The past week has given a brief insight into what goes on behind closed doors at Westminster. It’s easy to assess what’s happening as something uniquely rotten committed by evil men but the truth is the culture of harassment is so engrained and inbuilt to the culture of politics: it’s a cyclical story of abuse.
An idealist seventeen-year-old, interested in getting involved in politics, enters their local party office and offers to volunteer. Surrounded by a room of activists with an average age of 80, he’s offered a lemon drizzle cake recipe and asked to deliver all 500 leaflets alone, as he’s the only person in the room with working legs. Dismayed, he hears about the youth wing, and decides to attend a youth wing residential retreat to meet people he has more in common with.
At the youth residential event he is one of four new people attending. The older members pounce: there’s fresh meat. Mostly guys with a handful of girls, they play some ice breakers, moving on to the drinking game “Never Have I Ever”. The questions very quickly become overtly sexual, gauging which of the newbies are more sexually experienced, and therefore more likely to be ‘up for it’. The older kids suss out which ones are going to be up for grabs later on and informal bets are placed on who’s going to pull whom.
The seventeen-year-old kid has probably been preyed on himself by one of the older kids and brushes this experience off as a hazing ritual: everyone has been chatted up or given lingering touches by That Kid, he’s got a bit of a reputation and once you survive you have something to bond over. A few years pass and he’s now got an executive position in the youth wing. He’s instigating the drinking games and preying on the newbies. After all, it’s a hazing ritual and gropes from Creepy Dave is how he made all his friends.
He moves on to work in Westminster as a Parliamentary Researcher. His friends tell him “Try not to be alone with that MP Bob, he’s got a thing for boys with green eyes.” They get another round of pints, laugh, and he makes a mental note to avoid cab journeys with Bob. A new intern starts and she piques his interest so he goes to flirt with her, coming across far too strong. She’s uncomfortable, but avoids any confrontation. He doesn’t think this is weird, after all this is how those MPs Beth and James met, it’s all perfectly normal.
A few years later he gets selected for a marginal seat, and has no free time left. During the day he’s working in PR, and the moment he finishes work he’s on the doors campaigning to solve the bin crisis. Meeting new people is next to impossible, so he can only flirt with the people he meets campaigning. He flirts with everyone under 40 who comes to his events, as a “thank you” for delivering his leaflets he buys lots of drinks. His hand “accidentally” rubs a thigh. He begins to gain a reputation. The party becomes aware of his behaviour but he’s built such a great personal brand in West Carpentryshire that they’ll lose the seat if they replace him this late. It is for the good of the party, and the country, that he stays and wins that seat.
So he wins, and now has to stay in Parliament until late, spending time at the bar until his vote’s finished. Pretty drunk, and with no romance in his life, he goes to a local late night piano bar to carry the night on. A few fresh faces from Westminster are already there, and he bops over to buy them drinks, hoping that eventually at least one person will come back to his flat within walking distance.
This culture exists in a cycle: each generation has been on the receiving end at some point and at no point has anyone been told this is unacceptable. The abusers have always been victims themselves, and Westminster exists in a complete HR vacuum. Long hours, alcoholism, and loneliness are all cornerstones of the Westminster experience. When there’s no one to report this behaviour to, you believe all of this is normal and acceptable.
Predators are not monsters who lurk in the shadows. They are the mates you go to the pub with, making slightly inappropriate comments which is “Classic Dave”. Their views and behaviour are formed by their environment. If they’ve only ever worked in politics and seen abuse as normal, they will believe it is normal to grope and prey.
Every single layer of politics from campaigns, to Westminster, to the youth wings, allows this culture to permeate. There has been a lot of talk about setting up an independent body to monitor complaints, but the deep cause of all of this is alcoholism, loneliness, and long hours. In the short term we can ask people to speak out and report their issues, but getting to the root of this culture is more complicated than we’re ready to confront.