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19 November 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 6:04am

As shadow secretary for women, I fear a Boris Johnson government

“There is no doubt that this Prime Minister is sexist,” writes Dawn Butler.

By Dawn Butler

Two years ago a hashtag went viral. Brave women came forward as part of the #MeToo movement to share their stories of gender-based violence – from sexual harassment in the workplace to domestic abuse in the home.

In two short years, we have also learned a lot more about grey areas – those uncomfortable micro-aggressions that are harder to define than conventional assault. It is when you are in a pub and a strange man grabs you by the waist to move you out the way. It is when your manager starts making inappropriate comments about your looks or your personal life. These are the little things that women stay quiet about because they do not want to be seen as problematic.

Stories of powerful men abusing their positions are extremely uncomfortable to read, and this weekend was no different. We already knew that Boris Johnson used his role as Mayor of London to secure overseas trade trips for Jennifer Arcuri. We await the outcome of the investigation into the possible misuse of £126,000 of public funds. Regardless of how people think about the ethics of that situation, it was distressing to hear Arcuri’s account of Johnson playing power games with her since their friendship ended. She describes being “cast aside like some gremlin”, ignored like “some fleeting one-night stand” and brushed off like “one of Kennedy’s girlfriends showing up to his White House switchboard”.

There is no doubt that this Prime Minister is sexist, and many of his outdated misogynistic views are rooted in his own privilege. He has described an opponent as a “big girl’s blouse”. He has called female politicians “hot totty”, and promised voters that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts”. Once, while discussing a female colleague, he advised his replacement editor at the Spectator that he should “just pat her on the bottom”. As long as these attitudes persist in Downing Street, the road to gender equality will remain very long and very bumpy.

Nearly 50 years ago the Labour Party introduced the Equal Pay Act of 1970, and almost 45 years ago we introduced the Sex Discrimination Act. Yet in 2019 women still experience hostility in the workplace – one in two women experience some form of sexual harassment at work. Tackling sexist and misogynistic culture should be one of our country’s highest priorities. It is outrageous that discrimination and harassment is still the norm, and that the government continues to do so little about it.

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Young women, who are more likely to be in precarious work, are particularly vulnerable. Research from the Young Women’s Trust has shown that 15 per cent of young women have been sexually harassed at work and not reported it (double the number of women who have experienced it and reported it). A third of young women say they do not know how to report sexual harassment and a quarter would be reluctant to report sexual harassment for fear of losing their job, or of being given fewer hours to work.

I recognise that this is a difficult and often upsetting issue for survivors. I know this because I have experienced sexual harassment myself during my time working as a computer programmer. It can feel incredibly isolating. But as a united force, we can and must shed light on these vital issues.

We in the Labour Party welcome the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) recommendations to protect employees from sexual harassment at work. The EHRC’s call for the government to prevent employers from using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to sweep sexual harassment under the carpet and protect their reputation is essential to ensuring greater transparency and access to justice. NDAs should never be used to suppress allegations of criminal behaviour, and if the current law does not protect the voices of survivors, the next Labour government will legislate to do so.

We also joined the EHRC in demanding the government restore vital protections that were scrapped by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Labour has long called on the government to reinstate Section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 to protect employees against third-party harassment. This would help to protect against incidents such as the Presidents Club scandal.

Labour has a proud record of progressing women’s rights and freedoms. We must now respond to new and increasing levels of violence against women, including by setting a bold government agenda for strengthening the law against sexual harassment. This election is our opportunity to put an end, once and for all, to individuals feeling powerless to stop or expose harassment, and to squash the feeble, outdated, and fundamentally wrong excuse that “boys will be boys”. #MeToo happened for a reason and men – and in particular powerful men – must be held accountable for their actions. Under Labour, they will be. 

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