Insight: Sex harassment scandal: Politics after the watershed

Nicola Sturgeon is the only woman at the Holyrood meeting chaired by Ken Macintosh
Nicola Sturgeon is the only woman at the Holyrood meeting chaired by Ken Macintosh
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In the midst of the furore over the sexual harassment allegations that engulfed the British political world last week came a small but symbolic gesture. At some point on Thursday, a sign reading “Man Cave #Rule Number 3: What Happens Here Stays Here” was removed from the sports and social club bar in the Palace of Westminster.

As symbolic gestures go it wasn’t very impressive; the sign was not a timeworn bronze plaque, but a piece of cheap tat with the barcode still on the back; it was stuck on to the wall with Blu Tack, so all it took to dislodge it was a quick swipe of an Oyster card. Still, a point was made: if Westminster, and indeed politics at large, is to be fixed, the macho culture which permeates every committee room and corridor must be swept away.

Post-Weinstein, a dam has broken, unleashing a tidal wave of women and their long suppressed stories of sexual belittlement. In the last two weeks, the Tory party has been bombarded with revelations: International Trade Secretary Mark Garnier calling his aide “sugar-tits” and asked her to buy sex toys, MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire Stephen Crabb sexting a 19-year-old he had interviewed for a job, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon telling Andrea Leadsom he knew a good place for her to warm her hands, and May’s deputy Damian Green’s [fiercely disputed] touching of party activist Kate Maltby’s knee have all added to the Tories’ ongoing existential crisis.

Yet the allegations have not been confined to one party. Labour activist Bex Bailey’s claim that a senior official had discouraged her from reporting a rape at a party event because “it might damage her career”, and fellow activist Ava Etemadzadeh’s claims of inappropriate behaviour on the part of the now suspended Labour MP, Kelvin Hopkins, (which he denies) make it impossible for Jeremy Corbyn to gloat about the Conservatives’ failings.

Outside Westminster there have been the usual attempts to sabotage the debate. The Daily Mail, for example, ran a three-page smear on Maltby, portraying her as a thrusting attention-seeker; some commentators have dismissed the leg-touching allegations as trivial, while others have implied the problem was changing social mores.

Other commentators, however, see this as a watershed: the moment in which society decides it is no longer prepared to tolerate the behaviour that has dogged women in male-dominated professions for decades.

So how deep does the problem of misogyny in politics run? And what can be done to eradicate it? In Westminster, it is clear the problem is entrenched: the power, the high proportion of men, the late-night votes, the many bars, the fact that so many politicians live away from home, all create an intense atmosphere in which predatory behaviour thrives. Last week, it emerged things were so bad female researchers and aides had formed a WhatsApp group to warn each other of MPs who had groped them in lifts and taxis.

It is often assumed that in Holyrood – where there are more women, no late-night votes and MSPs mostly go home to their families – the culture is less macho and overbearing. Nicola Sturgeon revealed that the number of complaints in the last five years was in the low single figures.

But yesterday evening the sudden resignation of Mark McDonald proved there were no grounds for complacency. The minister for Childcare and Early Years apologised that “some of my previous actions have been considered inappropriate”.

The resignation followed fears expressed by MSP Aamer Anwar that sexual harassment was a”ticking timebomb” for the Scottish Parliament and that he had heard of incidents involving stalking, social media abuse, sexual innuendos, touching and sexual assaults.

During the week, I spoke to a cross-section of people who were working or had worked in the Scottish Parliament; none of them believed it was immune to the problems of Westminster. And although they agreed the incidents they knew of – predominantly sexualised comments and gestures – fell short of being criminal, they said they were nonetheless distressing to the women involved.

One told me of a time she had been trying to plug in a computer under a desk in a room full of male MSPs. “My bottom must have been sticking out from under the desk because I heard one of them say: ‘Oh look, my day has just got better,’” she says.

A former MSP, who was in the first Holyrood intake, claimed some of those who had previously been MPs imported the Westminster culture. Another insider – still based in the parliament – insisted that culture persisted today, with more established male members targeting the new intake of MSPs and other workers.

I also interviewed a female lobbyist who had worked in both Westminster and Holyrood. She told me how, in the early 90s, she used to travel back from London in the sleeper alongside Scottish MPs. “On more than one occasion, I had MPs banging on the door in the middle of the night pleading to be let in,” she said. “It was quite scary. Eventually I told my boss and we agreed I should start travelling by plane.”

Life was also difficult in Westminster itself. Yet she is not convinced Holyrood is so very different. “When it first opened – when it was still on the Mound – everyone used to drink in Deacon Brodie’s.

“It would be heaving with MSPs and they would all be getting pickled. There was lots of over-familiarity. You would often find an arm round your shoulder had drifted to your waist or you would be standing at the bar and feel a hand on your bum.

“It wasn’t just young women: there were male MSPs targeting young male staff members as well. I think there will be some current parliamentarians desperately trying to remember what they did back then and worrying in case they are called out on it.”

The lobbyist has not visited Holyrood for several years. But another insider told me the Weinstein allegations had encouraged women who work there now to talk about their experiences.

“In the last couple of weeks I have heard lots of stories involving behaviour that is designed to make women feel uncomfortable and objectified. Sometimes it is said in a team environment when the men are ganging up on a woman and other times it’s on a one-to-one basis where it can feel very personal and intimidating.”

