How party loyalty is used to silence victims of sexual harassment in parliament

Those who want to report abuse and bullying are often warned that it will damage “our side”. 

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Sexual harassment happens everywhere but its vital component is an imbalance of power. That makes Westminster, like Hollywood, especially prone to it.  

In the film industry, a single powerful producer – Harvey Weinstein – had the ability to make a young actor’s career, or to break it. The film industry runs on an endless supply of young, eager actors hustling for insecure work with nebulous hiring criteria, little job security and inadequate routes for raising confidential complaints. The personal and professional overlap; the power-brokers and the fame-seekers drink and party together. A film set is a tough environment with long hours, and actors and directors can spend weeks or months where they see more of their cast mates than their partners and families. Informal networks abound and co-workers often date. Under these conditions, power imbalances are amplified and the concept of “appropriate” workplace behaviour becomes muddied.

Most of that applies to Westminster too. Most special advisers and parliamentary assistants are younger than the MPs they work for, and are hired directly by them. They work long hours and many go to a cheap bar on the parliamentary estate – the Sports and Social is their preferred choice – when they clock off. Staffers accompany their bosses to parties, briefing them on notable guests and preparing speeches. While being sent to buy sex toys –which Tory minister Mark Garnier admitted asking his secretary to do – crosses a line, it’s not unusual for staffers to pick up, say, a pair of tights or a toothbrush for their employer. Boundaries are blurred. 

During elections, all kinds of party workers are thrown together for 18-hour days and late-night takeaways eaten in constituency offices. Since the expenses scandal, there has been an increased demand from local parties for MPs to live in their constituencies. That might make them more accountable to their constituents, but for those with young families and seats far from London, it also means spending Monday to Wednesday alone in a rented flat. 

Crimes are driven by motive plus opportunity. And in Westminster, for those with a motive, there is ample opportunity. 

Yet there is another factor, unique to politics, which makes it such a fertile ground for sexual harassment to flourish. 

Unlike in Hollywood, at Westminster everyone is on a team. One aide to a Labour MP told us she kept quiet about the wandering hands of her boss before the 2015 election as it might have jeopardised the party’s chances in a winnable seat. Even when staffers share their concerns with a party whip or a more senior member of staff, they are often met with a stern conversation about the risk to the party if they pursue a complaint.

The internal struggles within political parties exacerbate this tendency. Two separate aides, from each side of Labour’s divide, talked of not wanting to risk the deselection of an MP, for fear that it would hand the seat to the opposing faction. There is also a widespread assumption that politicians are too ready to excuse bad behaviour by their own faction. “There was a delay in dealing with Jared O’Mara – is that because he’s a true believer?” said one Labour MP about the Sheffield Hallam MP’s sexist comments, for which the Labour whip was withdrawn. “If that had been uncovered about [Corbynsceptic] Chris Leslie, would the book have been thrown at him instantly? Yes.”

Among the Conservatives a similar calculation is happening: better a groper than a Remainer. (And for Remainers, better a sleaze than a Brexiteer.) But the disintegration of the Tories is emboldening its researchers, who feel the next election is already lost and it’s time to clean the house. 

The next question must be: how can a staffer complain, and to whom? Going public is an imperfect, even dangerous, step – the court of public opinion is not the best place to litigate complicated questions about personal relationships. On 30 October, a list of alleged misbehaviour by Conservative MPs, compiled by researchers, began to circulate. 

A redacted version was published on the Guido Fawkes website, and the uncensored list was circulated among journalists in the parliamentary lobby. Yet the list (which the New Statesman has seen) conflated consensual relationships among MPs, and embarrassing sexual proclivities, with potential abuses of power and nebulous accusations of “inappropriate” conduct. It also named alleged victims, removing their ability to tell their own stories – or not. 

The “Westminster sex pests” story now seems to be heading down a familiar path of partisan point-scoring and quasi-puritan denunciation. Theresa May sat stony-faced in the Commons on 30 October, as leader of the house Andrea Leadsom gave details about a helpline for bullied or harassed staffers. It is possible that the scandal will burn out before a single scalp has been claimed. (Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has admitted putting his hand on a female journalist’s knee, but no allegations of more serious misconduct had been made against named individuals as we went to press.) Yet even where disciplinary or criminal offences have been committed, humiliating and toppling individuals is not the point. Reforming the whole rotten system should be.  

For this reason, LabourToo, an organisation run by women in the party, is now collecting testimonies in order to identify the types of abuse that are most prevalent. Crucially, the group – whose membership is not public – asks that identifying information be removed by those submitting their experiences. “This isn’t about ‘outing’ people, but simply trying to demonstrate the extent of the problem,” declares the website.

As it stands, even if a complaint makes it past the whips or colleagues urging loyalty, there is little recourse for victims. Unite the Union, which represents parliamentary staff, is not officially recognised by the parliamentary authorities and has little real power. The panel for a grievance procedure consists of the MP who hired a victim, another MP and the wronged individual’s union representative. 

There is also a legal difficulty: as far as the law is concerned, members of parliament are sole traders. If an MP behaves inappropriately towards his or her researcher, their complaint must initially go to… that 
MP. There is no recourse if, for example, outsiders notice that an MP has a high staff turnover because their existing workers move elsewhere to escape sexual harassment or bullying.

This lack of HR support means that there is no one to intervene in the case of behaviour that may not constitute harassment but is nonetheless unprofessional. One straight male MP is known only for hiring young 
attractive blonde women, which, in the words of one former staffer, “was weird, crushed my confidence – I knew that was the only reason I’d been hired – but nothing ever actually happened”. 

There is no obvious outlet – except for the press – for complaints such as the one against the former Tory leadership candidate Stephen Crabb, a Christian moralist, who sent lewd texts to an unsuccessful 19-year-old job applicant. (He has admitted this, but says the exchange was consensual.)

Where allegations exist against MPs, both main party leaders can withdraw the whip, but Theresa May is less empowered to deal with the problem than Jeremy Corbyn. Each Conservative association has its own constitution and even a popular Tory leader would find it hard to impose their will to encourage deselection. By contrast, Corbyn enjoys the support of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC). The Labour Party could, if it wished, recreate the procedures it adopted during the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009 and empower a “star chamber” to decide the fate of its MPs.

The Labour MP Lucy Powell says it’s vital that the leadership confronts allegations, even when they risk inflaming a factional dispute. “I remember being Ed Miliband’s chief of staff, and the criticism at the time was that Ed had acted too quickly against colleagues,” she says, citing the scandals over Phil Woolas, who committed election offences, and Eric Joyce, who pleaded guilty to an assault committed in a Commons bar. “He [Ed Miliband] was in quite a weak position because the PLP hadn’t voted for him [to be party leader]. But he did the right thing.”

It is notable that most of those who have come forward so far are employed by the Commons directly, rather than by parties or MPs. In order to tackle sexual harassment at Westminster, structural reform is vital. The SNP recruits office staff from a central pool, removing the power of individual MPs over a young worker’s career. Expanding this would be fiercely resisted by many MPs but it would also begin to change the culture. 

The parties must also do more. Although outsiders often imagine each set of whips holds dossiers on the opposition, resulting in a form of “mutually assured destruction”, this is not the case. There is little incentive for Labour staffers to stay silent if harassed by Conservative MPs, and vice versa – they aren’t worried about getting a bad reference. As the Labour MP Jess Phillips wrote in the Times, the parties must have “independent reporting mechanisms and a clear line of action that can be taken and ultimately, they have to be willing to expel offenders from their movement”. So here is the test: do politicians believe fighting sexual harassment is worth a losing a civil war? 

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over