By Kate McIntosh
As allegations of sexual misconduct against the high and mighty of Hollywood made their way across the Atlantic last month, the British political establishment was readying itself for the same storm. It hit on 29th October, when vigilante political commentator Guido Fawkes leaked a list of 40 MPs accused of various acts of sexual misconduct, compiled by junior Conservative researchers. Two days previously, The Sun had reported that a group of women working in the Houses of Parliament routinely share warnings about male colleagues in a whatsapp group, including high profile government ministers, who are known to be perpetrators of sexual abuse or harassment.
This is not considered a secret in Westminster
The list – which is unpublishable in the UK – includes an MP who allegedly impregnated and forced an abortion on a young researcher, and several senior ministers accused of being ‘inappropriate’ or ‘handsy’ with journalists or backbenchers. These allegations have been firmly denied by many on the list, who outed themselves in the hope of killing the story before it travelled further.
It’s rumoured that the Conservative party’s own whips use gossip about backbencher’s sexual misconduct to force loyalty. At Prime Minister’s Questions, Lisa Nandy MP passionately condemned Theresa May’s refusal to acknowledge the blackmail that supposedly sustains her government. This is not considered a secret in Westminster. You could call it a ‘gossip culture’; or you could recognise that targets can’t speak out for fear they’ll damage both their party and their career. So, they use whichever channels protect their anonymity to warn others to not take a job with that MP, or get into a taxi with that minister.
Politics’ problem with sexual abuse goes far beyond the corridors of Westminster
Where has Theresa May been? A watershed for women in parliament this may be, it’s also most likely not what she – the second woman Prime Minister in British history – would like to be remembered for. She has called for ‘a new culture of respect at the centre of public life’. But now her own Cabinet is in the spotlight. Damien Green has been accused, and Michael Fallon was forced to apologise for behaviour that ‘fell short’. He was replaced by Gavin Williamson, ex-Chief Whip, as Defence Secretary. It’s an odd choice, given that now more than ever before May needs a loyal Tory majority.
Yet May’s pleas aren’t directed exclusively at her side of the house. Labour too, has it’s serious problems with sexual hierarchy, harassment and abuse. Backbencher Kelvin Hopkins had been suspended from the party following allegations of harassment. Anonymous activists have created an online platform to disclose incidences of harassment and assault, called LabourToo, partly in response to the party’s NEC failing to set up an independent investigation into abuse.
Coming forward is a minefield of potential embarrassment and disbelief
Politics’ problem with sexual abuse goes far beyond the corridors of Westminster. And the nature of party politics and grassroots activism means that coming forward is a minefield of potential embarrassment and disbelief. Some party members have been made to feel that calling out harassment would be a betrayal of the party itself. In a radio interview Labour’s Bex Bailey revealed that she was raped by a man in a senior role, at a Labour party event, and when she reported it she was told a formal complaint would jeopardise her career prospects.
Our means of responding to allegations of harassment and abuse have been pushed centre stage in recent days. Among several allegations against ex-Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, it was reported that he made lude remarks to Andrea Leadsom mid-Cabinet meeting. Anna Soubry MP called out the leak as a breach of Leadsom’s own privacy, as she herself had not publicly come forward about such an incident. The death of veteran Welsh Assembly member Carl Sargeant earlier this month has prompted calls for more openness about the nature of allegations. Sargeant, who it’s thought committed suicide, submitted several requests for information from Welsh Labour, after he was sacked following allegations of harassment.
The culture of abuse is massive in scale and deep-rooted in nature
Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet, has spoken out about what he sees as a ‘witch hunt’. “In the context, there is no proof that I can see yet of any wrongdoing. There may be things that have been done, a hand on a knee. Fine, you know, 15 years ago that may have been acceptable where it’s not today,” he said. Other members of the house offered sentiments more fitting for the twenty first century. “This is not about peering into some dark recesses. This kind of abuse, sexism and misogyny, has been hiding in plain sight. It is all around us,” said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
In response to Gale’s scaremongering, long time women’s right campaigner and ‘mother of the house’ Harriet Harman said “No, it’s not a witch hunt – it’s long overdue.” Harman’s right; it’s becoming clear that the culture of abuse is massive in scale and deep-rooted in nature. Thus, attempts to correct present and past wrongs must themselves be radical, all-encompassing and relentless.
Photograph: PULLKATT via Flickr