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5 June 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 2:17pm

Labour must lead by example in tackling sexual harassment

Only a truly independent complaints procedure will restore trust in the party. 

By Tara O'Reilly

If you want to know why people become members of the Labour Party, then, as the party website says itself, it’s for a variety of reasons, “from being fed up with the status quo” to “wanting to shape policy and have a say in the direction of the Labour Party.” And being fed up with the status quo when it comes to sexual harassment, anti-Semitism, bullying complaints and disciplinary procedures is what many of us working in and around the party feel right now. That’s exactly why more than a hundred of us decided it was time we had a say and signed an open letter to the leadership asking for clarification on the processes regarding sexual harassment complaints. 

The current system for dealing with complaints is not working as well as it should and we should continue to aspire to improve it. Yes, individuals such as Peter Willsman, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, have been suspended (in this instance over alleged anti-Semitism) and there have been improvements, such as the introduction of independent specialists for sexual harassment cases — but the process is still not entirely independent of potential political interference.

We can restore faith in complainants, and those accused, by making the process entirely independent of the party. Until victims who have not only been brave enough to submit a complaint, but to go public with their story, such as Ava Etemadzadeh, feel that the procedure is just and transparent, those of us who consider ourselves socialists cannot accept the privilege of silence and sitting on our hands. We in the Labour Party pride ourselves on standing up for what is right. So we must apply the same standards we apply to the Tories, big business and those outside Westminster to ourselves — even if it means being critical of our friends, or those more powerful than us.

As some of us stated in our letter to the leadership, “clarity, consistency and transparency must be put at the forefront of the complaints process so that all sides feel confident that investigations will be conducted free from political interference. The perception can no longer be that your connections within the party will determine whether complaints against you will be pursued or not.”

There is no doubt that there are some on the left who complain about these issues for disingenuous, political reasons in an attempt to undermine the leadership — but they are a minority. The majority of us are raising our voices because we want the party to be better, irrespective of factional or policy differences. We want Labour to be the best it can be, so it can then improve the lives of those across the country.

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Finding common ground in the current political environment is a challenge: the Brexit debate is inherently divisive, the working class and ethnic minorities are being failed by Tory austerity and a no-deal Brexit is still a very real possibility — it is sometimes difficult to see cause for hope. But all of us in the Labour Party are still united by our values of equality, social justice and compassion. There is no shame in admitting that we are not adequately tackling and eradicating sexual harassment, anti-Semitism and bullying in our movement — as long as we then do something radical about it. At a time when public trust in Westminster is desperately low, we owe it to the public to lead by example in admitting our shortcomings and addressing them.

It takes courage to challenge the status quo and take difficult decisions — but this is Labour’s founding purpose. We have a long history of speaking truth to power and empowering others to do the same. So while the letter addressed to the Labour leadership by more than 100 staff will have made some uncomfortable, we should be proud that so many people feel confident enough to speak up. These same people will be the biggest advocates of the party when the next general election is held. We should embrace our critical friends, even if they make us feel uncomfortable, not alienate them.

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A Labour Party that stands up for its MPs, staffers and members, irrespective of political differences, is a party that will win the hearts and minds of the public.

Tara O’Reilly is a parliamentary aide for the Labour Tribune MPs group.