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4 January 2023

How Rishi Sunak can solve parliament’s Pestminster problem

Give people a fright and you’ll be surprised how quickly things can change.

By Martha Gill

Never underestimate the power of a fright. For the last two months I have taken vitamin D every day, made complicated superfood smoothies, given up alcohol and have tried previously unthought-of things such as “power yoga”. Why? Not because I found the right mantra, or “habit-forming” app, or sudden new reserves of willpower. No – I had a fright. The winter flu kept me in bed for over a month. It scared me, and suddenly all those healthy habits I’d vaguely thought of taking up for years were easy.

I hear this is common. The left arm pain, the minor stroke, the bout of pneumonia – these are the sort of events that leave smug teetotallers and evangelical park-runners in their wake, claiming the scare was the best thing that ever happened to them. When it comes to inspiring people to actually change their behaviour, forget New Year’s resolutions: you can’t beat a fright.

As with lazy individuals, so with lazy cultures. When a culture needs to make a rapid change, what tends to work best is fear. Let’s consider #MeToo. For years we had talked vaguely of the need for “cultural change” when it came to the treatment of women at work. We all – including many secret perpetrators – agreed it was terrible and something needed to be done. Women told their stories and were sympathised with. Companies added “commitment to gender equality” to their “value systems” and sent their employees on “awareness courses”. Nothing much shifted.

Then came the #MeToo movement. It was successful, I’d suggest, not because it created yet more sympathy for preyed-upon women but because it scared the living daylights out of predatory men. And not just predatory men – all those men who had never quite bothered to find out the line between the acceptable and the creepy. Suddenly they had a sharp incentive to watch their behaviour. The prospect of being publicly shamed or sacked for behaviour that two minutes ago “everyone seemed to be doing” worked like nothing else had. And the seeming unfairness of this change – its suddenness – was part of why it was so effective. If the #MeToo fury could come for anyone, on any flimsy charge, you had better make extra sure your own behaviour is completely beyond reproach. You’d better not try anything.

And so to Westminster, whose problem with sexual harassment has survived #MeToo and which has been lamenting this sorry state of affairs for years, even as it fails to change it. 

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The Labour MP Charlotte Nichols gave several colleagues a fright in recent days when she posted the names of 20 male MPs “to avoid” on a WhatsApp group, which was then leaked. She removed the post, claiming it was accidental but also a minor issue compared with Westminster’s endemic sexual harassment problem.

Nichols was wrong to put names “out there” without producing the evidence to back up her claims (although she’s pointed out that she is unable to make official complaints about behaviour she’s been told about but didn’t experience herself). She’s right, however, to be frustrated at Westminster’s soft approach to its problem. Naming and shaming (and then sacking) is a technique that works. A successful strategy to target sexual harassment would do more of it.

Rishi Sunak came to power as an indirect result of the Pestminster scandal – he resigned from Boris Johnson’s cabinet partly over his boss’s appointment of Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip despite allegations that he had groped men. Standing outside Downing Street in November, Sunak promised “integrity and accountability” in government. Yet efforts to root out offenders have not been as energetic under his leadership as some hoped. Several MPs languish under suspensions, and many in Westminster feel not enough is being done to expedite their cases. The whips are still tasked with dealing with harassment complaints but are not good at it – after all, they have an incentive to hoard such information as leverage to keep MPs in line, as well as a disincentive to reduce the numbers who can get government business through parliament.

While there is ostensibly a process for dealing with misconduct, it isn’t working. Andrea Leadsom, who helped to set up parliament’s independent complaints scheme, lamented recently that for various reasons it has barely been used. And there is at least one serious hole in the complaints procedure to date: while victims can make complaints, witnesses cannot. (Nichols is calling for that to change.)

In my last column I wrote that Sunak was stuck: it is difficult for him to get much done at the moment because the various warring factions of his party hold him in check. But no faction would dare to publicly oppose a fierce new policy on sexual harassment. This is one area in which he could and should make strides. It is not a Westminster bubble issue either – the public notices these things. Sex sells, as they say, and sex scandals stick in the mind. The Tories’ sleaze problem is doing the party no favours.

How should Sunak do it? Lamenting the problem and casting around for cultural factors to blame – the “late night drinking culture”, the “pressure”, the “boys’ club atmosphere” – as politicians have tended to do, does very little. Indeed, talking about “culture”, as a leader, is a deflection, because it suggests a sort of blurred culpability. No individual can be blamed for a culture. No individual can be expected to change it.

If Sunak wants a model for how to actually bring about cultural change in Westminster, he should take a look at Keir Starmer’s success with rooting out anti-Semitism. It was thought to be deeply ingrained in the party Starmer inherited but he was able to quickly excise it with little more than a couple of ruthless sackings. He got rid of Rebecca Long Bailey on the basis of a retweet of an interview that mentioned an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, and suspended Jeremy Corbyn for remarks that the party’s anti-Semitism problem had been “dramatically overstated” by opponents. Signal a zero-tolerance attitude in this way – give people a fright – and you’ll be surprised how quickly they can change.

[See also: The politics forecast for 2023: A crisis in the Tory party and a Labour reshuffle]

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