I'm going to keep this piece blunt, because no-one likes a pity party. (Although if anyone wants to throw me one, I think you can work out the name of the new cocktail that could be served by the end of this post. Or indeed this paragraph,) This is an account of the unexpected blow that was landed on me in my early days of becoming a city councillor - the nasty, misogynistic lie of my supposedly being 'caught' doing Sex-In-The-Men's-Toilets of the civic offices with a male councillor - a lie promulgated by some of my own Liberal Democrat colleagues. I was, effectively, falsely accused of committing an indictable offence by colleagues - actual city councillors - attempting to strip me of my dignity. I'd not experienced behaviour like this ever before in my professional life. Smearing. Lying. Objectifying. Isolating. I want to tackle it head on in this piece. It's time.
This particular lie that was circulated about me by some fellow Lib Dem councillors was Chapter One of the misogyny I was going to face. And, because it sets the scene to a large extent for what came later, I want to dissect it in detail and look the organic strands under the hard exterior of this lie. They give a visceral taste of how poisonous and humiliating the anti-Eleanor-Scott narratives were deliberately designed to be, from the very start, in certain quarters.
From the beginning I had very much looked forward to becoming and being a Liberal Democrat councillor. I'd had (and still do have) an interesting career as an archaeologist, that has also run parallel since my teenage years to living with episodes of depression. When I became a Lib Dem candidate in 2001, at the Portsmouth Lib Dems' own request, I had imagined that the Lib Dem Party of all parties would be supportive and provide a certain camaraderie. Naive? Maybe. But I was hopeful, and I was proud to take my seat in the council chamber. I'd had a debilitating episode of PND from 1998 onwards that nearly put me in hospital, and which never really resolved itself. I spoke about the PND in public on a number of occasions early on in my council career - it's no secret. When Tom Blair was Lord Mayor and chairing a HomeStart event, I spoke from the floor and he afterwards called me 'brave' for speaking out - he at least recognising how much we all need to do to remove the 'stigma' of mental health illnesses. What I wasn't expecting was what actually unfolded within the Liberal Democrat 'family'. While some of the councillors were lovely, and very kind to me and my children - and many still are - some others were, well, not so nice.
I tried to fit in. Encouraged to operate in a certain way, I would do that, only to find others thought of me as 'up myself', arrogant, and an annoying twat. If I was conciliatory in style, I was considered by yet others to be 'soft' or 'in the officers' pockets'.
But the Lib Dem Group always had a use for me in their Cabinet. They always had a use. I worked, and worked, and they used me. After just a year I was appointed to the hefty Education and Children portfolio, and my default style became simply to be as unerringly competent and collegiate as I could be, with elements of 'tough' and 'caring' in the mix. A highlight for me was being part of a city delegation to Downing Street to try and get more money for Portsmouth schools, but even that led to negative comments from some Group members. Apparently, it was 'a waste of fucking time'.
My anxiety levels, whether it showed or not, were sky high, even after I'd given up my regular employment elsewhere to focus on being a full-time councillor and Cabinet Member. And I got out of bed every morning, got the children to school, and did my job. I kept going. I visited and did casework for residents, shared advice centres, wrote leaflets, took photos, and delivered street letters. I chaired meetings and spoke at school events. I attended and spoke at council meetings; and I made decisions and took the flak. I picked up my children from school or from their childcare, and walked home, sorted out dinner, dealt with uniform and baths and homework and lunches and forms and reading books and bedtime. I then read reports and replied to emails and dealt with phone messages, and tried to plan future childcare and babysitters for holidays, inset days and evening meetings - not always successfully - and it all began again the next morning. It was Groundhog Day, but with politics. It was tough, especially as a lone parent, juggling it all, but it engaged my brain and I was functioning.
Looking back, however, this was the antithesis of a therapeutic environment, and it started to take its toll. I don't really know how I survived it for so long. The problem wasn't that the job was inherently gruelling - it was that the culture was so sick. Any perceived weakness, any perceived difference made you fair game, I think, to some members of the Lib Dem Group, and others were not prepared to step in and stop it.
When I was interviewed after my eventual resignation by Victoria Derbyshire on Radio 5 Live, I alluded to that very spectacular early lie that had been told about me by members of the Lib Dem Group as a memorable example of how hurtful and painful the misogyny had been. And as I said to Victoria Derbyshire, for the avoidance of doubt, of course it isn't true. I didn't have either the time or the inclination during that live interview to go into the specifics and the cleverness of the lie, and the circumstances around my trying to find out who had originated it, and indeed there was another piece of the tale yet to happen.
