Women’s Equality Party (WEP) activists turned Westminster into Pestminster this week. By replacing the W’s with P’s on maps and local signage, they created an eerie atmosphere right at the heart of Britain’s political landscape. Why? To protest the lack of action taken against those caught up in Parliament’s sexual harassment scandal.
One year on from the Pestminster scandal, fourteen MPs were accused of sexual harassment, along with a former First Minister, two MSPs and four unnamed officials. Not one of them has lost their jobs. Three have been promoted. The worst part is they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
Notable cases identified by the WEP include Mark McDonald MSP, Member of Scottish Parliament for Aberdeen Donside Constituency, who was found guilty by two separate investigations, but refused to stand down. Mark just got a new office and parking space. That, as said best by the WEP, is quite a feat.
Even more so when we think of how many people’s political careers have been ended by reporting people like him.
Their bold aesthetic activism comes just after Dame Laura Cox released a damning report into the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff. What she found was not simply damning of the conduct of those in the House of Commons, but of our very political culture.
Those, like the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn, who have not yet read the report but are aware of it will be unsurprised as to the nature of its contents. It found institutional failings had allowed bullying and sexual harassment to thrive in the Houses of Parliament.
Allegations of sexual harassment in the report included “frequent and inappropriate touching”, men patting women’s heads and putting their arms around women and leaving a hand on their knee “for an uncomfortably long time”. Those are just the easiest to stomach allegations. There are far darker tales to be discovered by anyone brave enough to open the 150 pages of the Cox report.
If we are to take anything from the Bercow uproar, beyond political opportunism, we should take seriously his suggestion of an independent commission to investigate all future allegations of bullying and sexual harassment facing MPs. Knowing that the problem doesn’t end at the doors of the Commons chamber we also need to extend that to the House of Lords, and political parties soon after.
It can’t be right that a complaint about a member of the Commons or Lords can be adjudicated by someone who sits a mere 3 seats away from them every day at work. You cannot draw fair and objective conclusions about the behaviour of your own colleagues and friends when faced with allegations from a total stranger.
Reforms come too late for many who have already lost far too much under the current fatally flawed system. With this in mind, we must include a mechanism for appealing previous rulings which may have been tainted by the dizzying power imbalance created when those with power are taken on by those without. To be truly independent the commission must be independently funded, and not involve a single MP or member of the Lords.
The commission must have real power to offer more than simply a slap on the wrist. “You’ve caused someone distress, be more careful next time” is a far too common conclusion to disciplinary procedures against MPs and members of the Lords. The power and money possessed by these people must not continue to buy them leniency in our brave new world.
The naming of Sir Philip Green under parliamentary privilege in the House of Lords feels truly Orwellian when you remember the inconvenient fact that multiple sitting members of the chamber have had credible allegations of sexual harassment made against them.
The commission’s success will be measured against a benchmark of dead political careers. Every single one of them is worth it. If rolled out to the Lords, and to political parties, the gaps created by the loss of ‘friends’ and ‘notable figures’ will be clearly and eerily visible.
We will fill those gaps. Every last one of them. To take the place of every politician we lose we will find someone brighter, someone bolder, someone kinder. The talent we would otherwise lose can be put to grand use, building the institutions and infrastructure our nation needs to handle the challenges of the future.
Why would we not want the best and the brightest on our political frontlines? Can we not justify the loss of a few who offer little to be replaced by far more who will go on to do great things?
Without adopting these reforms we will never tackle the harsh truth that ‘Next stop #Pestminster’ is a daily reality, not just a publicity stunt. The kind will continue to fall victim to the cruel, the brave to the powerful, the bold to those who have more to gain from their silence.