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14 November 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 2:17pm

In politics as in life, sexual harassment is a consequence-free crime

In politics, it's not just Donald Trump who walks away from accusations of sexual harrassment.

By Bex Bailey

Labour might as well copy Donald Trump’s winning ways and have its politicians “grab a woman’s pussy”.  So jokes Mark Steel..

He needn’t worry – British political parties are already on the case.

Sadly, sexual harassment is not unique to Trump or American politics. And we underestimate the impact it is having at our peril.

In 2013, Liberal Democrat women took action against Chris Rennard, a Liberal peer, over allegations of sexual harassment. This followed complaints that stretched back a decade. He was suspended from the party, before being reinstated and given a position on its governing committee (he was quickly forced to stand down again).

Last year, Conservative aide Mark Clarke was expelled after accusations of bullying and sexual harassment. One party staffer said they had submitted a complaint as early as 2007. The report into the allegations was called a “whitewash” and a “cover up”.

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Labour has its problems too. I spent three years on Labour’s National Executive Committee – the party’s ruling body – fighting for action to tackle sexual harassment. The more I spoke out, the more women privately came to me with their stories.

For each story that hits the media, there are many, many more that go unreported and unnoticed. Sexual harassment is rife in our politics. In a sphere in which men dominate and power is everything, women face constant attack and often feel powerless to call it out.

They are warned that speaking up will damage them – not the perpetrator. They worry about submitting a complaint to the very people who are friends, colleagues and political allies with the person who has harassed them.

They are given little hope that anything will change if they do. The fraction of cases that actually break into the news only give credence to all these fears.

Until parties face up to the problem of sexual harassment, women will continue to be driven out of politics. Men will continue to reach the highest office, regardless of their actions and attitudes. Our democracy and our country will be poorer for the talent it misses out on.

Political parties need to change their culture as well as their structure. We need thorough codes of conduct, training for staff and volunteer leaders, and independent complaints systems that people can have confidence in. But parties too must champion a more honest and open environment, where harassment can be called out.

It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

It may at first seem like a joke to suggest politics in our country starts mimicking Trump’s misogyny. The scary thing is that it already does. Our political parties need to accept there is a problem, start dealing with it properly, and stop shutting women out of politics.

If Trump’s victory teaches us anything, it is that we have a long way to go before men are held to account for their actions and women feel welcome in politics.

Bex Bailey is a member of the Labour Women’s Network committee and was on the party’s ruling NEC from 2013 to 2016. 

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