When an MP is accused of sexual misconduct – and it happens rather a lot these days – we tend to ask the wrong question. What is it about Westminster, we ask, that turns people into sexual predators? This rarely produces satisfying answers.
The most common response – often from colleagues of the accused – is that it is something to do with stress, alcohol and informal working arrangements. After an unnamed Tory MP was arrested on 17 May on suspicion of rape and sexual assault offences, the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace went on Times Radio to blame Westminster’s frequent scandals on the “overall culture” of “working long hours in a place with bars”, where people were “under lots of pressure for all sorts of reasons”. The Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has similarly put Pestminster down to being a “really intense environment”, with “long hours”. Others point out that victims often fear making formal complaints about perpetrators, in case it impacts their careers.
But plenty of jobs involve high stress and long hours. Plenty of workplaces are near bars, where colleagues tend to socialise after work. And plenty of employees think twice about going to HR with complaints about their seniors. (Since 2018, moreover, there has been an independent complaints system in parliament – so the reporting process is now roughly comparable to that of other workplaces). Yet few professions can boast quite this proportion of alleged offenders. Since 2018, 56 MPs – almost one in ten of the number who sit in the Commons – have been accused of improper conduct ranging from sexual harassment to rape. Think how extraordinary it would be to find this proportion of alleged sex pests in any other place of work, however fast-paced. Are one in ten lawyers sexually harassing their juniors? Are one in ten doctors?
Here’s my theory. Westminster doesn’t make sex pests; sex pests are attracted to Westminster. The right question to ask is: why?
Let’s look at the perks of the job. To even be considered as an MP you have to spend a large chunk of money auditioning for it, often for years. Then once you’re in, you have to be prepared to work very hard for what is probably much less money than you could likely get elsewhere (an MP’s salary, while significantly above the national average, falls well below what many could make in the private sector at that stage of their careers). To climb the greasy pole you have to desperately suck up to your seniors, aligning yourself with all sorts of policies you might personally disagree with. You must resign yourself to the fact you could be voted out of your job every few years, likely for reasons beyond your control.
Meanwhile, you are subject to (increasingly these days) disdain and abuse from the public, as well as – sometimes – disdain from senior colleagues and abuse from the whips. You might become very good at your job and never get anywhere because now those at the top of the party see you as too much of a threat, or too aligned to previous leaders.
Who on Earth would attempt it? Well, two sorts of people might: those who are driven by an overwhelming sense of public duty or a particular cause, and those driven by an insatiable desire for power. Both sorts are risk-takers.
Many – perhaps even most – MPs belong in the first category, although this type tends to annoy the whips and they end up as difficult backbenchers rather than careerists. But there are a significant number of the second sort, and that is where our problem lies.
If what drives you is power, the hierarchy of Westminster – which handily equips you with a brace of underlings entirely dependent on your patronage – offers countless opportunities to exercise it. You have motive, too. Constantly put in your place by your seniors, you, as a power-sensitive sort, might be tempted to kick the next rung down. In a job with so many downsides, this at least is one perk available to you. You’re a risk-taker. You just might try and see what you can get away with.
Sexual harassment and bullying are all about the exercise of power, which is why they are always inflicted on those with the least means of fighting back. It is unsurprising, then, given the sorts of people that end up in senior positions in Westminster – that such behaviour is rife.
What should we do about it? One idea would be to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and misogyny in Westminster – one incident and you’re out – something that has been suggested for years but never achieved. Another would be to subject wannabe MPs to some sort of psychological test as a condition of being elected. In a recent interview with the New Statesman, the political scientist Brian Klaas, who has written a book on why corruptible people are drawn to power, suggested all prospective leaders should go through rigorous assessments to filter out narcissists and psychopaths. Perhaps the same should be done with potential sex pests.
Or we could try making the job of being an MP more pleasant for normal types who are not obsessed with power. Do more to guard MPs from public abuse, raise their pay a bit, make the route into politics less financially crippling. Widening the pool from which we draw the most powerful in the land won’t stop potential abusers, but it would at least make it harder for them to make it to Westminster.