Just about the only surprising thing about the unfolding Westminster sexual harassment scandal is that anyone is surprised. The individual allegations about this-or-that Tory Minister or Labour backbencher might surprise and should shock, of course, but the deeper context of a culture that enables people in positions of power to get away with this sort of behaviour should surprise nobody who has been within a square mile of Westminster.
Like the entertainment industry, which protected Harvey Weinstein for so long, politics is a field that people are desperate to work in. It is an exciting, glamorous business – less than Hollywood, perhaps, but certainly more so than your average workplace. It’s competitive – having a job in Parliament on their CV can set a young person’s career on a very desirable trajectory. Positions regularly get hundreds of applications, even for the most underpaid and under-respected jobs – which is most of them.
It is heavily reliant on a who-you-know culture that can shut people out and trades on reputation and word of mouth – as in Hollywood, not rocking the boat becomes a key soft skill. Would any of us report bullying or inappropriate behaviour if the consequence might be not working again? I’m not sure I could say that I would, and those who do deserve much more protection.
Westminster puts young people at the beginning of their careers, who all feel tremendously lucky to have got the job over dozens if not hundreds of others, into a workplace where most of their employers have never employed someone before and where HR and grievance procedures are woefully inadequate, as the Prime Minister’s office has noted today. This is a recipe for all kinds of inappropriate working practices, from staff being paid inadequate salaries or expected to work inappropriately long hours and other kinds of vanilla exploitation, through to endemic harassment, inappropriate behaviour and sexual misconduct.
It’s made worse by an insular culture of entitlement that takes people who have often never known power before and puts them into a position of immense power, surrounds them with the trappings of that power and tells them that they are special and apart from everyone else. MPs have special passes, special forms of address, special bars and so forth – everything about Westminster, wherever they go, tells them that the normal rules of conduct and behaviour don’t apply to them. Most will have never experienced an ego massage like this in their lives before coming to Parliament – is it, therefore, really surprising that several among them come to believe they are entitled to behave as they please?
It’s clear from the allegations that have come out in recent days that Parliament has to do much, much better at addressing this culture. The adage ‘what happens in Westminster stays in Westminster’ has provided cover for too many people for too long – whether it’s the dismissal of reports as ‘high jinks’ or ‘banter,’ whips not following up on the harassment of young staffers so they can use it as leverage later in a close vote, the Parliamentary authorities not following up on allegations, or MPs refusing to follow voluntary codes of conduct for employing staff, which would give them access to proper grievance procedures, which should have been made mandatory long ago.
It cannot be right that the best available defence for vulnerable young employees in Westminster is word of mouth, where people have to just sigh and quietly circulate among colleagues the names of those creepy men who can’t keep their hands to themselves, because the people who should be watching out for them don’t act on it. It is, again, sad but not at all surprising that the subjects of some of the allegations in recent days have denied that their behaviour is sexual harassment or that they are guilty of any wrongdoing at all. We have seen in recent weeks, from Hollywood and from #MeToo, where that attitude leads.
In my time as an activist and in my work, I’ve come across many MPs that have made me think ‘I wouldn’t want to be in a room alone with you if I were a young woman.’ I’ve heard rumours and stories about politicians behaving inappropriately towards invariably young researchers, assistants and other staff members. Some are notorious. I defy anybody involved in politics to say that they haven’t heard them as well.
This sort of thing is sadly endemic in politics just as it is in the entertainment industry, just as it almost certainly is in just about any industry with hopelessly unequal power dynamics between employers and staff, and a lot of men encouraged to develop a sense of entitlement so thick you could stand a spoon in it.
Both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May have, rightly, condemned this behaviour – this is not a party-political issue. But both need to go much further. The case for reform is unarguable. MPs’ staff, employed directly by that MP with no external, formal process to report inappropriate behaviour, have almost none of the employment protections that you and I enjoy at work. Simply telling the victims of sexual harassment to make a report overlooks the fact that IPSA has no power to act and that the only recourse most staff have is to the MP that employs them. At best, that MP can report the behaviour of a colleague to the whips – at worst, that MP might be the one perpetrating the behaviour.
This cannot continue. Labour can and should take a lead here – we wouldn’t put up with this sort of behaviour or abuse of power in any other walk of life and we shouldn’t put up with it in our politics either. Ensuring that the people who have the incredible privilege to work in our Parliament also have the basic protections that we insist on – the freedom from harassment and bullying, a route to complain about inappropriate behaviour and the knowledge that this will be taken seriously and investigated independently – the least that we should insist on. It’s sad and unacceptable that it has taken a scandal to put this on the agenda but now that it is, we must act.