Bullying in parliament is systemic—and enablers are everywhere. If anything, we should be more surprised by the names that haven't yet appearedby Megan Corton Scott / March 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
John Bercow (centre, facing away from camera) is one of those accused. But the truth is, bullying is systematic. Yet again, Westminster is in the news for the wrong reasons. This time, it’s a bullying problem that’s been uncovered, thanks to Newsnight journalists and those within parliament being brave enough to speak out. In the midst of dealing with still-surfacing sexual harassment allegations following the #MeToo movement, it is only natural that the conversation has expanded to include other abuses of power in politics. Last week’s Newsnight report of bullying in parliament would have come as no surprise to many people in work in or around politics. For me and my friends, what surprised us were the names that haven’t yet appeared, rather than those that have. There are rumours that follow certain MPs—of intense yelling heard through heavy Portcullis House doors; of 3am phonecalls; of mind games and insults and threats to future job prospects. There are those MPs for whom a quick search for their expired job adverts on w4mp will reveal a staff turnover that is far too high for easy explanation. It is important that bullies be held to account. But there is a danger of becoming too focused on the individual names emerging, rather than the culture from which they emerge. The power handed over to members of parliament and peers comes with very little direction and next to no accountability. Upon election, members are placed in charge of their own office budgets, staffing decisions and management style. The satellite nature of the 650 parliament offices means there is no cohesive working style, let alone a united recognition of acceptable or unacceptable behavior. Members receive little training on running an office, or dealing with high stress environments. Members also currently sit safe in the knowledge that their position is relatively untouchable. The worst that can happen is for them to be expelled by their political party, but even then, their seat in the commons would remain their own until the next general election. A lack of accountability The murkiness around accountability only works in the favour of those with more power—confusion about reporting bullying to the party, or the whips office, or the parliamentary standards authority means that staff remain unsure and members remain untethered. For those staff that work for the House, this can be even more severe. In the same way you wouldn’t yell at someone else’s children, members don’t usually yell at staff that aren’t their own—in deference to their employer rather than to the staff member themselves. Those who work for parliament as an institution, and not for a particular member, are not afforded even this base protection, and thus can be even more susceptible to abuse. Newsnight also uncovered that victims of bullying and harassment were more likely to be women—yet another fact that comes as little surprise. Bullying exploits power imbalances to hostile effect, and therefore its victims are more likely to be those that hold less power in society anyway. From age to race to gender to sexuality to class, those who are markedly ‘different’ are also markedly easy targets. The ramifications of this hostility to difference are evident in the (lack of) diversity of not only parliamentarians, but also in parliamentary staff. There is a way forward Whilst accountability remains an issue, the proposals contained in a recent cross-party report would be a welcome change to this system. In a ‘crackdown’ on abuses of power in Westminster, the report outlined not only a proposed code of conduct, but severe sanctions for breaching it. These sanctions included an anonymity policy for those accused of sexual harassment and bullying, but for anonymity to be waived if accusations were proven. The report also proposed a system for standards committees in both the Lords and Commons to recommend suspension of an MP or Peer. Lastly, these committees would be empowered to trigger recall proceedings, resulting in a by-election for the MP’s seat, or the expulsion of a peer from the Lords. These proceedings are far clearer and stricter than anything that has come before, and would be a welcome change. And yet, there must also be a shift towards tackling root causes alongside individual misdemeanors. Whilst the above system is much needed, the process individualizes a wider problem of the parliamentary culture and the aggression, harassment and bullying that has long been woven through it. Recent reports surrounding Justin Forsyth and Brendan Cox consistently point towards an aggressively macho culture seemingly imported from Gordon Brown’s government. Whilst Malcom Tucker is funny on television, the reality of the workplace culture that the Thick Of It is based on is far less amusing. More recently, the “toxicity” of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill in May’s No 10 allegedly caused mass resignations, mainly of women in senior positions. Kinder, gentler politics? Each government and party leader comes with a different culture, a different way of doing things. Jeremy Corbyn’s first slogan was “kinder, gentler politics”—a mantra that has become as ironic as it has cliché after 2.5 years of bitter Labour infighting (and now reports of bullying from the leader’s office). I personally cannot trust that Corbyn has ushered in a new culture in politics whilst his shadow foreign secretary continues to employ Damien McBride, for instance. The employment of ‘muscle men’ or ‘political enforcers’ should be left behind, as should the idea that aggressive behavior is part and parcel of politics. The cross-party report’s recommendations should be implemented in full and as a matter of urgency. Sanctions should be imposed across political and factional divides, and all staff, from junior clerks to political advisors, should be clearly advised on the code of conduct and the reporting procedure. Management training for members, with a focus on equalities and sensitivity training, would also go a long way in making the Westminster culture a more welcoming place to work for people from different backgrounds. An intense—and necessary—media spotlight has pushed forward renewed accountability procedures and strong calls for change from our political leaders. I continue to have hope that we can protect the people inside Westminster at the same time as trying to help those outside of it.