Women have bravely spoken out. Now, both parties need to take concrete steps towards making things better... regardless of what Boris Johnson is up toby Megan Corton Scott / November 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
Given the furore over Priti Patel and Boris Johnson, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether the harassment scandal in Westminster is now somehow over. It’s been two weeks since the Conservative party spreadsheet, containing information on ‘disgraced’ MPs, went public. The intention behind this spreadsheet was as clear as day: to document potential embarrassments to the party, rather than to collate stories of sexual harassment and assault. Poor Amber Rudd, to have the rumours about her on the same list as the Mark Garnier allegations—as if dating when you’re 54 is akin to asking your parliamentary staffer to buy sex toys.
Yet the concept of using potentially criminal behaviour to demand loyalty from backbenchers is not a new one. Lisa Nandy has raised this very point three times—and again for the fourth time last week—to Theresa May, first in the latter’s role as Home Secretary and again as Prime Minister.
Unfortunately, on both sides of the bench, the safety of staffers is not a priority when it comes to making sure you’ve got the numbers you need. Jeremy Corbyn has said that, as far as he knew, the case against Kelvin Hopkins “had been closed” by the time he elevated him to the shadow cabinet. But questions remain. The handling of investigations into both Damian Green and David Prescott should rightly be scrutinised, not for their political ramifications but for the precedent they will set for each party.
This injustice is unsurprising when it comes to Westminster. There is a culture that exists within politics of constant sacrifice for party gain. There is always a bigger goal; a greater good. Heightened factionalism has only deepened this. As parties battle with each other and themselves, sexual harassment allegations are seen as either hindrance or political capital. Ignoring the abuse of staff is a casualty of war.
To think that party staff can handle sexual harassment and assault allegations is to lack understanding of the political culture.
A job is not only a job in politics: it’s a social life, a hobby, a passion. There are a myriad of group chats, Facebook groups and mailing lists that connect hundreds of party members. Political events double up as a social occasions, and people spend as much on party conference as others do on a package holiday. Political parties are ready-made communities, and it is unsurprising that so many people find their best friends and spouses within the party fold, or end up recruiting their colleagues, parents and offspring. From the bottom to the top of the party structure, you will invariably have people in common, from campaigns worked, doors knocked on, events attended.
This is why independent bodies within party structures are so important. Appointing senior party members—as Labour attempted to do with convening a new committee of NEC members—is effectively appointing the most well-connected people, with the most vested interests in the party they have dedicated their personal and professional lives to.
It is a clear conflict of interest to ask those tasked with running and growing a political party, to investigate and expose its weaknesses. It also hinders victims coming forward, to know they must appear in front of people who will know who they are, what their politics are, who their friends are. The Labour Party finally did announce that an independent body will be appointed, a procedure that was met with relief from women who have called for this measure for years—most notably Bex Bailey.
Theresa May must learn the same lessons Labour did: that only through independent bodies will victims feel empowered to come forwards, and fair action can be taken. So far, May has sadly dismissed calls for action to be taken in the Conservative party, instead laying out a parliamentary grievance procedures that MPs on both sides of the house have dismissed as “disappointing.”
Whilst independent procedures are needed for victims, they beg the question: what happens to the perpetrator? No independent body will have the right to penalise members of parliament. As we know from the sorry state of Simon Danczuk, even when an MP is fully in disgrace, they remain an MP: only their constituents can fire them – and even they have no control over when they have the option to do so. However, they can be punished by their political parties—by having the whip removed, being suspended or expelled altogether. To be held immediately accountable, it is down to political parties to listen and act on the independent reports.
Additionally, political parties should take responsibility over staff employed by their members of parliament. Westminster operates as 650 satellite offices, with staffers employed by parliament, not party.
Offering each staffer a symbolic salary—say £1 per annum—would bring them all, technically, under the party banner. It would allow staffers access to the same HR system, and to the advice and counselling services provided. But most importantly, it would put the care of staffers directly with the political party—a symbolic move that would acknowledge where the responsibility of safeguarding, and of punishment, lies.
Calls for independent bodies to be established for victims both in and outside of Westminster are growing ever louder, and should be listened to. But let it not mean a shifting of blame from party to parliament. Taking action on this crisis means those in power not only making changes for the future, but accepting accountability for what has gone before. As the government deals with yet another shambles, we must continue to push for change—and not let the bravery of women speaking out simply be yesterday’s news.