As I wrote recently, the set-up of Parliament – with the MP being the boss, recruiter and their own HR department – puts often young staffers at risk from predatory politicians, who not only have the social and hierarchical power, but also the structural power, to exploit them.
The complaints procedures in place for each of the parties, and for Parliament itself, are inadequate – hence numerous employees resorting to WhatsApp groups, and shared lists (redacted in the press), to warn one another of sex pests in Parliament.
Its website appeared a couple of weeks ago, coincidentally as revelations about misogynistic language used by the Labour MP Clive Lewis and now-suspended Labour MP Jared O’Mara emerged, to urge the leadership to change the “culture in the party” regarding misogyny.
The women involved – at least one of whom had her complaint about being sexually abused by a colleague dismissed by the party when she reported it – are urging the party to create a new complaints procedure: independent, third-party reporting, a new policy on harassment and assault, and safeguarding training for all staff, at local and national level.
These calls have been amplified following the Labour activist Bex Bailey revealing this week that she was raped at a party event when she was 19 (by someone senior to her in the party who was not an MP), and was discouraged by a senior Labour official from reporting it.
One former staffer describes the process of the current complaints procedure. You have to call or email the Head of Complaints, which is “not an independent position at all – it is a political appointment”.
At this stage, they give you informal advice on what to do. This has resulted in different outcomes according to sources who have seen how the process works. Some complainants feel they have been dismissed as “fantasists” via this route.
If you want to make your complaint formal, you make a statement, and the accused is also contacted to make a statement. The accused could work in the same office as you.
These then go before the sexual harassment panel of the National Executive Committee (again, made up of party political representatives and appointees).
Your statement is anonymised before going before this panel, but – according to a source who knows how it works – “we know it won’t be kept confidential”, because the safeguarding process isn’t anonymous from the start. The initial call is not anonymous.
“[The hotline] is not fit for purpose,” says a former Labour staffer who worked in Westminster. “They are not there to act as an independent unit, external to the party. They are there to be a gatekeeper. They are there to protect the party from complaints.”
Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Rotherham supporting LabourToo, tells me she has circulated the recommendations for a new policy widely, including to Jeremy Corbyn’s office. At the time of writing, neither she nor LabourToo have had responses from the leader’s office or from the party’s HQ.
Following Bailey’s story, Labour is launching an independent investigation into whether a party employee acted improperly when Bailey made the allegations in 2011. A spokesperson commented:
“The Labour Party takes these allegations extremely seriously. It takes great courage for victims of rape to come forward – and all support must and will be made available to them.
“We would strongly recommend that the police investigate the allegations of criminal actions that Bex Bailey has made.”
But frustrated Labour women feel their party has been hiding behind its existing sexual harassment policy and the Tories being in the spotlight – as well as its standing as a party espousing progressive values.
“It’s as if you can’t possibly be anti-feminist, you must be pro-feminist, you must be fine [if you work for Labour],” says one source. “Because [otherwise] it damages their whole worldview; that’s a hallmark of the Labour party that doesn’t necessarily apply elsewhere.”
Labour politicians are declining to hammer the Conservatives over the latest allegations, nor are they calling on the named figures to resign – such as the minister Mark Garnier, who is under investigation for calling his former assistant “sugar tits” and getting her to buy sex toys.
Contrast this with the Conservatives calling for an emergency debate on Lewis’s “Get on your knees, bitch” remark a couple of weeks ago.
So why the silence? As my colleague Stephen points out, Labour cannot make hay out of the Tories’ woes because they are sitting in a “very large glass house” of their own.
As I reported in The i over the weekend, insiders feel the party deals poorly with its own misogyny and sexual harassment claims. Its reaction to (or – through the selection process – allowance of) O’Mara’s misogynist and homophobic remarks was criticised, while LabourToo stories about ignored complaints and predatory colleagues began to circulate.
I hear from current and former Labour staffers about an MP who hires attractive young women in his office on a quick turnaround, an MP who touches women unnecessarily as he walks past them, MPs who stay out very late drinking with young women (one was so young she even had braces, according to a stunned source who was once at the scene) at the politico drinking institution Players piano bar in Charing Cross, and allegations of sexual misconduct that the party has advised women to drop.
While there is an assumption that the party whips are in possession of this information – and stories are being sent anonymously to the LabourToo website – a name-and-shame list similar to the Tory aides’ one hasn’t yet appeared.
One former party staffer I speak to suggests this is because the tribalism and pressure to stay loyal is stronger in Labour than in other parties. “Often people will put the party before themselves because they see it as the greater good, you are just one person in a collective” they say. “That’s why there is a real culture of secrecy within the Labour party. There is a sense that you’re almost hurting your own family.”
As the vice-chair and women’s officer of London Young Labour Megan Corton Scott writes in Progress:
“Labour is seen as the party of justice, fairness and equality. We carry ourselves with the knowledge that we are the most compassionate – that we are the party that cares.
“It is true that the Labour party is the only realistic vehicle to achieving equality. But it is undeniable that this banner makes it more difficult to speak up about abuses of power in the Labour family. A tagline of equality does not make you equal…
“Just because we might like to think that sexual harassment and assault happens on a wider scale in other parties, it does not excuse the sexual harassment and abuse that happens in our own backyard.”
However, LabourToo hopes that its collection of stories – and demands for a change of policy – will jog the party into action. “We think there’ll be a huge range of stories we can collect that will show the breadth of things going on in the party,” says a spokesperson, who reveals they will be removing identifying details of the accusers and accused from all stories submitted.
“It’s a historic problem that’s never really been addressed and people have never really felt they can speak out about it,” they tell me. “It’s not just a Labour thing.”