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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”. 

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 deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

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

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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.