Both Labour and the Conservatives have a long way to go. Why is the issue dragging on?by Jane Merrick / October 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
A year ago this week, a young woman was, she says, sexually harassed by an MP at Conservative party conference.
She was not the first—and, even after #MeToo, won’t be the last—to experience this during conference season, where late night drinking and an away-from-home mentality delude MPs into thinking they can get away with inappropriate behaviour.
But her anonymous account helped me to go public with my own story of harassment by Sir Michael Fallon a few weeks later. (Fallon resigned soon after, saying his “conduct” on some matters had “fallen short.”)
As this year’s party conference season gets underway—the first since the #MeToo movement swept through Westminster last autumn—will things be different? Have the two main political parties sufficiently changed their structures, rules and culture to stamp out sexual harassment? I am not so sure.
Both Labour and the Conservatives claim they are taking robust action. Last weekend, Labour conference formally approved a decision by its ruling NEC to ensure independent oversight of claims of sexual harassment in the party. Labour has also introduced a helpline and specialist advice service for complainants.
In the wake of Fallon’s resignation as Defence Secretary last November, the Conservative party updated its own code of conduct to make it binding rather than voluntary, and explained that an independent person would be on its disciplinary body to look into allegations.
These changes are to be welcomed. Preciously, all political parties had procedures where officials and whips—sometimes with close loyalties to the alleged perpetrator—were in sole charge of investigating complaints.
This created a culture of intimidation and fear of reprisals—particularly if the victim was someone low down the party echelons trying to make their way up. Independence is therefore essential to any new system.
But is it enough? Both main parties have been hit by claims of sexual harassment or assault involving their MPs and officials. Some of those investigations are still ongoing, nearly a year on from when the allegations were made.
The treatment of each case has been inconsistent and support insufficient, according to those involved.
Bex Bailey, who last year waived her anonymity to tell how she had been raped by a senior Labour figure in 2011, said recently that the party had “trivialised” sexual harassment—despite a report concluding four months ago that the problem was rife in Labour.
Ava Etemadzedah, a Labour activist who still awaits the outcome of her harassment claim against the suspended MP Kelvin Hopkins, has spent months campaigning for Labour to have an independent complaints system.
She says the new promise of independence is a “very vague and opaque decision” which “provides little reassurance to women in the Labour Party”, and that “the inability of party to take sexual harassment seriously to date is part of the reason women are disengaging from politics.”
“Serious time and thought over the party’s sexual harassment policy is still needed to provide confidence they are serious about this. The NEC decision on its own will not do this.”
Labour has now approved changes that will allow the implementation of an independent system.
But implementation is another matter—because decisions on disciplinary action will still revert to the party.
Those involved want to see a lawyer or other independent expert deciding which cases are prima facie—with a case to answer—and further say that the party’s final decision should follow the recommendation of this independent person.
On the Conservative side, too, some cases have been dragged out for almost a year. Charlie Elphicke, the MP for Dover and Deal, remains suspended from the party after allegations of sexual offences were made nearly a year ago. (Elphicke denies the allegations.)
Party sources say once all the current cases are dealt with, a new system will be introduced. Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, oversaw the introduction of a new cross-party system in parliament for anyone sexually harassed or assault by an MP or political official—including independent investigating, an anonymous hotline for collecting “cluster” reports about repeat offenders, and a new code of behaviour.
Yet, for me, this system has its problems: it does not cover behaviour by MPs away from parliament—including, crucially, at party conferences where some think they can “get away with it.”
What’s more, the alleged harasser, as well as the complainant, will be granted anonymity: something which does not apply to ordinary members of the public, and which will doubtless prevent other victims from coming forward.
Despite claims of action by the political parties, it seems they are keen to move on from last year’s turbulence of #MeToo. The issue of sexual harassment, despite #MeToo exposing it as a widespread problem in society, will barely register at either of the party conferences—apart from the vote at Labour.
There are no fringe meetings at either Labour or Conservative conferences debating sexual harassment in Westminster—and just one, hosted by Plan International UK, debating the issue of harassment more generally.
By contrast, Damian Green, who resigned last December following a Cabinet Office inquiry which found Kate Maltby’s allegation of sexual harassment by him was “plausible,” is listed as a speaker at four fringe events—including the liberal Conservative think tank Bright Blue, on whose advisory council he sits.
We have not yet passed the first anniversary of the #MeToo movement. Yet, in some ways, it feels like it is already buried in the past.