For anyone who has any contact with the Houses of Parliament, the stories currently emerging about rife sexual harassment will not be a surprise. This is a problem that exists in most workplaces and industries – and given the huge power imbalances in place in politics, it is no surprise that political parties have a real problem to face.
It’s not just in Westminster politics. After more than a year of examining the barriers to women’s representation in local government and hearing from female councillors in all the main political parties, it is clear that there is work that urgently needs to be done in our town halls. Some of the changes we need to see can be implemented by local councils, or by government, but there are some important changes which require political parties themselves to recognise that they have a major issue here. It is about much more than procedures or policies, it’s about culture. A culture which tolerates and permits bullying, harassment and sexist conduct.
Fawcett’s Local Government Commission found that 44% of Labour women councillors, 33% of Conservative and 29% of Liberal Democrat women councillors had experienced sexist comments from colleagues in their own party. The figures for those who said they had experienced sexual harassment were 11% for Labour, 9% for Conservative women councillors and 6% of Liberal Democrats. But we also found that there was rarely a mechanism in place to deal with it and what was there didn’t work for internal party matters but was rather a mechanism run by the local authority and concerned with the conduct of councillors.
The problem in both local and national politics is twofold. Firstly, there is considerable party pressure on women not to rock the boat or give ammunition to the ‘other side’ by washing their dirty linen in public. I can just hear party voices saying ‘the only ones to gain from this will be our opponents’. They will be told it is career suicide for them personally; that the party is doing well, why do this now, that it will undermine their chances at the next election and so on. Women will be genuinely torn as they feel a party loyalty. After all, they have joined a party, campaigned for it and represent it. It is part of who they are.
Secondly there is huge pressure on women MPs not to undermine parliament with a reprise of the ‘sleaze’ stories of the past. Parliament and the reputation of MPs has never recovered from the expenses scandal. There will be those in the House who will be keen to keep a lid on this stuff and there will be others in the media all too ready to sensationalise and exploit it.
But this is even more of a reason to deal with this once and for all now. People are desperate for a new and better style of politics. Women in particular are turned off by what they see as macho Westminster posturing politicians. What better way to provide that than to say we aren’t going to tolerate this kind of behaviour in our party and in our politics anymore?
As new stories emerge it is clear that this is a problem that reaches beyond elected MPs, to the many staff who work in Westminster. The parliamentary researchers, the officials, the catering staff, women who are no position to confront a powerful politician if they are sexually harassed or assaulted. Who is going to stand up for them? Conduct in Parliament won’t improve until parties themselves take responsibility for the behaviour of their elected representatives. So I write this as an appeal to all the women of Westminster and to women across local government. Come together and demand that your parties put basic standards and procedures in place which will protect you and every woman who follows you.
The proposal that the Prime Minister has put forward for Parliament, for a house-wide mediation service and grievance procedure, would be a positive step. But the political parties also need to get serious about addressing this issue, taking a zero tolerance approach and looking more widely than just Westminster.
We have a couple of important anniversaries next year – 100 years of the first votes for women and 100 years since the first woman was elected to Parliament. We need to make some radical changes to open up our politics, engage women in all their diversity and persuade them to stand and participate. But that requires the parties themselves to get their own houses as well as the Houses of Parliament in order. Otherwise what experience will those women have when they get there?