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…