Sunday 29 October 2017

Politicising Sexual Harassment

As we've been talking about sexist abuse in the Labour Party recently, turning our attention to the Tories is the balanced thing to do. The eruption of the Harvey Weinstein scandal appears to have cleared a logjam in public life. Women who've put up with the full spectrum of sexist behaviour, from "banter" and name-calling all the way through to abuse and sexual assault now feel encouraged to come forward and talk about it. It was only a matter of time before the press pack fizzed with similar stories about Westminster.

Three stories hit the papers this morning. Stephen Crabb, former great blue hope for the blue collar Tories and, of course, "committed Christian", has found the old story about smutty texts regurgitated and recycled. A young woman who unsuccessfully applied for a bag carrying vacancy in his office found herself on the receiving end of unsolicited texts from the former rising star. Crabb apologised when the story first broke, and he's done so again for good measure. There is the case of Mark Garnier, who has admitted to sending his former secretary into an adult shop to buy sex toys while he hung around outside. He also occasionally referred to her as sugar tits - all of which was merely "high jinks". Nevertheless rather than sack him, the Prime Minister has placed him under investigation. Seeing as he admitted to doing it, you're left wondering what there is to investigate.

This, however, is small beer. There is worse in the offing, as the Sunday Times notes:

May is given a regular briefing by the Tory chief whip Gavin Williamson on misdemeanours by Tory MPs after the 8.30am planning meeting in No 10. In a sign of the levity with which the issue is treated, one of May’s aides said the briefing was known in Downing Street as “the ins and outs” chat.

Insiders say it covers MPs having affairs, suffering from sex addiction, caught using prostitutes, running up gambling debts and taking class-A drugs. But sources allege that “good, honest fun with other people’s wives” has been treated the same as predatory sexual behaviour in which senior ministers and MPs prey on the vulnerability of younger women and men working in the Commons.

... Two senior cabinet ministers have been named by female MPs, researchers and journalists as serial sex pests. One man who is now a serving cabinet minister placed his hand on the thigh of a senior female journalist at a party conference dinner some years ago and announced "God, I love those tits." A second senior cabinet minister had an affair with a junior female aide who is also an MP. Downing Street is concerned that if either man is forced to resign it will destabilise the government.

Yes, it is revealing how possible criminality is seen on the same plane as extra marital affairs. Revealing, but not surprising. In the zero-sum game of establishment party politics fighting it out in the full glare of the media, all problems present themselves as difficulties to be managed - as the latter passage suggests. All very Francis Urquhart. This, of course, raises big problems for the Prime Minister. By letting these men carry on she's saying there isn't really anything wrong with their behaviour.

Having worked a stint in the outer suburbs of Westminster, I know how the relationships between MPs and their staff can could lead to improper conduct and abuse of position. Unlike the usual employee/boss run of things, the relationship is immediate and arrangements quite informal. MPs are given a budget (the much misunderstood expenses system) and left to get on with it. Despite a recognised union being in place for parliamentary and constituency staff, workers have very little power vis a vis "their" MP, and as it is Unite the limited protections it does offer are significantly less likely to be accessed by Tory staffers. Neither is there a grievance procedure, no avenue for complaints: responsibility starts and stops with the honorable member, and so working for a MP is a place where all kinds of bad practice thrives. Such as arbitrary hours, bullying, incompetence, sycophancy and, as we can see, the possibility of impropriety and wrongdoing.

As the joke of the expenses scandal showed eight years ago, there are a lot of problems with the jerry-rigged character of the back office of British politics, and this underlines it. But ultimately, juggling personnel structures on the Parliamentary Estate does not and cannot go to the heart of the problem. Therefore no apologies should ever be made for politicising this issue. The systematic discrimination and subordination of women and the too powerful grip of toxic masculinities on our culture cannot be legislated away or fixed by better management. Tackling sex discrimination and its attendant evils head on is and remains a key political task, it is a collective priority and one our movement must never compromise on.


SimonB said...

It's wonderful that the logjam has finally broken and the truth is coming out. We can't let this just fizzle out, it has to lead to real change. Of course the deafening silence now comes from the media themselves. it wouldn't surprise me if tales from the newsroom made everything so far pale into insignificance.

Joseph B said...

Time our antiquated system of patronage was replaced by one in which MP's staff are treated as professionals, represented by unions with teeth, fully and properly trained, and subject to the same sort of basic rights and procedures that most employees enjoy even from the worst of managements.

If Teresa May wants to get rid of the two un-named "sex pests" without putting them through processes of accusation/recrimination, at the very least she should announce a reshuffle and return these (and others) to the back-benches. This would, at the very least, make a start. And suggests she cares even if she doesn't.

My suggestions are just a bit of sticking plaster - a wholesale change in culture is called for.

Boffy said...

I'm wondering what would be made of the experience of life on the factory floor back in the 1970's, when I used to walk through in the Summer with the women sitting at their benches in just their bra and knickers, and heavily outnmbering men, particularly younger men it was a reversal of the situation of women getting wolf-whistled by builders, when they walk down the street.

Or I remember being a 17 year old office worker in a garment factory, where nearly all the machinists were women, other than one 16 year old lad, who got chased around the factory, before he took refuge on the roof, as the women tried to remove his trousers as part of his rights of passage. As an office worker I escaped experience, and probably also because a number of the women were the mothers of people I had been at school with!

Its a bit like the debate over no platforming fascists as opposed to no platforming anyone who might say something that someone somewhere might take offence at. Perhaps its why today so many people have to resort to dating agencies, because they require something in writing or some other kind of contractual arrangement to meet anyone for fear that otherwise any advance they make will be used to accuse them of making an improper advance.

Does anyone bother to buy mistletoe to hang at Xmas anymore?

MikeB said...


I can't speak for anyone else, but that sounds pretty unpleasant.

But you seem to be completely overlooking the question of power. Which is kind of the whole point.

As for the remainder of your comment, I'm going to interpret it generously to mean, "I don't know what I'm talking about" because otherwise, one might imagine that you are saying something as crass as "It's political correctness gone mad"

Boffy said...

The 16 year old lad didn't see it as "pretty unpleasant", but as a bit of a laugh. I suppose you could say all the older women chasing him had more "power", because of their numbers.

My son who was filming at a local potbank said that the description I gave of life on the shop floor was still apparent recently. I don't think he was scarred for life by it.

When I was a kid young children used to suck coal, and we used to play in dirty pools and so on. Then parents began to insist that their kids be wrapped in cotton wool, that all surfaces be absolutely germ free. It turned out that the latter was a bad idea, because it meant kids didn't build up protection from their own antibodies against various bacteria.

Recognising that doesn't mean that it's a good idea for kids to be subject to typhoid germs, or smallpox. Its a question of learning to think, and make distinctions, to have a sense of proportion, and of learning to live in the real world, where you do have to have built up a range of "antibodies". If you put every action that someone might feel to be inappropriate on the same level as someone being raped or seriously sexually assaulted you end up diminishing the seriousness of the latter.