There is clearly a will in Westminster to change the culture of sexual harassment that was so horribly exposed in the autumn. Previously, there was little will and no clear way for victims to get help, despite widespread anecdotal evidence that there were quite a lot of victims out there. Today a cross-party working group of MPs, peers, staff, and trade unions published their report on how to ensure that victims don’t feel ignored any more, and that there is a proper, independent process for dealing with complaints.
But will the report really be a success? And how will we really know what a success looks like, when sexual harassment is, in reality, often much more complex than it first seems?
One aspect of this complexity is that social mores are changing. Some women have disagreed with the zero-tolerance approach taken by colleagues from younger generations to what they see as low-level sexism or even clumsy compliments. This frequently turns into the sort of battle between women that opponents of equality and respect just love to use as a means of obfuscating about the issue. In fact, all it demonstrates is that social expectations are changing. We could get bogged down about whether or not it was right that a woman of generation should have felt she just had to take on the chin ‘clumsy come-ons’ involving hands on knees or demeaning language. But the fact is that women today don’t think that putting up with something that makes them uncomfortable is fair. Far more progress will be made if that shift is acknowledged as something that has already happened, and that society does need to learn how to deal with it.
Learning how not to make people feel uncomfortable sounds so simple that surely every MP would understand this instinctively. But the point about social change is that it can quite easily leave people behind. And so the mandatory training that the report recommends is useful, not patronising, because surely if you’re keen not to make people feel uncomfortable, it’s best to find out what it is that might accidentally do that. It’s the same as working out how to be culturally sensitive when travelling to different cultures, something most MPs seem to feel is important.
Carolin Lucas, who was part of the group writing the report, today argued that those complaining about the training were the ones who would probably need it the most. To put it a little more gently, those complaining about the training may actually find it comes in handy when they next find themselves in a certain situation with someone who they have some kind of power over, whether a junior employee, a candidate for a job or seat, or a young female reporter. It means they won’t be quite so bewildered about whether or not their behaviour is ‘appropriate’. There is certainly a possibility that some of those accused of sexism or harassment are protesting too much when they claim that they just thought they were being friendly. But there’s also a possibility that some MPs also need the difference between friendly and inappropriate spelling out to them in a way that will benefit both them and those around them.
This applies particularly to the ‘grey area’ situations, of which there are many. There are cases that are clear, and then cases where, while neither side has a particularly different account of what happened, their interpretation of whether what happened was making the complainant uncomfortable can be totally different yet equally understandable to a reasonable person examining their case. Training would help this, but so would a proper, independent complaints process which people feel they can turn to no matter how big or small an incident or pattern of behaviour seemed to them.
Indeed, the reason that the Westminster sexual harassment scandal has been quite so ugly is that it has been a massive release of pressure that has been building up for years. So many people with so many complaints and nowhere to go meant that when they felt they did have somewhere to go – in many cases social media or the press – the allegations swirled thick and fast to the extent that defamation almost appeared not to apply to stories or posts about harassment. Some people lost their jobs on the basis of tweets, which may well have been entirely accurate – but there should be a proper process to prove that. If nothing else, a proper process means a perpetrator cannot moan about being mistreated, which doesn’t help victims move on, either. Similarly, some who complained publicly found their own private lives and characters under such deeply unpleasant scrutiny that many more were deterred from doing or saying anything about what had happened to them.
MPs, as the report acknowledges, can be targets for malicious or vexatious claims, but such was the pressure to release all the claims that had been ignored for so long that some parliamentarians felt as though a ‘witch hunt’ had started up. It wasn’t a witch hunt, by the way, but an unpleasant, inevitable consequence of victims being ignored for so long. The Lord Rennard scandal, which erupted into the media precisely because the women involved found their own party had ignored their complaints, was an early harbinger of this. Yet when the floodgates fully opened, no-one was ready.
The parties have, according to both victims and accused, not dealt with the influx of allegations at all well, suspending some MPs in a panic without telling them the details of the claims made against them, and disappointing complainants with inexplicable delays. Even if they were bastions of organisation, it is difficult to see political parties as being best-placed to deal with complaints internally anyway, given the temptation for factionalism even on a matter this serious.
But the way to measure the success of this report – and of the bravery of some of the victims such as Bex Bailey, who spoke out about their own ordeals – will not just whether there does end up being an independent and confidential complaints process. It will also be whether it is now clear that inappropriate behaviour is not something that anyone in Parliament needs to take on the chin – and, for those who may be confused, a clear understanding of what inappropriate behaviour actually is. This will mean that society doesn’t need to go through something as ugly and public as the #MeToo movement has had to be, because for the first time everyone will know where they stand.