The accusations against Kelvin Hopkins, the 76-year-old MP for Luton North, have taken another turn. The Evening Standard has revealed that Rosie Winterton, the then-Labour chief whip, flagged the accusations against Hopkins with the Labour leader’s office before Jeremy Corbyn went on to appoint Hopkins to the post of shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport.
Hopkins denies sexually harassing the activist Ava Etemadzadeh in 2013 and has now been suspended by the party pending an investigation.
Hopkins’ appointment came at a time that relations between Corbyn’s office and his then-chief whip were at an all-time-low. Winterton had been instrumental in putting together Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet, which then resigned almost en bloc following the European referendum defeat. It may be that Winterton’s remarks never made their way to Corbyn himself. In any case, expect the fraught relationship between the two to be used by some of the leadership’s outriders to explain away the lack of action.
The blunt truth, however, is that the story may end up serving as the supreme example of Westminster’s sexual harassment problem. There are always reasons not to believe the testimony of women and there are always reasons why it is convenient not to – at the time, Corbyn’s difficulties filling the cabinet were such that Paul Flynn, then aged 81, ended up serving in two posts – that of shadow leader of the house and shadow Wales secretary – at once.
The story will be a blow to Labour’s women’s groups, who hoped that Corbyn’s inability to exert control over most of the party’s institutions until his general election performance transformed his opposition meant he was, as I put it on our podcast this week, a pair of “clean hands”: he had never been involved in turning a blind eye to bad behaviour because his writ had never run into the party’s headquarters.
They hoped that meant the usual reasons that genuine reform never happens wouldn’t apply. (Some of his allies also believed that it put them in the perfect position: untainted by the blind eye of previous leaderships, able to do the right thing and use it to consolidate their control over Labour Party headquarters and candidate selection.) Now the fear will be that, as far as turning a blind eye goes, Corbyn is just as implicated as any other senior Labour politician would be.
Should it turn out that Corbyn did know earlier than advertised about the accusations against Hopkins, it is unlikely to change his internal position – almost everyone in the party in a senior position is either compromised, or for one reason or another unable to make a credible challenge to him. But it means that the big political dividend that some of his allies hoped for will remain uncollected.