Nicola Sturgeon feels like the adult in the room amid sound and fury over allegations of bullying against Joanna Cherry, writes Laura Waddell.
Imagine you are a politician with leadership ambitions. A number of staffers have made complaints about bullying in your office. Do you a) react with dignity, respect for due process, and confidence in your exoneration or b) have an ongoing, very public reaction on social media rallying support over several days?
Now imagine you were a worker, considering reporting a superior. You have witnessed high-profile Twitter users publicly backing those facing complaints, engaging with suggestions of smears. Extremely visible, well-connected judgement of private workplace matters is unlikely to encourage that person to come forward. In any normal office, it would be deeply inappropriate to take a stance on a dispute. Politics is an unusual environment, but when it comes to staff treatment and procedural resources, there should be no lowering of standards.
Last week, news emerged that four former staff members of Joanna Cherry’s office have raised claims of bullying, subsequently spreading online like a rash.
In a statement to the Sunday National, Cherry said: “It is not for SNP employees, paid for by the party or parliamentary staff paid for by the public purse to take to Twitter to air their grievances or to go to the newspapers. They should use proper procedures and behave in a professional fashion.” She added: “I am confident I will survive the attempts to smear my reputation.”
It should go without saying like any other workplace dispute, nobody not directly involved really knows what the situation is. Not other politicians and not the public. Not you, and not I. It’s not for public judgement, but for House of Commons inquiry. In the spirit of fairness, healthy workplace culture and general common sense, some politicians weighing in might have voiced views more responsibly. No matter how close to the accused, or what the outcome will be, prematurely declaring sides is not only foolish but deeply disrespecting of individuals’ right to seek recourse against those in positions of superiority.
“It’s like the Crucible,” a source declared, referencing the witch trial play beloved by amateur dramatic societies. Really? When it comes to letting workplace human resources grievance inquiries run their course, not at all.
A “we stand with Joanna Cherry” graphic floats around as though this were campaign season, and not for looming European elections, an important moment for the party to brandish pro-EU credentials.
Some have disappointing lack of judgement in a rush to engage. Speculation runs rampant that complaints are linked to any number of enemy factors, among them state interference, internal jealousy, retaliation for Cherry speaking on the Gender Reform Act (GRA), or more vaguely, “speaking up for women”. Cherry recently received police protection after facing online abuse. But it seems unhelpful to conflate the incident with a workplace complaint. Mixed messages, to say the least.
The GRA discussion is notably divisive with history of attracting extremists. What it needs now is de-escalation. Cherry was one of several signatories of a related open letter, published in days leading up to the SNP spring conference. If the ethics weren’t enough of a reason to build consensus, division isn’t very good for political parties either: it’s often taken advantage of by opportunists seeking emotive sway, and who would benefit from that?
Inverclyde councillor Chris McEleny has often been quick off the mark to back Cherry’s statements, intriguingly declaring himself in a tweet to be “for women”. He did not respond to my questions on how being “for women” is compatible with the explicitly anti-abortion letter from the Bishop’s Conference of Scotland he published on his blog in 2015, describing laws permitting abortion as “profoundly unjust”, a human rights violation that should be opposed and changed. Groups including Catholics for Choice have criticised anti-abortion attitudes in the church.
But while many seem convinced the workplace inquiry is linked to recent public comment on the GRA, workplace complaints appear to have been made months prior. Conflating an individual’s workplace dispute with women’s rights does little to advance clarity on a subject already mired in toxicity.
Other figures tweeting support for Cherry this week include Tommy Sheridan, Craig Murray, and Wings Over Scotland. Politics via social media can be surprisingly unsubtle. “Let’s get behind her, let’s get together, and let’s move forward towards our independence,” banged Chris McEleny on the big thick drum of support, which also sounded in his blog critiquing press coverage of sexual assault claims against the former SNP leader, entitled “The Monstering of Alex Salmond”. McEleny also tweeted “#Trending in Scotland: @joannaccherry. Lesson: Positive rhetoric always beats negative smears.” Successful poker players often keep cards close to their chest.
Among tweets of support Cherry has herself ‘liked’ are those suggesting she would be a great leader, and critiquing current leadership.
Holding court in the petty kingdom of social media is one thing, but what qualities come to mind when considering leadership, particularly a national role with international resonance? Wisdom? Perspective?
Rising to the top of a political party requires growing deep roots of support; what comes after that is winning over the country. Nicola Sturgeon’s recent conference speech included the lines: “We must always make our case with the decency, respect and dignity that we want to be the hallmark of our independent country. I am acutely aware of the responsibility of all politicians, especially leaders, to bring people together not drive them apart.”
It’s an approach that has won her admirers much further afield than Scotland, and helped turn the role of First Minister of Scotland into one with global recognition.
Sturgeon responded to a reporter question about the Cherry situation, by saying “where complaints are brought forward against any parliamentarian it’s important that they’re properly considered - but that should happen under due process and not in the pages of the media”, adding her focus was on the forthcoming European elections.
After days of noise online, it felt like an adult had walked into the room. In an era of populist table-banging and media manipulation, tact and maturity in public conduct are more appealing than ever, particularly as a supporter of Scottish independence while Brexit looms.
If a groundswell for a party leader has ever emerged in tandem with an HR dispute it hasn’t stuck in the memory. Leaders in any field inevitably weather a few storms before rising to the top; putting in time brings with it perspective on interpersonal tussles.
Savvy politicians in it for the long run might wait for things to blow over when facing a human resources crisis. It’s rather unedifying to see some comb social media for any favourable mention after staff complaints, no matter how muddled or how far they have drifted from reality.