The tsunami of sordid stories about sexual harassment has left most of Westminster – and indeed the country – feeling queasy and uneasy. As a former Labour adviser, my phone has been ringing off the hook over the last few days. Advisers past and present, MPs and journalists are all reflecting on their own experiences and soul searching about a culture which clearly normalised sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power.
But the key question is: what next? It would be a tragedy if this collective outpouring of indignation and condemnation created a media storm, one high profile resignation and little else. There has got to be a genuine attempt to change our political culture at a deep and structural level. This is not something which is quick, easy or indeed popular within the corridors of power.
The starting point is a proper independent confidential complaints system which young men and women have confidence in. This is not just for sexual harassment but for bullying too which many female MPs are also guilty of. It needs to be free of the control of each party’s machinery like the whips office as that is precisely what would put off someone from speaking up. Each political party needs to put a proper complaints system in place as well so that young people can feel they have somewhere to go within their own tribe where they will be supported.
But the silver bullet is behaviour. You can have all the Human Resources and complaints systems you like, but until MPs, and senior staffers, understand that their basic behaviour to junior women and men has got to change then I’m afraid the needle will not move. And it’s not actually that difficult. I would hope most people could work it out without the need for a cringey manual but here’s a few helpful tips. When you’re the boss, don’t fondle, grope, cup or lunge at anyone and as a general rule don’t harass people for sex via the oh so clever ruse of late night drinks to ‘help them with their career’. And give yourself a reality check: they’re not inviting it and they’re really not into you. At all. Especially if you’re a 58-year-old man who’s seen better days and they’re someone thirty years your junior who either works for you, needs a job or an interview. Ask yourself this critical question: are you abusing your position to get in someone’s pants? And if all that fails, ask yourself how you would feel if you get caught.
Politicians love lording it over the rest of society about how we behave and how we should conduct ourselves in the workplace. It’s time they cleaned up their act – and it’s really not that hard.