Women everywhere deserve a parliament that leads by example - Euan McColm

When MP Neil Parish admitted on Friday night that he might have looked at pornography on his phone by mistake while in the House of Commons, a question came to mind: why was the politician - now suspended from the Conservative Party - making his statement to reporters rather than to the police?

Perhaps there is an innocent explanation for Parish’s behaviour, but the allegation that he streamed porn in view of female colleagues is a serious one, indeed. Were Parish an ordinary Joe, accused by a number of women of playing dirty movies in front them on a bus, we would expect his arrest, just as we would expect the arrest of a flasher.

Instead, Parish has seen off a “standards” investigation by resigning from the House of Commons.

Perhaps that investigation would have cleared him of any wrong doing and found the MP truly did open porn by mistake, but now we will never know. Nonetheless, I think we are entitled to expect, at a bare minimum, our elected politicians are able to ensure they don’t “accidentally” watch porn while participating in debates.

Neil Parish during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. Phot by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA


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And, even if it was an accident, that doesn’t lessen the impact of what he was accused of doing. Female MPs were made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe by Parish’s actions. Fat fingers is a poor defence against that.

Of course, male MPs from across the political spectrum were quick to declare their solidarity with their female colleagues. This sort of thing was an outrage. It was intolerable.

Doubtless, many of those who spoke up were sincere but if they didn’t realise the culture of the Commons was so brutally sexist until Parish’s behaviour was made public, they simply haven’t been paying attention.

Just a week ago, an unnamed Tory source briefed that Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner tried to put Boris Johnson off his stride during Prime Minister’s Question Time by crossing and uncrossing her legs. Rayner - a council house kid - couldn’t match Johnson’s Oxford-University-honed debating skills and so she depended on using her body as a political weapon. It was deranged stuff and, unsurprisingly, even Johnson condemned it.


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Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner in the House of Commons, Westminster. Photo by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA

There’s a Groundhog Day quality to all of this. We have seen countless examples of sexism - sometimes veering into straightforward misogyny - in politics and each and every time we are assured elected members are united in their desire to end it. But the camel’s back has been broken a million times and still nothing changes.

Early in her career, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was nicknamed “nippy” by male opponents. Her offence was to take her job and herself seriously and, for this, she was characterised as an unreasonably aggressive women, a nippy sweetie in the vernacular.

While SNP politicians were righty outraged by the way in which Sturgeon was treated, they remained oblivious to concerns that their former leader Alex Salmond had a growing reputation for behaving inappropriately with female colleagues. Even when rumours of Salmond’s behaviour were being widely discussed at Holyrood - and there was not a single lobby correspondent or opposition politician who hadn’t heard something troubling about the then First Minister - SNP colleagues professed their ignorance. Salmond, said Sturgeon, was the least sexist man she’d ever met.


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Of course, toxic male behaviour is not reserved to the world of politics. In workplaces across the country, women must deal with inappropriate behaviour every single day. But it is striking that 56 - more than one in seven - MPs are currently accused of sexual misconduct.

Spend a few days at a party conference and you’ll understand why this may be. Despite the successes of female politicians such as Sturgeon or former PM Theresa May, politics remains utterly dominated by men. Local branches are, by and large, controlled by men and a lads-together culture endures. Male politicians who behave inappropriately are promoted and often protected by other men.

And it is not just the male dinosaurs who make politics such a dangerous place for women. We’ve seen in recent years a willingness from men who (wrongly) believe themselves to be progressive thinkers to threaten and abuse women with whom they disagree. Female politicians who speak up in favour of the preservation of same-sex spaces can expect to be monstered on social media and in person by activists who denounce them as transphobic. MPs such as the SNP’s Joanna Cherry have received threats of rape and death for daring to ask questions about the compatibility of women’s rights with those of male-bodied people who identify as women.

The Labour MP Rosie Duffield - a domestic abuse survivor with real and valuable insight into the need for women to have safe spaces - is the victim of a nasty, ongoing campaign to have her deselected by her party for daring to raise concerns about women’s safety. If only she could be the right kind of woman - one who doesn’t rock the boat - then those attacking her wouldn’t have to. Look what she made them do.


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On Friday, International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said she had once been "pinned up against a wall" by a male colleague and had been subject to misogyny and "wandering hands" on numerous occasions, while Attorney General Suella Braverman complained a minority of men in politics behave “like animals”.

I don’t think I know a woman in politics who hasn’t been the victim of some kind of inappropriate behaviour, whether verbal or physical. Surely we have long since passed the point where enough is enough.

The handling of serious complaints against Neil Parish is a test for our politicians. If they fail it, they will not only be letting down women in politics, they will be letting down women everywhere who deserve a parliament that leads by example.


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