We have a very confused relationship with youth and mental health in this country, both of which seem to be manifest in the grim tale surrounding Simon Danczuk. On the one hand the empowerment of youth is lauded and the importance of respecting the opinions and independence of 16 and 17 year olds in political debate is paramount. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader has been put down in no small part to his ability to inspire young people to vote for him. Many Labour MPs campaign for 16 and 17 year olds to be able to vote in general and local elections and there are big efforts to enable them to vote in the EU referendum – this is their future and they deserve a say. We believe they have the maturity to be part of the biggest decisions our society can make and the age of consent is 16. Yet when it comes to sending and receiving ‘lude’ text messages a 17 year old is considered a child.
A Labour spokesperson said: “The general secretary of the Labour party has today suspended Simon Danczuk’s membership of the party, pending an investigation into allegations published in the media today.” At that point – as far as I can tell – what had been published were explicit texts sent by both Danczuk and the young woman, which she had made public. I read some of the texts online and they are truly crude and hideously embarrassing. They may make constituents not want to reelect him as their MP, they may make Labour members want to deselect him as their candidate, they may mean many people come to believe he has low sexual morals, but grounds for suspension from the Labour Party? I just can’t see how that’s justified. Is the NEC going to start considering Labour membership on the basis of legal sexual conduct? Is ‘sexting’ with a consenting adult to be made against Labour Party rules? By all means as individuals we can say it’s grim and wrong, but should we really as a political party be making formal judgments about the sexual conduct of those above the age of consent which happens within then law? If Labour thinks something criminal has happened, tell the police and get them to investigate. If we don’t, what grounds are there to suspend him? Offending our moral decency, our moral purity? He’s not the first male MP or trade unionist to get involved with a much younger woman nor the first to make a complete and total idiot of himself over one.
But the other issue to tread carefully on here is mental ill-health, something Dansczuk has been very open about suffering from including that he receives psychiatric treatment. In Labour we loudly and rightly say we are against the stigma connected to mental health and want to challenge it within our society. In fact one of Jeremy Corbyn’s first actions as Leader of the Labour Party was to say, again rightly, that we should put mental health treatment on a par with physical heath treatment within the NHS. But I am now starting to wonder what we actually mean by that and whether we’re only really comfortable with mental health in the abstract. Why are people with mental health conditions stigmatised? It’s not because the go around constantly unlocking scientific enigmas and writing too many symphonies in their sleep. It’s because their challenges often manifest in ways that are deeply challenging and often quite horrible for the people around them, especially those closest to them. They can be self-destructive, especially where drugs or alcohol are involved. They can be aggressive, dismissive, angry, deceitful, scared, sad, erratic, exhausted, unpredictable and awful. They can also be wonderful, kind, giving, caring, funny, gentle, brilliant, delightful – and extremely brave. (More info here). The reason there is a stigma to be fought is because of the less palatable manifestations. Simon Danszuk’s ostensibly unfathomable actions are what it can look like. Terrible, self-harming actions where it’s impossible to say where mental health ends and autonomy begins. It’s messy and complex, and that’s just the way it is. Maybe he’s awful, maybe he’s ill. Maybe he’s both. Who knows. And even if he is, that doesn’t mean such behavior should go unchallenged or that it shouldn’t be commented upon. But just maybe the Labour Party as an institution should at the very least be cautious about adding to the pitchforks.
You might find this story grim beyond words. You might find him grim beyond words. But in relation to the texting, he doesn’t appear to have broken any laws, he never even met her. Does he really deserve to have his whole life destroyed? Perhaps we should think for a moment about the morality of that.