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27 October 2017updated 01 Aug 2021 10:58am

“Pervert politicians”: why the Weinstein effect could hit Westminster hardest

Names of sexist MPs may be leaked from a women’s WhatsApp group. Here’s why it’s unsurprising.

By Anoosh Chakelian

If you’ve worked in parliament or in Westminster politics, you will know which politicians and staffers to avoid.

Women, and men too, who work in that world will have encountered the MPs who stay out drinking just a bit too much a bit too late, hire staff who look a certain way or are a certain age just one too many times, and put women in administrative or organising roles and men on policy just a little too often.

As in virtually every workplace, sexism abounds at Westminster, so the Sun’s splash today – regarding a Westminster women’s WhatsApp group discussing parliament’s creeps – will come as no surprise:

The paper claims there are messages in this group chat naming politicians who are “very handsy”, “not safe in taxis”, “groped my arse at a drinks party”, and one who demands staff buy sex toys as gifts.

It looks like British politics is going to be hit by the Weinstein effect that is already pushing misogyny in journalism and the music industry into the spotlight, as women have begun swapping stories and calling out men who have been getting away with harassment and abuse.

While it’s true that Westminster reflects the misogyny and sexism we see in society, it’s a different workplace from most in that HR is basically non-existent. MPs are in charge of recruiting their staff, and these are usually small teams all working in the same office.

Often, when MPs arrive in Westminster, they have little experience of human resources or recruiting and managing a team. Because they are effectively HR managers themselves, this makes it very difficult for inappropriate behaviour by MPs to be reported – if your MP boss has done something wrong, you essentially have to report your MP to your MP.

“There is this inability to manage an office, they have had no training in HR. A lot find that HR aspect of being an MP quite difficult,” one long-time parliamentary staffer tells me. “That’s why they often outsource it to an office manager, who equally would have difficulties in addressing things like sexism, issues that crop up in any office across the country.”

Following a Channel 4 News investigation into sexual harassment and bullying of parliamentary staff in April 2014, a confidential phoneline – the “harassment hotline” – was set up for staffers to use in Westminster. It was designed for MPs and staffers to report bullying, but it is widely considered to be an unsatisfactory measure.

Each of the political parties have their own policies and complaint procedures. But these have also come under scrutiny. The Conservatives have a voluntary code of conduct, and the LabourToo campaign – set up last week in the wake of the #MeToo hashtag where women around the world told their stories – criticises Labour’s existing procedures.

LabourToo is collecting women in the Labour movement’s stories and lobbying the central party to develop a new, robust, impartial system of support – and bring in safeguarding training for all its local and national party staff and volunteers.

Unlike other industries, staffers and MPs don’t have an official union that can help with these issues. There is a parliamentary staff branch of Unite, which helped set up an internal grievance procedure for the Labour party and represents hundreds of parliamentary staff working across parties at Westminster and in constituencies. But is not collectively legally recognised by MPs’ offices. They can choose whether they recognise the union or not. Unite has asked the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) to recognise the branch a number of times, but it has declined.

A spokesperson for Theresa May has urged Westminster staff to come forward with their experiences of sexual harassment, saying the WhatsApp group allegations are “deeply concerning”:

“Any allegations that may come to light will be taken extremely seriously and we would advise people to contact the police if there is such an allegation, so it can be fully investigated.”

But this is a rather futile call while Westminster is set up the way it is. Because of the lack of HR or union support, employment can be precarious in Westminster – you rely on your MP to stay in your job, basically. And the nature of politics – filled with allies and agendas – makes going to other colleagues, the whips or party officials for help and advice difficult.

So yes, there is bullying, sexism and worse in parliament, just like everywhere else. But the way the workplace is set up is unlike anywhere else, which is why it may take a leaked private WhatsApp group, naming and shaming politicians, to more fully address abusive behaviour.

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