They say politics is showbiz for ugly people so it’s no surprise that the stories of sexual misconduct that have swept Hollywood have now started seeping out of Westminster and indeed Holyrood.
I am not at all surprised by the allegations of sexual harassment that have been emerging and nor will anyone who has spent any time in our parliaments. Inappropriate, sexist, lewd behaviour is commonplace in the ‘corridors of power’.
The clue’s in the title – power.
Some argue that power is an aphrodisiac but that tends to be the rather hopeful, beery men leering at young women and indeed young men. Others know power means there can be an abuse of status and that some – not all – male politicians believe a bit of what they “harmless naughty-pants fun” is a perk of the job and an entitlement.
Most of my female colleagues and friends have experienced some kind of harassment and I have too. The kind of behaviour will range from totally pointless comments about your appearance – particularly your lady humps and nether regions; random crude attempts at sex jokes dressed up as “top bantz” in the office, which are totally out of place, embarrassing and about as funny as a smear test; incessant requests for out-of-office evening events which involve a lot of booze; wandering hands; groping; lunging; escalating to full-on late-night demands, especially at conferences or on foreign trips.
I have experience my fair share of this behaviour and it is not particularly pleasant. I was about 21 when it first happened and I felt alone and ashamed. I had no-one to talk to as it was a very male-dominated atmosphere, there was no concept of human resources, and I didn’t want to be known as a troublemaker. These are the emotions people feel when they are powerless, especially when the harasser is someone in a senior position who can make or break their career.
I have not been shocked by these stories, but I have been profoundly depressed by the reaction from a number of high-profile successful, older female journalists. Please don’t tell women like me and others to simply “get over it” or “man up” and that a bit of bottom slapping never did them any harm. Well, I would argue it did. Otherwise why did you end up being so sour-hearted and lacking basic empathy to other women? Just because you managed to become the queen bee battle axe, it doesn’t mean you should blame the victims. Some of them flirt with men! So what? Flirting is consensual – unlike harassment.
Some of these women are in a time warp. Erm, the 1950s called … it wants its values back. Why didn’t these young female snowflakes give the men a damn good slap? Because they would have lost their job. Maybe they sent the wrong signals? Maybe they were asking for it? Interestingly, these women seem to be blaming anyone but the sleaze bag chaps with the wandering paws.
Anne Robinson, with typical kindness, said on Radio 4’s Today programme that there’s a “fragility amongst women who aren’t able to cope with the treachery of the workplace”. Thanks for that Anne. Why not go the whole hog and screech “You are the weakest link” at anyone making a complaint? It’s easy to have a big retrospective rant about what has gone before but the key question is what must we do to reduce this type of behaviour now that is finally out in the open and being talked about seriously.
The first thing is to establish proper system of complaints in our parliaments as was suggested by the Government in the House of Common yesterday. This is imperative. At the moment, there is no mechanism for parliamentary staffers, researchers, assistants and others such as journalists, cleaners, catering staff or other contractors to make a complaint or seek advice. The parliamentary authorities will help MPs with their expenses or get a new carpet in their office but they don’t look after the human beings who work long hours on the estate.
There should be a system which is independent of any political party and which people can approach on a confidential basis. There may be criminal incidents which they would be advised to take to the police but much of the behaviour will be in that grey area which still needs proper handling. As well as sexual misconduct, bullying is also rife in Parliament and there many female MPs who are guilty of this. Many staffers are very young, still in university or doing an internship, and are pretty vulnerable. They need to be looked after and offered some pastoral care especially if they are being mistreated by an MP.
Secondly, all political parties need to set up their own proper internal complaints procedures and take this issue seriously. The leaders of all parties need to send a signal that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
No party has the moral authority here and this is no time for political point scoring. In fact, it’s a time for parties to come together and agree best practice. It was right that Labour suspended Jared O’Mara when a slew of offensive comments came to light and Theresa May should suspend – and in my view sack – Mark Garnier, the International Trade Minister who has admitted asking his aide to buy him sex toys. Theresa May is supposed to be the most powerful woman in the country and she should show leadership on this matter – women of all political hues will be looking to her on this and will support her if she does the right thing.
But we need more equality of power. Sexual harassment is mostly a product of deep structural imbalances in power which is why senior men have been allowed behave with impunity to junior women and men for such a long time without any challenge. This is one reason why having more women at every level of politics and in positions of real power – both as elected representatives and in those big, important behind the scene jobs – matters so much.
But finally, we need a proper shift in attitudes and culture and this will take time. There is clearly some element of a generational divide here in terms of attitude. Young women – and men – are more emboldened and empowered and will hopefully speak up more. And I believe that younger men will think more carefully about their behaviour because they have some sense that it’s not cool to behave like a pervy uncle and also out of a sense of self-preservation.
Politicians sit in judgment on the rest of us. They make the rules by which we have to live our lives and behave in the workplace. It is only right that they behave to a higher standard, drag themselves into the modern world and stop acting like something out of a Benny Hill sketch. To coin a phrase, Britain can do better than this.