Here then, for the first time, is the story as fully as I can tell it and analyse it.
The (then) councillor who told me of the 'rumour' was Terry Hall. I vividly recall - and I did subsequently write the details down - that we were alone together in the Lib Dem Group Room at the Portsmouth City Council civic offices, fairly early in our tenure at the council (so during 2002-03). She was collecting post and putting it in her bag. She had longer hair in those days. I was wearing a dark trouser suit. Terry said something identical or very close to: 'The knives are out for you, Eleanor. There's a rumour you were caught having sex with [name of male cllr] in the men's toilets of the civic offices'.
I was actually so surprised and upset by being told this by Terry - who was pretty much Lib Dem 'royalty' in Portsmouth - that I'm sorry to say that tears started. I asked Terry to tell me who was saying this, because it was happening within the Group, apparently. I was crying by this point. How does anyone just bounce back from something like that? 'The knives are out' was a pretty shocking assessment of my position, especially when relayed to me by Terry, who was a very intelligent, educated and erudite woman, and who knew the meaning and value of words.
I asked Terry again who she had heard the 'rumour' from - and I specifically asked who in the Group had told it to her - but she said she 'couldn't' tell me. And nor would she, even when I said to her it wasn't true and that it was grossly unfair. I can only imagine that she had been put in a horrendously difficult position by someone she didn't want to cross. What other explanation can there be? She chose to warn me, though, and for that I'm grateful. I was extremely hurt; but Terry Hall's own discomfort was palpable.
To this day, Terry Hall has never been able give up the names of those involved, and shortly after I resigned from the Liberal Democrat Group and Cabinet, over the Hancock saga, she emailed to me she couldn't recall the incident happening. I pressed on because I wanted at least some acknowledgement that the incident had in fact happened. Finally on 1st July 2014 I received the email I had been waiting for - 'Since you emailed me below I admit that I do now have a very vague memory of the occasion but not until you prompted me and my memory is not what it was'.
I very much appreciate Terry Hall's digging deep for this. We were friends and allies once, and for quite some time, and it has been extremely hard I think for both us knowing that things will never be the same.
In terms of timings, records show that I had emailed Terry Hall on 28 January 2014 a few days after my resignation from the Group; and she sent her helpful email of partial recollection on 1st July 2014, shortly after the Kath Pinnock [since Baroness Pinnock] 'review' of the Lib Dems in Portsmouth had finished. (But let's not dwell on that 'review' in this particular post.)
There was, for me, more grim stuff to come that I had to deal with. I had Lib Dem colleagues attack me for being 'hormonal', or for my partial deafness, all in front of colleagues and sometimes senior officers. All this I reported from 2010 onwards to the local party chairs, and eventually to Tim Farron. I certainly told the local party chair Simon Dodd about the caught-having-sex-in-the-men's-bogs lie in a complaint that I made to him in an arranged phone call which took place on the evening of 29th November 2012. This then itself formed part of a dossier passed to Tim Farron (some of it in person in a private and sensitively conducted meeting in his office in London in 2014) and also to a few appropriately chosen senior Lib Dem figures in 2014; but to the best of my knowledge, despite assurances, my dossier has never been properly investigated.
That first lie about me was very carefully created, I think, and quite clever with regards to the layers of misogyny it attempted to lay down, and it's worth taking them apart forensically. First, there's the 'caught' having sex. Caught. This conjures up my being apprehended in a wrongful act, stumbled upon and found by my shocked betters going about their lawful business, whilst I was shamefully engaged in slutty wrongness.
Second, the chosen location of the non-existent event. The men's toilets. Wtf? So not only am I transgressing morality, I'm transgressing the norms of gendered social space. In a public toilet, no less. A men's public toilet. What kind of woman does that? Obviously a fallen one, a slattern. Nice.
Third, under whose gaze? Who would have been there to 'catch' me, to see me? Men, of course. It would have been men who found me in their piss space and 'caught' me having it off with another councillor. Men who would either have been other councillors, council officers or members of the public. Boys, possibly. I was the Chair of the Standards Committee at the time, and the Group Secretary of the Liberal Democrat Group. It was the perfect undermining tactic. It was a story I was loathe to repeat precisely because it was so humiliating to have been accused of it, and it was a false allegation of criminal wrong-doing.
