The real change that matters is an independent authority – in parliament and parties – where women and men can report claims of sexual harassment, argues Jane Merrick
The #MeToo movement was one of the biggest stories of 2017, but it continues to make headlines in 2018. Barely a day goes by without fresh allegations about high profile men in film, television, sport and politics abusing their power for sexual gratification. That this story continues to rage is at once both dismaying and encouraging: dismaying that the problem of harassment and assault, and its victims, spreads wider still; encouraging that its exposure continues.
Yet beyond the high profile stories, what has happened to the systems and structures to tackle harassment and help the women and men who have complained – including those who do not have a platform, or are afraid to speak out? In British politics, it feels like the momentum has been lost, the commitments to take action watered down.
Back in November, the prime minister pledged to usher in a new ‘culture of respect’ in society – starting with Westminster and in political parties. This could have been, for her, a defining moment in the same way that David Cameron, as opposition leader, seized the expenses scandal by promising to clean up politics. He delivered a set-piece speech and fired the worst perpetrators. But Theresa May’s anti-harassment pledge and her words on respect were made in opening remarks in a speech about Brexit. Nobody is denying that Brexit is the biggest challenge facing her government, but from the start her approach to harassment has seemed ad hoc.
She forced the resignation of Michael Fallon as defence secretary – after I reported him to Downing Street for his behaviour towards me when I was a junior reporter. But by allowing Damian Green to continue in his job as her deputy for more than six weeks, at one stage even allowing him to stand in for her at prime minister’s questions while an investigation was ongoing into his conduct towards the writer Kate Maltby, May was not exactly conveying a tough message. When Green finally resigned after the investigation found Maltby’s claims ‘plausible’, the prime minister said ‘everyone who wants to play their part in our political life should feel able to do so – without fear or harassment, and knowing they can speak out if they need to’. This was a crucial message – but it is a pity she delivered it many weeks after the #MeToo movement first swept through Westminster.
The prime minister established a cross-party working group to come up with solutions to harassment, but progress has been slow and its direction questionable. Chaired by Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, it was supposed to issue an initial report before Christmas, but that was delayed. Caroline Lucas, the Green party leader and a member of the working group, says the proposals have been watered down to steer focus away from victims.
What is most concerning is the lack of any independent authority where women and men can report, in confidence, claims of sexual assault or harassment – something that the Labour member of parliament Jess Phillips and others have repeatedly called for.
Having been involved in the Westminster harassment scandal, I can say that this independence must be at the heart of tackling the issue. When, in 2003, Fallon lunged at me after a lunch in a quiet area of the Commons, I did not report it to the Conservative whips because I feared they would cover it up or, worse, I would face recrimination from inside that party for calling out one of their own. Reading the stories of those who have come forward in the past four months, my fears were well-founded. Time after time we have heard of activists and staff members – in the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and, most recently, the Green party – who have tried to complain to the party itself only to be told to be quiet or have been ignored. The story of #MeToo is not just the breaking of long-held silences, as in my case, but also the revelations by women and men who have tried to blow the whistle on bad behaviour in the past and been blocked from doing so.
In politics, this has been because the party has been seen as bigger than the individual – a fine principle up to the point of where it allows inappropriate or criminal behaviour to go unpunished. Women and men who have broken their silence have often done so because they have nowhere else to go. In British politics, this has been compounded by the fear of being ignored or crushed by the party machine. An independent authority, which could hear from individuals not only working on the parliamentary estate but those who come into contact with MPs in their constituencies and at party conferences, is essential.
Since going public I have been contacted by many women who have suffered harassment from politicians and party officials, and have experienced the upsides and downsides of breaking my silence. Yet I – and other women involved in Westminster’s #MeToo, like Maltby – have not been contacted by the working group to give evidence. Labour has taken some welcome steps, including enlisting Rape Crisis to help deal with the sensitive issues of reporting assault, but complainants must still go through party structures to report allegations, and that has to change.
Despite this slow progress, I remain optimistic that #MeToo has started to change the culture – no matter how many times people try to join in a letter-signing backlash that claims we have gone too far. As #MeToo has evolved into ‘Time’s Up’, I am confident that we have not lost our momentum. But behind the headline-grabbing, public rallying calls, women and men working in politics need the confidence of a credible, reliable and independent system where they can tell their stories in private.
Jane Merrick is co-editor of the Spoon email and a freelance journalist. She tweets at @janemerrick23.
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