The Labour party has been inventing its process on sexual harassment for the past few months. It has had to go from zero to 60 pretty swiftly, so the approach might be best characterised as “suck it and see”. At almost every stage there has been controversy – and the need for women activists in the party to push the party in the right direction.
In the beginning, it was the need to have a separate sexual harassment phone line staffed by trained party staff. That call was heard. Then the cases rolled in, and included serious allegations, like that of Bex Bailey, who said she had been raped at a Labour Party event. At this point, the same group of activist women spoke up, and demanded that the party commission a specialist sexual violence service to support those disclosing such experiences, and to advise the party along the way. We won, and that was put in place.
There has also been understandable caution in how the processes affect the accused, not least given the case of Welsh Assembly member Carl Sargeant, who was found dead shortly after being sacked from his ministerial post pending an inquiry. It isn’t easy to get this right. To the credit of the Labour party, it has listened to the voices of the interested parties and has acted mostly with good intentions. However, this week I fear we have used those good intentions to pave a road to hell.
It has emerged that the latest bump along the road towards a good enough system (because nobody, not even angry old me, expects perfection) was how the hearings of the cases were going to play out. I assume the proposed system is the same for all, and not only in the case of the MP Kelvin Hopkins, but it is this case that has come to light in the Evening Standard this week.
The suggestion, as floated in emails to a young woman activist who complained about his behaviour, is that both parties attend on the same day to give evidence to the National Constitutional Committee of the party (the committee is made up of party members). Hopkins, in this case the accused, although he denies the claims, will sit in the next room and listen to the evidence given by his accusers via some sort of audio link. He can then prepare questions to be put to his accusers by a member of the NCC panel.
What makes this case particularly tricky is a member of Hopkin’s staff is actually on the NCC, although he will not be allowed to take part in proceedings. I only mention it to highlight that the NCC members are very much Labour people. There was some controversy at the idea, as suggested by the Evening Standard headline, that Hopkins would be allowed to question his accusers directly. In fact, this is not the case but he is able to ask questions in response to their evidence. I am unclear that the women are allowed the same power to question.
I have taken part in disciplinary processes in the past. On one occasion this concerned a claim of physical and verbal abuse. As the manager chosen to hear this case, I was tasked with taking the evidence from all parties and witnesses. I was able to question the accused on the basis of the complaint and then return to the complainant for clarification if discrepancies arose. But never ever would I have allowed the accused to listen in to what was being said, or allowed the accused to devise questions to be put to the person they had, it turned out, abused. I was perfectly capable of coming up with the questions myself. Because the questions are about facts and evidence, timelines and locations.
The system of “Natural Justice” which the party seems to want to adhere to seems weighted one way, with the accused being able to probe the complainant but not the other way round. That doesn’t seem natural or feel like justice to me. Rather, it feels as if the process assumes they are lying.
The Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party and the Labourtoo campaign of women activists have called for this process to be operated by a completely independent investigator. We want a person who is trained in handling these cases, and who has no ties, friendship, patronage or fear of anyone in the party. They can undertake the task of gathering evidence, witness statements and seek clarifications where needed, before making recommendations on a ruling to the NCC. The NCC can then rule in the case. This is fair and evenhanded to all sides. It allows for evidence to be the only thing that matters.
In all the pushing and pulling that has taken place to try to get this stuff right, the party have heard our voices and sought to act. I hope that once again that will be the case, because no matter what those with their entrenched positions think, we are fighting for this because it’s right, not because of one faction or another. I don’t care what the accused or the victim’s politics are, all that matters is that we clean up our act.