The unfounded accusation additionally sought to position my sexuality outside of the private realm and place it into the public sphere. The specifics of the lie meant that it could more easily be circulated by those who might otherwise have been bothered by the disregard for my right to privacy. Lib Dems normally will stand up very robustly for an individual's right to a private life, and that's absolutely right. What consenting adults do in private, as long as no-one is vulnerable or coerced or harmed, is, to me, very much a private matter, as is necking a vat of red wine or identifying as a French Legionnaire. But a toilet used by a large number of employees in a building is deemed to be a public toilet for the purposes of prosecuting people for the offence of outraging public decency; and so the rumour about me placed my supposed activity not only outside of my private realm, but turned it into a crime.
Such a smear buys very much into the Madonna vs Whore trope, setting me up in stark contrast to the nice settled and married ladies on the Council. It was a devious trick which sought to deflect attention away from my being a 42 year old professional with a PhD and turn the collective gaze towards a vision of me as an untrustworthy slut with poor judgement, no boundaries, no discretion and no dignity.
And finally, consider the expression 'the knives are out for you'. I'd been on the council for less than a year, and yet here I was being told by Terry that I was about to be metaphorically knifed by members of my own Group. It's an idiom that a group of people use about someone when they're angry with the person and want to criticise them and cause them problems.
Who on earth would actively dislike me as much as this? Where does malice like that originate? All done behind my back, with the 'knives out', but with no-one willing to go on record - it was like fighting shadows with a flail.
The members and ex-members of the Lib Dem Group involved in this horrible smear against me, whether female or male, know exactly who they are. They are cowards and misogynists. I don't see how any but the most deluded can argue otherwise. They put not just me but also Terry Hall in a terrible position, and I admit I have wondered whether for Terry that might not have been the only occasion. The behaviour shown by the originator of that lie about me isn't a one-off - it's indicative of a mind-set.
As something of a postscript, another odd thing happened to me in my first year on the Council. The election in May 2002 had been, unusually, an 'all up' election, where every seat in every ward was contested. (Three seats per ward.) I had come third in Fratton behind Hancock and Phil Shaddock, and so had to stand again in 2003 to remain on the Council - if the Liberal Democrats in Portsmouth chose to re-select me. And one day, Phil told me that Gerald Vernon-Jackson, one of the architects of our 2002 election success in the city, was moving down from Newbury and had his eyes on potential safe seats - Fratton, Milton and Eastney & Craneswater in that order. That's what Phil said. Phil then asked if I definitely wanted to stand again. Well yes, I said, I hadn't done all that work and given up my regular job for nothing. (Swearing was definitely involved.) Phil told me a few days later that it was 'sorted'. Of course only Phil and Gerald know how much of the above is true. I can only swear to what was told to me.
And so it came to pass that Gerald was selected for Milton, which he won, and he became Deputy Group Leader and then Group Leader, and ultimately the Leader of the Council for ten years. The sitting councillor from Milton ward who was thrown under the bus, Nigel Sizer, won a Pyrrhic victory of sorts in that the procedure of the selection meeting at which he was de-selected was deemed to have been improper. (My recollection is that it involved in some way irregularities around proxy votes, which shouldn't have been brought into the meeting to be counted). However, by the time of the ruling on the matter by regional officers, Nigel had left the Lib Dems in protest anyway. In a strange twist, Nigel joined the Tories, and stood against Alex Bentley. Alex won for the Lib Dems, but a few years lost his seat to the Tory candidate Sarah Dinenage who was supported by Lee Hunt. Alex joined the Labour party, and Lee joined the Lib Dems.
I stood and won in Fratton in 2003, and again in 2007 and 2011. I didn't stand again in 2015, having left the Lib Dems the year before in disgust over the Hancock saga and how I felt my colleagues were (mis)handling it. The toxic culture was having consequences that had stepped outside of politics and into ordinary people's actual lives. The 13 years I served on the Council had some highs, certainly, and there were some genuinely uproarious times and great achievements, but I don't think those knives were ever put away - they were just hanging round, waiting, and they were certainly given another outing in 2014, even though it wasn't me who was the actual villain of the piece. Maybe old habits die hard for some of the Group.
According to Lib Dem Group Leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson in 2014 when I met with him shortly after my resignation, 'Others in the Group have a different experience of being in the Group ... you are unhappy, others aren't.' So that's OK then. As long as it's just the one woman being damaged, that's fine. Oh wait ...