The insider went on: “It is true there is less of a drinking culture at Holyrood. The only time politicians drink together in Scotland is after a vote. It tends to be on a Wednesday night when most MSPs are staying over and on Thursday nights, at the end of each parliamentary session. On those occasions, there is lots of booze flowing, there are lots of male journalists, lots of politicians, lots of researchers. Undoubtedly those are the flashpoints when you are likely to see the next level up of stuff like this. But it is happening in the nine-to-five environment and that’s the worst aspect of it.”

Some commentators have suggested women should simply rebuff unwanted attention or even be flattered by it. But the lobbyist gave an insight into the impact of sexual harassment on a woman’s life. “The thing is I was younger back then [when she was at Westminster], I had longer hair and I used to think: ‘Is this my fault?’ I started to wear glasses instead of contact lenses in the hope I would be taken seriously,” she said.

“There were also the political dinners when I might be the only woman at a table. I got so many inappropriate comments I stopped wearing dresses which had slits or showed any of my cleavage.”

The question that is often asked of women like her is: “Why didn’t you complain?” But she was worried about how she would be perceived. “There’s the power dimension, obviously,” she said. “But there is also the fear that you will be seen as an attention-seeker. I used to think it might sound as if I was saying: ‘Look, I’m so good-looking, all these men are touching me’; that I might come across as fancying myself.”

If this is going to be a watershed, what are the various parties and institutions doing to change the culture? Well, Theresa May has drawn up a new code of conduct which Tory MPs will have to sign up to. But she has been slow to confront allegations that party whips were using information about sexual abuse to keep renegade backbench MPs in line; or to deny she had been made aware of this on several occasions over the past few years.

There has been little consistency in the party’s handling of the individual allegations, either. Though Garnier has admitted asking his aide to buy sex toys, an investigation is being held into whether or not he broke the ministerial code and he has not been suspended. Ditto Green, who denies touching Maltby’s knee (suggesting it might just have been the tablecloth). On the other hand, Tory MP for Devon, Charlie Elphicke has been suspended as a result of “serious allegations” that have now been passed to the police.

Fallon, of course, quit, apparently under pressure from the chief whip Gavin Williamson and Leadsom; but the immediate appointment of Williamson to replace him as Defence Secretary (and the suggestion Leadsom did it to save her own job) made it appear more like an internal power struggle than an attempt to clean up.

Earlier this year, the Labour Party introduced a new sexual harassment policy; as a result, complaints are now referred to the National Executive Committee’s sexual harassment panel and then – if progressed – on to the National Constitution Committee.

But some, including NEC member Jasmin Beckett, have called for the appointment of an external independent investigator. Labour MP John Mann has also called for members to be banned from drinking in the sports and social bar, where Eric Joyce was once arrested.

As a result of allegations, the SNP has launched two investigations, one into McDonald and one into another unnamed individual. Sturgeon has charged her highest ranking civil servant, Leslie Evans, with looking into the Scottish Government’s procedures for investigating complaints and provided details of a solicitor women could contact on a confidential basis if they wanted to make allegations against an SNP MP or MSP.

Her deputy, John Swinney (inset) announced the setting up of an anonymous hotline and told parliament that men needed to examine all aspects of their behaviour if sexual harassment was to be stamped out.

Given the need for men to lead by example, there was much approval for the decision to put Swinney – the most senior male member of government – up to speak in Equalities Secretary Angela Constance’s stead.

But critics pointed out the limitations of the hotline, with Labour MSP Monica Lennon calling for ministers to go further and launch a full and independent review into the “culture” at Holyrood, drawing on the expertise of women’s groups such as Rape Crisis and the trade unions.

“When the hotline was announced I went back and asked the women I had spoken to if they would be reporting their stories and the answer was universally ‘No’,” the insider said. “You can see why: if a woman reports an incident at X event involving Y and then the parliament decides it needs looking into, then they will confront Y and Y will immediately know who has complained about them.

“Of course, I do want the men who participated in these acts to understand what they have done is wrong but I don’t think it is possible to expose them without exposing the women, and then those women will just be marked out as trouble. The men involved will say: ‘Make sure you are careful in front of so and so’ rather than ‘make sure you are careful full stop’.”

Another issue is the gender composition of some of the bodies whose role it is to make decisions on the running of Holyrood. Last week, a photograph of the party leaders (or in the Scottish Tories’ case, deputy) discussing sexual harassment at a meeting chaired by Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh was circulating online. Nicola Sturgeon was the only woman in attendance.

The Scottish Parliament’s corporate body and business bureau – two committees influential in setting the parliament’s agenda and work programme – are all-male. As they are comprised of one member nominated by each party, it is difficult to ensure they are gender-balanced. But one proposal involves doubling the number on the committee so each party sends one man and one woman, another telling some of the parties they must nominate a woman this time round, on the understanding that, next time, they will swap over.

At the time of writing, the sexual harassment storm showed no sign of abating. As Elphicke was suspended on Friday night, Labour MP for Norwich South, Clive Lewis, was also facing accusations of groping a woman at the party conference (both deny all the claims). There were also suggestions that – surprise, surprise – Fallon’s resignation was about more than journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee and one lewd comment to Leadsom; a story in the Times suggests he was also facing an accusation of sexual assault.

There are those, however, who believe the answer to endemic sexual harassment doesn’t lie in claiming a few high-profile scalps, but in revolutionising attitudes. “Trying to address the problem through individual experiences and the hunting down of the perpetrators is the wrong approach,” says one insider. “There has to be a mass education of men about the way they talk to women.”