Sex pests in pol­i­tics

A toxic cul­ture in the Com­mons

The Week - - Front Page -

“Some­one once joked that pol­i­tics is ‘show busi­ness for ugly peo­ple’,” said the Labour MP John Mann in The Mail on Sun­day. So it should come as no sur­prise that, af­ter the Har­vey We­in­stein rev­e­la­tions in Hol­ly­wood, West­min­ster should be next. Par­lia­ment, like Hol­ly­wood, is a high­pres­sure en­vi­ron­ment in which pow­er­ful in­di­vid­u­als at the top can prey on, ha­rass or hu­mil­i­ate their ju­niors. Last week, for ex­am­ple, the trade min­is­ter Mark Garnier ad­mit­ted to hav­ing sent a sec­re­tary into a sex shop to buy two vi­bra­tors (one for his wife and one for a fe­male worker in his con­stituency of­fice) while he waited out­side. It was, he in­sisted, just “good­hu­moured high jinks”. He also ad­mit­ted to hav­ing once called the same woman “sugar tits” in a bar, but said it was part of an “amus­ing con­ver­sa­tion” about Gavin & Stacey. Former Cab­i­net min­is­ter Stephen Crabb, mean­while, ad­mit­ted to hav­ing “sexted” a 19-year-old he had in­ter­viewed (and re­jected) for a job.

The flood­gates have opened, said The Times. This week, a Labour ac­tivist went public with al­le­ga­tions that Labour of­fi­cials urged her not to re­port a rape. Bex Bailey says she was at­tacked at a Labour event in 2011, but was dis­cour­aged from go­ing to the po­lice. At least six Cab­i­net min­is­ters were this week ru­moured to fea­ture on a spread­sheet of Tory MPS ac­cused of sex­ual ha­rass­ment or mis­con­duct known as the “dirty dossier”. The al­le­ga­tions, which have not been ver­i­fied, range from ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs to be­ing “handsy in taxis”, and ha­rass­ing re­searchers to pay­ing for pros­ti­tutes. A Labour-af­fil­i­ated or­gan­i­sa­tion, Labour Too, has be­gun com­pil­ing sim­i­lar com­plaints against MPS on the op­po­si­tion benches. Women at West­min­ster have cre­ated a What­sapp group to warn each other about se­rial sex pests, while oth­ers have started mak­ing off-the-record al­le­ga­tions to the press. They said that one former Tory min­is­ter was fa­mously not safe to share a lift with, and that he was once over­heard ask­ing his sec­re­tary to “come and feel the length of my dick”.

The Com­mons on Mon­day was a “vor­tex of an­guish”, said Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail, as MPS of all par­ties “strained to outdo one an­other” in out­raged sanc­ti­mony. Com­mons Leader An­drea Leadsom called on Par­lia­ment to “take ac­tion in days, not weeks”. There were calls for a new in­de­pen­dent body to over­see griev­ance pro­ce­dures, and “HR wal­lahs” to sit in on job in­ter­views with “goosey-digit MPS”. Speaker John Ber­cow gave a the­atri­cal speech in which he pledged in a qua­ver­ing voice to “do what­ever I can”. “Larry Olivier him­self could barely have done it with more tragic gravy.” But all these words will do pre­cisely noth­ing to “fix the sys­temic cul­ture of abuse and ha­rass­ment that ex­ists in West­min­ster”, said Sam Ba­con in the New States­man. The es­sen­tial prob­lem is this: “all MPS are es­sen­tially their own self-em­ployed busi­nesses”. They hire and man­age their own staff, with­out ex­ter­nal over­sight. This leaves abused staff with no one to turn to. “The boss that ha­rasses them is the line man­ager they are sup­posed to re­port bul­ly­ing and ha­rass­ment to.”

They cer­tainly can’t ex­pect any help from the party whips, said Matthew Nor­man in The In­de­pen­dent. Al­though the whips make it their busi­ness to know ev­ery­one’s mis­deeds, their mo­tive is not to pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble staff. Rather, they use the in­for­ma­tion as lever­age to en­sure that MPS toe the party line. The whole sys­tem is “de­signed to hide mis­de­meanours and use them later for po­lit­i­cal gain”. This col­lu­sion goes right to the top: Theresa May gets a weekly brief­ing on her MPS’ pec­ca­dil­loes (known to whips as “the ins and outs stuff”). Ac­cord­ing to one aide, “Theresa just sits there and doesn’t say much. On one oc­ca­sion she said, ‘Why can’t they just do their job?’” But how­ever un­a­mused the vicar’s daugh­ter may be, there isn’t much she can do. So frag­ile is her “tot­ter­ing Gov­ern­ment” that if she were to sack MPS for sex­ual ha­rass­ment, she could lose her ma­jor­ity and bring it crash­ing down.

“Will sex­ual ha­rass­ment be to this gov­ern­ment what the ex­penses scan­dal was to New Labour?” I have my doubts, said Stephen Bush in the New States­man. Un­like the dodgy ex­penses claims, these al­le­ga­tions are so far un­proven. More­over, the be­hav­iours de­scribed in the so-called dirty dossier vary wildly, from se­ri­ous wrong­do­ing to strange but con­sen­sual ac­tiv­i­ties (one MP is on the list for hav­ing been uri­nated on by three men), and in­cludes re­spectable re­la­tion­ships be­tween MPS (Am­ber Rudd hav­ing dated Kwasi Kwarteng, for ex­am­ple). This mud­dy­ing of the wa­ters makes it eas­ier to dis­miss the whole is­sue as an over­re­ac­tion. There is a chance that it will just “fiz­zle out”.

“All these words will do noth­ing to fix the sys­temic cul­ture of abuse that ex­ists at West­min­ster”

Mark Garnier: “good-hu­moured high jinks”?

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