In a political culture rocked by #MeToo and whistleblowing scandals, you wouldn’t feel entirely misplaced in holding out hope for the future of our political institutions. It seems after so long, that we could be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Surely now, after everything we have dredged from the depths of the political swamp, we are on the road to a political culture open to all, and to internal scrutiny?
But for those within our political institutions, our best hope for a future where the people who make the rules do so in our best interests, the reality does not match this ideal. For many, staring in the face of injustice, the consequences of challenging the status quo and the old guard that enforce it are grave. For as long as challenging injustice in our political institutions is a one way ticket to a hostile environment, the end of your career, and for some the end of your very way of life we cannot reasonably expect such challenges to be made.
When we listen to recollections of the political careers of those who have made it, the changemakers and high profile representatives of our times, those stories are marred by tales of the consequences of finding oneself at odds with those with strangleholds on the political power of their times. Brilliant political actors succeed in spite of the political culture they exist within, as opposed to with the support of the institutions that rely on their very being there to survive.
Behind too many stories of political success lie tales of discrimination, harassment, and accounts of a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and abuse. How can we expect our political institutions to produce the best representatives and policy when their very culture is hostile to the people needed to do so?
How many great political thinkers and problem solvers have we lost in this country to the workplace hazards of the political sphere?
For as long as our political institutions remain straightjacketed by an unjustifiably privileged few with power, defending an old way of life that serves their best interests at the expense of the greater good, we are actively stunting our ability to make reality the open, tolerant and fair society vision that so many of us subscribe to.
For the radical change that our political institutions need we need radical changemakers. Jo Swinson is undeniably one of those.
Nothing I’ve read from a political figure has felt more refreshing in our political times than this:
“As we work to eliminate sexual harassment — in the corridors of political power, in the film industry, and in workplaces, schools and public spaces right across the country — it is important to approach the issue from the perspective of the victim. Yet there is a surprising amount of resistance to change: too often organisations switch into defence mode, or treat it as a comms problem to try to shut down as quickly as possible. The irony is that the best way to protect the organisation is by recognising that sexual harassment is still endemic across society, and acting with humility. Claims must be fully investigated and complainants treated with sensitivity and respect. I don’t think any organisation has got this totally sorted.”
If we want to create radical change in our institutions we have to accept that we have a problem. But that is not where the difficult conversations end. From there we must construct disciplinary systems and pastoral support that are truly impartial and not just a legitimising arm for a toxic political culture. Our inquisition must turn over every stone. In the process we must turn out the pockets of well liked and despised figures alike. We may not like what we find.
In committing to doing just that Jo Swinson stands in direct contrast to many around her.
Underneath the enamel lacquer of sweeping statements about equality our political culture is full of passive bystanders. We exist in a political time, like so many before us, where it is easier to allow those who hold unjustified power to continue as they are. We all know that progress will come at the expense of many of the faces that we recognise in our political history. We all know that it is easier to do nothing.
Jo Swinson over the course of her political career has come face to face with all of these things - and nevertheless she persisted.
Jo Swinson has the potential to be the face of a Liberal Democrat party, and a political culture, authentically committed beyond lip service to challenging the unequal power divisions that make politics a hostile environment for too many.
For our hopes for the future of our political institutions to live up to our ideals we need leaders like Jo Swinson, willing to challenge the people and power structures that hold us back, and where necessary remove them all together.