should be a "priority" as "it is much more effective to encourage men and women to work together to develop balanced teams than to treat this as a ‘special interest’ issue."  This is true and something I have been concerned about for some time. We have to move away from the thinking behind exclusivity; diversity is not achieved via such simplistic strategies.

However, for all that is positive, the report also has its limitations and the party, in my view, must go beyond Morrissey's nine key points if it genuinely wishes to become a fairer, more equal, less bureaucratic and more responsive organisation...or at least an employer that people might actually want to work for. I felt it could have gone further in relation to the following points:

* While being critical of women-only training within the party, the report regrettably directs much of its focus onto women.  It does little, in spite of the evidence I provided, to look at the broader picture of the diversity problem and in particular the party's approach towards (and its attractiveness to) minority groups.  The unconscious institutional bias the report refers to applies not only towards women and this should be explored further by the party.

* Furthermore, harassment was seen as something that normally happens to women and is always committed by men. There was mention of one of the personal experiences I reported (sexual harassment towards one male by another male) but otherwise the report conforms to and confirms the gendered stereotypes. It may, of course, be the case that in cases of exclusively sexual harassment this is generally true - but it does affect men in very real ways and this should (in my view) have been given more attention.  Actually, it affects us all because all of humanity is demeaned when one of us is stripped of our humanity and objectified - but that's a separate issue.

However, harassment is not necessarily always sexual in its nature or motivations, and this is something that the report affirms. It is odd then for it to fix its emphasis on women. I know people within the Liberal Democrats, of both genders, who have experienced harassment of various forms including bullying and intimidation from women and indeed from groups of people. Some of this was race-related, some of it based on political viewpoints and some of it on sexual orientation. Outside of politics I know of a trans person who is in her own workplace the victim of unconscious intolerance and it's hard to see how the Liberal Democrats would necessarily be so much better in their approach towards trans people given what we now know about the sexism that has permeated the attitudes of those at the top of the party.

The party, going forward, needs to consider more fully how harassment of all kinds affects people of all genders and particularly minorities. In this respect, I feel the report could have highlighted more specific shortcomings in the party's current approaches.

* The report comments that "women and minorities feel undervalued" and speaks of a need to address "under-representation".  It proclaims that we must "ensure that the efforts involve everyone, men and women, young and old, black and white: the most effective ambassadors for minority causes can be those in the majority group – a white, heterosexual, middle-aged man can be a very effective proponent of diversity as it then moves beyond special interest groups into the mainstream."  All that's very praiseworthy, but it provides very little solid advice as to how this objective can be met.

I believe the principal catalyst for both reviving the cause of liberalism and facilitating diversity must be local parties.  This is something completely overlooked. In fact, in spite of the laughably complex organogram, there is nothing in the report to examine the ways in which local parties and party-affiliated organisations can become effective at tackling the problem of harassment  and the associated issues surrounding sexism and other forms of discrimination.  Or, for that matter, to reach out more successfully to minority groups. While this did not really come under Helena Morrissey's remit, it is something that the party must urgently turn its attention to and represents a challenge for local party organisations and party activists.

* Finally, while questions were asked about the way the party appoints and recruits, the report stopped short of making any clear recommendations about the recruitment process. This was a missed opportunity. It is true that the report touches on monitoring performance and this is self-evidently positive but having explored in depth the way in which Chris Rennard was appointed, and suggesting fundamental flaws in that process, the report failed to make any firm recommendations for change.  I hope that the Liberal Democrats have the courage to accept the criticisms and go further than the report does in implementing a new process that is transparent and meritocratic.

In summary, I was highly impressed with the Morrissey report. In spite of a few criticisms I have, I believe it went further than I expected it would in identifying problems and I hope that the party takes it as seriously as it should. Failure to do so would have catastrophic consequences. The report represents a wake up call; no longer can we complacently believe that the kinds of issues raised in these 60 pages do not apply to our party of equality, fairness and social justice. Its true significance will only be determined by the response and so I eagerly await confirmation from Tim Farron as to what the next steps will be - I urge him to be even bolder than Helena Morrissey in plotting a route through these difficult waters.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe the Liberals should return to their Free Church roots where any inappropriate behavior would not be tolerated.