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1 November 2017

Westminster sexual harassment won’t be stopped unless political parties change

Issues of how to deal with inappropriate behaviour are more complicated than in other workplaces.

By Stephen Bush

Three women have come forward with stories about sexual harassment in politics.

One anonymous activist has told the Guardian how a year ago she was held down and sexually assaulted by an MP on a foreign trip, and nothing was done despite the matter being raised with the police, the parliamentary standards commissioner, the House of Commons authorities, and the MP’s own party.

Bex Bailey, a former member of Labour’s NEC, in an interview with the BBC’s Carolyn Quinn, has told how aged 19, she was raped by a senior party official. When, two years later, she reported it to another Labour official, she said she was advised not to push the matter further as it could “damage” her. Bailey spent much of her three years on the NEC fighting for rule changes.

And in the Times, the art critic Kate Maltby accuses Damian Green, the Deputy Prime Minister, of touching her knee and sending her suggestive text messages. Green has denied the allegations and has instructed libel lawyers Kingsley Napley. (Full disclosure: I have been close friends with Bailey for a number of years, and have met Maltby socially on several occassions.) 

What separates Bailey’s and the Guardian‘s story from that in the Times is not just that Green denies the allegations. Green’s behaviour, if proved, isn’t endogenous to politics – its features could be told in any workplace about any industry. But Bailey’s experience and that of the anonymous staffer speaking to the Guardian could only have occurred within politics, because of the introduction of a third actor: a political party, where issues of how to deal with inappropriate behaviour and devotion to the party’s cause are always going to be at great risk of imperiling a survivor’s access to due redress. 

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That’s why, as well as the importance of investigations and possibly resignations in the present day, carrying through the rule changes that Bailey fought for during her three years on Labour’s NEC are so important if this moment is to be one of genuine change in all the political parties, rather than merely the cause of some resignations in the present.