Labour needs to take action to make the party a safer space for women, says Jess Asato
As I watched a flood of my female friends on social media writing ‘#MeToo’ after the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse revelations, something struck me – many of the experiences of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination they had faced had been during their time as Labour party members. One friend listed the fact she sat in a pub listening to Labour men ‘chatting about prostitutes they have used’. I reflected on my own experience of 20 years membership and remembered a member of parliament who cornered me outside a marquee at Labour conference and tried to kiss me even though he knew I was engaged and still in my teens.
I batted it away at the time as ‘what some men do’ but nearly two decades later I feel so very angry – because the Labour party should be a sanctuary away from the structured sexism of society rather than a mere replication of it. If anything, it is harder for women to report abuse and easier for men to escape censure in the party. The power imbalances within Labour are stark – little cash means mostly young men and women work for very low wages for elected or non- elected officials much senior to them who wield the promise of patronage. Democratic structures continue to be largely dominated by men, whether they are branch chairs or council leaders. People’s silence is bought to protect the Labour family from ‘reputational damage’ through threats to future careers, or current positions, or by reminding members that keeping quiet is respected as a demonstration of loyalty.
This combined with the usual reasons why women do not report men who abuse and harass them – such as the legitimate fear of not being believed, or the shame that they have brought it on themselves – means that women in the Labour party are extremely unlikely to bring forward complaints against men. Plus, they look at women who have tried reporting and seen that not only do complaints not get a fair hearing, women are told they are doing it for factional reasons, or because they are a troublemaker and that their career in the party will be ‘ruined’. Everyone laughs at the phrase that an MP resigned ‘to spend more time with his family’, not actually the words used by Norman Fowler, but which has come to epitomise a hasty political exit. Too often for women though, this is the best case outcome of a complaint. The perpetrator does not face justice, his crimes too damaging for a party which prides itself on keeping the vehicle going rather than protecting the people within it.
So what can be done? First, the LabourToo.org.uk project is gathering stories from women anonymously to demonstrate the extent of the problem. Second, the Labour party needs a root and branch review of its policies and complaints procedure relating to violence against women and girls (not just sexual harassment) so that women feel safe coming forward. Women need to know they will be believed, their details and identity will be kept entirely confidential, their complaint will be taken seriously and that Labour party rules will be followed in full.
In practice that would mean a complaints process which was overseen by a highly- trained internal safeguarding team, appointed for their expertise rather than loyalty to the structure, who could refer women to specialist independent support, such as independent sexual violence advisors. There should be mandatory safeguarding training for all elected officials, party staff and volunteers in senior positions, particularly chairs and secretaries of constituency Labour parties and Jeremy Corbyn should lead a call for cultural change so that all members of the party understand they have a duty to call out sexism for what it is. If we can be bombarded every week with webinars about Contact Creator training, we can train our members to challenge sexual harassment and support women who do.
Half a million passionate members committed to challenging discrimination against women? That would be a new politics.
Jess Asato is public affairs manager of national domestic abuse charity SafeLives and a former parliamentary candidate