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What does it mean when an MP is under investigation?

How it works, and what exactly happens.

As Westminster’s sexual harassment scandal continues to unfold, numerous MPs and party figures are “under investigation”. But what does this actually mean?

It can actually refer to a number of processes. An investigation can be by the police, if the case has been referred to the police, or by the party, which will use its internal processes to investigate the case, or by the government if it involves a sitting minister.

So, for example, allegations against the Tory MP Charlie Elphicke have been referred to the police (he denies wrongdoing), the Labour party suspended and is investigating Kelvin Hopkins MP over a sexual harassment claim (he denies acting inappropriately), and the First Secretary of State Damian Green is being investigated by the Cabinet Office for alleged misconduct, such as having porn on his Commons computer (he’s denied all claims).

It’s up to the person accusing the politician of wrongdoing to decide whether to press charges to the police. Some parties are accused of using this as an excuse not to act in the past – basically dismissing claims if the victim is not willing to go to the police.

But submitting yourself and your alleged abuser to a police investigation is daunting for anyone, let alone those who work in Parliament, who could fear press attention. “You’re working for someone in the public eye,” a Labour staffer familiar with this dilemma tells me. “You don’t want to end up in the papers if you go to the police.”

Usually, once the party has advised the person making the accusation on what to do, it can take a statement from and investigate the case. Different parties have different procedures.

Labour

After Labour women condemned its non-independent investigation process, which I reported last week, Labour is appointing an independent specialist organisation to offer confidential advice to individuals affected by sexual harassment in the party – this is to be a neutral voice to guide the person through the party’s procedures.

Under the current complaints procedure, the first thing a complainant can do is call a dedicated sexual harassment hotline, where they can talk through their case and be given advice on what action to take.

If they wish to formally pursue the complaint, they face a sexual harassment panel on the party’s National Executive Committee. It ensures the complainant won’t come face-to-face with the accused (who also has to be interviewed), but they could still be working in the same office as that person. It assures that its investigation takes place in confidence (though sources I spoke to in my report on this process didn’t feel they could trust this).

Lib Dems

For the Lib Dems, investigations will either be covered by the party’s parliamentary respect policy or by the party membership rules.

The grievance procedure called the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Respect Policy is for staff, interns and volunteers, and advises that “employees should aim to settle most grievances informally with their line manager” (who, of course, could be the MP who has harassed you). It “strongly encourage[s]” anyone who has been subject to possible criminal behaviour to complain to the police. “The chief whip is required by standing orders to take action regarding allegations or criminal activities,” it says.

But if the person making the accusation wishes to make a formal complaint to the party, they are advised to raise the matter with the chief whip (or the deputy leader, if the chief whip is the subject of your grievance) with details of your grievance in writing. Then all parties are called on to attend a grievance meeting, led by the chief whip or deputy leader, who is designated as the grievance manager. It is then decided what to do about the accused.

Tories

Like Labour, the Conservatives’ procedure for alleged breaches of their code of conduct begins with a call to a confidential hotline or a message to a complaints email address. Like the Lib Dems, it also advises bringing up the grievance informally at first and to “explain clearly to them that their behaviour is not welcome or makes them uncomfortable”.

If informal steps are “not appropriate”, however, then the person making the accusation can start the formal procedure – taking a statement from the complainant and notifying the MP, or whoever’s accused, in question, taking their statement and interviewing witnesses.

This evidence is then examined by a panel appointed by the party’s chairman, which must include one independent individual. If an MP’s being investigated, this panel has to include someone nominated by the chair of the 1992 Committee of backbench MPs. This panel advises whether the matter should go to the police (sometimes it has a duty to report it), and whether or not the party’s code of conduct has been breached.

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MPs don’t have to be suspended (ie. have the whip withdrawn so they sit temporarily as an independent) while they are being investigated. This usually depends on the severity of the allegations, or, unfortunately, how politically tricky it would be for the party to suspend the MP in question.

For example, Damian Green is in the cabinet and is May’s right-hand man, so is less likely to be suspended while being investigated. And Labour was far quicker to suspend former MP Simon Danczuk (a big critic of the leadership) after accusations were made about him than others who are closer to the leadership (eg. the now suspended Kelvin Hopkins was promoted to the shadow cabinet after a complaint was made).

But this isn’t necessarily a slight on the current party regimes. It’s Westminster’s weird employment set-up – and lack of proper safeguarding – that needs to change, along with making the parties’ grievance procedures truly independent.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.