We cannot let ourselves believe that our politics is immune from harassment and abuse, writes Megan Corton Scott
Increasingly, it feels as though the scandal around the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinsten has broken free from the man himself. What started as an expose on the Hollywood movie mogul has ballooned into a tidal wave of exposing the abuses of women across all walks of life; from media to academia, politics and sport.
Sexual harassment and abuse of women happens everywhere – from family homes
to strangers in supermarkets and everything in between. It defines how women are, what they wear, how they act. It is omnipresent – and this only serves to protect abusers further. When the degradation of women forms the backbone of an entire culture – whether in Hollywood, Washington or Westminster – those who speak up must speak up against the entire system, a challenge that far too often means that potential whistleblowers will stay mute.
In any ‘corridors of power’, there are tasks that those at the bottom of the rung must endure to get ahead. From leafleting in the rain to doing the coffee round, there are exercises of power that we accept in workplaces.These hierarchical structures are especially apparent in competitive fields, and they simultaneously act as the structures that allow sexual harassment and assault to take place.To think that this power play differs from casting couch to constituency office is an act of gross naivety.
Women in politics must contend with a myriad of sexual degradations, and will be told that it is a ‘rite of passage’, or just ‘what you have to do to get ahead’. Speaking out not only carries the weight of being a public victim, of challenging the system, but also having your career and your ambitions ruined. In these instances more than any other, ambition is wielded against women as a way to keep them silent.This fear of not only not being believed but being cast out entirely creates a David and Goliath style power imbalance for any woman – and it is no wonder that so many men take advantage of this.
The Conservative party has experienced – and will no doubt, experience again – its share of abhorrent abuses of power being exposed. In the Labour party, we crow a little too gleefully at these exposes, many of us oblivious to the glass house we occupy.
There is a narrative in politics of the left and right – of social justice versus economic competence. The Conservatives are the ‘nasty party’, of course, but more importantly, and especially under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is seen as the party of justice, fairness and equality. We carry ourselves with the knowledge that we are the most compassionate – that we are the party that cares.
It is true that the Labour party is the only realistic vehicle to achieving equality. But it is undeniable that this banner makes it more difficult to speak up about abuses of power in the Labour family. A tagline of equality does not make you equal, in the same way that your local takeaway proclaiming it has ‘the best kebab in Britain’ does not make it taste better.
Social progress is not relative. Just because we are more diverse, more representative, and more socially progressive than the Conservatives, it does not mean we are diverse, representative, and socially progressive. Just because we might like to think that sexual harassment and assault happens on a wider scale in other parties, it does not excuse the sexual harassment and abuse that happens in our own backyard.
A commitment to ending the culture of sexual harassment in politics should begin
in our party itself – and indeed, within our own factions. We must be able to comprehend guilt in people that we admire and respect, as well as those we do not. We must extend beyond tweeting in support of victims, and start paying attention to the victims and perpetrators within our own networks. A yardstick of how progressive we are should not be how we react publicly when these abuses are exposed, but how we prevent it behind closed doors.
Megan Corton Scott is vice-chair and women’s officer of London Young Labour
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