A third party reporting system, plus support for victims of sexual harassment, is long over due in Labour
One of the world’s experts in traumatic stress, Bessel Van der Kolk, says in his incredible book, The Body Keeps the Score, that in order to understand trauma we have to overcome our natural reluctance to confront the reality that the world is not always safe, manageable, and predictable and ‘cultivate the courage to listen to the testimonies of survivors’.
The LabourToo campaign was set up a week ago in that spirit by a group of Labour women who have experienced sexual harassment, assault and discrimination. We wanted to bring life to the stories of the hundreds of other women who have witnessed similar behaviours in their time in the party. It is not easy, as Labour members committed to ideas of social justice, equality and democracy, to admit that sexual and domestic abuse is perpetrated by members of the party at all levels. But the fact is that gendered crimes happen to women of all ages, all classes, all ethnicities and religious affiliation, and yes, even members of progressive parties.
When the women in Hollywood abused for so long by Harvey Weinstein stepped forward and millions of women tweeted ‘#MeToo’ in solidarity, we got together as a group and wondered whether there might be a ripple effect which could help change the culture of our own party. We took the risk and thought if we could capture the anonymous stories of women in Labour, we might be able to provide the evidence of a need for change to party culture and practices which paired with the current climate might shift years of patient internal debate in a few months. We are anonymous because we want to keep safe and know the pressure and abuse which would be meted out to us if we said who we were. We know why women do not speak up.
In just a week the website has had scores of submissions ranging from stories of men speaking over women in branch meetings, to groping, to sexual assault and rape. Some men have submitted posts too. Many of them contain elements of shame, fear of what their bosses or peers will say, and an admission they did not report to the police because they felt they would not be believed or that their case was too trivial. In some cases respondents have told us they did report their experiences to the Labour party or to Labour party staff, but felt the complaint was not taken seriously, were told to drop it or the individual was moved on or demoted, but remained in the party.
Abuse, whether it is of children, partner abuse or sexual assault, is hard to think about. Our brains naturally do not like to dwell on it for long. But the Labour party, of all places, should be somewhere which recognises the impact of abuse on a person’s capacity to flourish and fulfil their potential. Dismantling structural inequalities such as domestic or sexual abuse ought to be fundamental to our mission to create a society in which everyone is equal. Yet while we find it easy to campaign against this abuse in public, we refuse to recognise it in our own party – our own families even. The ‘othering’ of abuse may be an escape mechanism – our natural reluctance to confront reality – as Van der Kolk says, but Labour members need to braver than this.
That is why the team behind LabourToo has said enough is enough. We do not want to stand by to see another generation of Labour women patronised, dismissed, groped, stroked, beaten, and yes, raped. If there is a place to start in addressing the endemic nature of gendered abuse it is here – in the place that should be the safest given its values and history. We are calling for a third party reporting process supported by independent specialists so that victims feel safe coming forward and receive the support they need to see the complaint to its conclusion. Alongside that, mandatory training in adult safeguarding and bystander behaviour for all staff, elected politicians and voluntary officials is crucially important if the culture of the party is to change from protecting the party to protecting its people.
We hope more women (and men) come forward to share their stories, anonymously and in total confidence, and let us see if we can break the silence on this once and for all.
LabourToo – collating stories of harassment, abuse and assault in the Labour party; encouraging women to report confidentially via LabourToo.org.uk
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