The #MeToo movement hit UK politics in 2017, triggering a flurry of allegations, suspensions and resignations across the political spectrum.
Sexual harassment is nothing new in UK politics, but the revelations of 2017 prompted an unprecedented reaction from political leaders, with impassioned speeches emphasising a ‘zero- tolerance’ approach and Parliament’s duty as ‘role models’ for the nation. However, whilst the rhetoric was impressive, claims of obliviousness were met with scepticism, and the dominance of Brexit has meant the furore died down almost as quickly as it had emerged.
This week, MPs debated the findings of the six-month review of the measures put in place to deal with sexual harassment in politics.
So how far have we come?
Even a brief look at the global political sphere shows it is something of a hotbed for sexism and sexual harassment. An alarming 81.1 per cent of respondents to a 2016 Inter-Parliamentary Union survey of female parliamentarians reported facing psychological violence, while 65.5 per cent said they had been subjected to ‘humiliating sexist remarks’ and 20 per cent reported having been sexually harassed. But even within this depressing picture, the House of Commons has been highlighted as a ‘brutal example’ of political misogyny; a place where patriarchy ‘oozes out of the walls’.
For centuries, UK politics has been dominated by men; women are still viewed as alien and misogyny is commonplace. As the UK’s key legislator, the misogyny of the House of Commons seeps into policy and allows for the legitimisation and perpetuation of discrimination and sexual harassment in broader society. MPs targeted by sexual harassment can face major physical and psychological impact, which cumulatively can be hugely detrimental to the quality of parliament and public policies. Many women cite the prevalence of sexual harassment as a notable deterrent when it comes to entering politics. Put bluntly, Parliament’s misogyny makes it inadequate, unrepresentative and ineffective.
The norms, rules and practices Parliament is built upon are founded on ‘assumptions of masculinity’. The assumed norm is a white, cisgender man and the greater an individual’s deviation from this norm, the more excluded they find themselves from the culture of Parliament. Behaviour promoting exclusion and inequality is repeated and normalised, even after such behaviour is deemed unacceptable in broader society. Factors such as adversarial debate and parliamentary privilege conspire to naturalise, weaponise and exacerbate sexist behaviour. The increasing presence of women is not enough to revert this culture of misogyny — women often feel forced to conform to organisational norms, or face significant difficulties if they attempt to effect change.
Previous attempts to change the culture have been largely unsuccessful; often implemented inadequately and ineffectually after unwelcome publicity. Those who reported sexual harassment were often advised not to bring a complaint, or simply moved from their job — Labour activist Bex Bailey reported being told to keep quiet about being sexually attacked because it would ‘damage her’, while the Telegraph reported that one minister was reportedly promoted even after accusations of ‘problematic behaviour’. Parliament fosters a culture of deference and impunity where power imbalances are inherent and parliamentary privilege is sacred; gender, race, job insecurity and partisan logic conspire to muffle any allegations of sexual harassment.
This toxic culture of misogyny and cover-up means that support and protection is limited, accountability is lacking and trust is minimal. Hopes that the events of late 2017 would result in broad cultural change come heavily caveated with concerns that the new measures, collectively known as the Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme (ICGS), have failed to replace a culture of bullying and misogyny with one of respect. Launched in July 2018 the ICGS contained six key features, including a new Behaviour Code supported by training and an independent HR support service, while two additional inquiries were launched, led by Dame Laura Cox and Gemma White QC, to further examine sexual harassment in Parliament.
It might all sound good, but in its first six months the ICGS has proved inadequate in changing the toxic culture of the House of Commons. The Cox Report criticised the scheme’s lack of independence and confidentiality, while MPs such as Jess Phillips and Maria Miller expressed frustration at the minimal progress made in the last six months. While the ICGS may be able to implement procedural change, transforming the Commons from a stalwart of historical patriarchy to a beacon on the path to gender equality is likely to be more difficult and will require more radical steps. Removing MP involvement in the ICGS and implementing compulsory training for all MPs are two key steps that critics of the ICGS deem necessary and achievable. But more fundamental change is needed.
Parliamentary privilege and adversarial debate are so embedded in the day-to-day function of Parliament that they are seen as crucial and immovable. But in order to truly rule out sexual harassment and discrimination, it is these totemic and ingrained characteristics that must be fundamentally altered or eradicated. Six months on, the ICGS provides policy and procedure to address the symptoms — sexual harassment — but does not face up to the underlying disease in the House of Commons.