In July, the former Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke was found guilty of two charges of sexual assault. Elphicke, 49, had tried to kiss and then grope the breast of a 20-something parliamentary worker. Later he ran his hand up the inside of her thigh. He had forced a different victim on to a sofa and groped her breast while trying to kiss her. Yesterday he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.
Complainants and campaigners breathed a sigh of relief. A widespread problem had been recognised and met with a custodial sentence. For Elphicke, unlike many of his peers, actions had consequences. Yet his story is still a reminder of why it is so hard to challenge powerful men abusing their position in politics. Our instinctive groupishness gets in the way.
I should know. Eight years ago, I was one of them. When I was 21, Lord Rennard, the former chief executive of the Liberal Democrats, sexually assaulted me. (Lord Rennard apologised for “encroaching on personal space” but continues to deny my allegation.) It was an experience pockmarked with smears, disappointment and injustice. Speaking out diminishes job prospects, culls networks and leaves you isolated and punished.
To avoid the fallout I moved 5,000 milles away to study at Stanford University, California, becoming an expert in polarisation. It gave me a new understanding of why people close ranks on victims and those who expose perpetrators.
Humans naturally form into groups — prehistorically, it was what kept us safe from predators. For all the progress since, our brain’s wiring has remained the same. If you feel threatened, band together with others. It’s instinctive, but limits clear thinking and inhibits the path to justice.
Charlie Elphicke’s tribe supported him. He wrote a piece for The Mail on Sunday saying he had no idea of the allegations against him. Yet we now know that his party’s whips had put them to him months earlier. Initially suspended from the Tory party, Elphicke was reinstated after the powerful 1922 Committee pressed his case regularly to the leadership.
Elphicke had a pattern of misleading his colleagues. He told people the police case had been dropped. A check with the police would have confirmed that not to be true. But the 1922 Committee was duped.
This was hauntingly reminiscent of the briefings against those of us who spoke out against Lord Rennard. As the evidence mounted, people sought to find arguments that agreed with their position. Supposedly, the disclosures were timed to harm the party in the run up to a by-election (all the key players knew this was untrue, I’d spent five years avoiding hostile press questions); we were exaggerating; we were vengeful.
This discounting of facts and allegations we don’t like and dwelling on or concocting positions that we can agree with plays into this groupishness. Fear and anxiety are triggered when we experience uncertainty and dissonance, such as seeing a talented colleague accused of sexual assault, and it takes a considerable cognitive effort to override it.
Those who do are rarely acknowledged. In Elphicke’s case, the deputy chief whip Anne Milton deserves praise for recording meetings, supporting the victims and passing details to the police. She was supported by Julian Smith, then the chief whip. As leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom used considerable personal capital to introduce new tough rules about harassment against MPs. Like Mr Smith, she now sits on the backbenches. There is scant reward for standing up to your own side — even when you are right.
For things to really change, the 1922 Committee would now be examining its behaviour. Elphicke’s local party would be assessing why they issued a statement saying “the Metropolitan police and CPS have pursued allegations which have proven in court to be entirely untrue . . . we have no doubt this will be another one”. The Lib Dem peers would not still be trying to place Lord Rennard in positions of authority.
Our groupishness, our partisanship prevents that reflection. Overriding it is hard work. But without it, perpetrators continue to get away with it and victims are smashed against the rocks.
This piece was first published in The Times