Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Harassment and bullying – time to get our house in order

When tackling institutional inequalities, some prefer to ignore the institutions they themselves are part of. Jessica Asato reveals what happens next

‘Are we the baddies?’ That is the uncomfortable question posed by David Mitchell, playing a second world war German soldier in a sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look. His look of incomprehension and horror at realising he is on the wrong side is often how I think many people react when they hear that the institution they are members of – or are responsible for – is accused of grossly failing to protect others in their care. After all, the great majority of people who join political parties, like faith organisations, do so out of a desire to make the world a better place. We are encouraged to be loyal, to have belief in the cause, to stick by each other and put others before ourselves.

As a result, these institutions which can do so much good, and which sometimes expressly claim to have moral authority on their side, unfortunately are often the very places which can end up colluding with perpetrators of harassment, bullying or abuse – precisely because their members cannot conceive of belonging to an organisation which ends up being on the side of ‘the baddies’. We know how hard it is for people to accept they are wrong, it is even harder when they have to accept they may be wrong by way of association. It is too difficult for us to accept that an institution we cherish might harbour sexual predators, child abusers and Holocaust deniers. How could we remain a member if such people were shielded by our organisation, all funded by our membership subscriptions? How much easier is it to question the motives of the victims, as disaffected, factional, or perhaps unhinged?

We are used to hearing the phrase ‘institutionally racist’ since the publication of the report by William Macpherson nearly 20 years ago, but ‘institutional sexism’ has received less attention, despite the same principles applying

Since the initial allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke a year ago, the focus has shifted from Hollywood, to the media, to aid charities and of course to parliament and political parties. In every example, lifting the lid has found cases, like that of Bex Bailey in the Labour party, where the institution itself has compounded the original abuse or harassment by either colluding with the perpetrator, failing to believe the victim, or trying to cover up the situation to protect the reputation of the organisation or individuals within it, rather than ensuring future victims are safeguarded from potential predators and current victims receive redress if they so wish. This is a form of institutional ‘gaslighting’ – a term coined after the 1930s play Gaslight – which is used to denote a form of misdirection which results in the victim questioning their own version of events, sanity and memory.

We are used to hearing the phrase ‘institutionally racist’ since the publication of the report by William Macpherson nearly 20 years ago, but ‘institutional sexism’ has received less attention, despite the same principles applying. Using the language of Macpherson, an organisation is institutionally sexist, if it collectively fails ‘to provide an appropriate and professional service to people’ because of their gender. It can be seen ‘in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness’ and gender ‘stereotyping’ which ‘disadvantages’ women.

A report by campaign group LabourToo, published early in 2018, found strong examples of this in the Labour party. One of the themes highlighted by the report suggested there was common knowledge of problem individuals, for example, which points to either a widespread failure to take harassment, abuse and discrimination seriously, or a lack of engagement with formal procedures even where these are clearly established. A contribution to the report recounted: ‘There was a councillor who was very well-known to senior figures in the local Labour party for being a serial groper of women … if I was running the board at a canvassing session he would come up behind me and put a hand on my hips or round my waist when feeding back the data, and would always want to put “vote Labour” stickers on women in a way that meant he could touch their breasts.’

When power structures discriminate against women in our own institutions … action has been glacial while comrades protect comrades, citing years of friendship when of course we know sexual abuse is committed by so many, regardless of leftwing credentials

Another theme from the report found that people in the party had a poor understanding of what constitutes harassment and discrimination and that too many of the stories submitted uncovered sexist attitudes from Labour members. For example, one submission read: ‘I was told in front of the whole meeting when being asked at the [annual general meeting] if I would take an officer position that it “is nice to have something nice to look at”.’ As an institution, LabourToo’s report found that the Labour party had very few safeguards or guidance on risky situations. A number of incidents of sexual harassment or abuse on women took place in cars, on the way to or from campaigning events, or in conference hotels. A respondent to the report survey said, ‘I went to my first [constituency Labour party] fundraiser on my own. The [member of parliament] there spent the night stroking my leg under the table … at the end of the night I was getting a lift home and he got in the car, when we got back to his house he was insistent on me coming in his house.’

The recent rule change at Labour party conference to enable an independent process for sexual harassment complaints may help to prevent institutional sexism determining the outcome of a complaint, but it will not do much by itself to transform deeply ingrained attitudes, not least those that subconsciously assume that women are lying about sexual abuse either to discredit men, or the institution that they serve. This need to challenge cultures, rather than just reform procedures, has been emphasised by Laura Cox’s report into bullying and harassment in the House of Commons too. Cox writes that underpinning all the recommendations in her report is the ‘need for broad cultural change in the house’ and cites a member of staff in her foreword who calls for ‘a seismic shift’.

Cox’s report also pointed to a real culture of ‘fear’ in parliament, with complainants having ‘a fear of being disbelieved, of losing their job, of being unsupported, isolated and ostracised, and of struggling to find work again after being branded a “troublemaker”’. This workplace and organisational ‘fear’ should be easily recognisable to members of the Labour movement, interested as we are in the imbalances of power between employer and worker, and capital and labour. The trade union movement embodied the fight against egregious uses of power against workers, backed up by institutional interests, capitalist bosses and the gilded elite alike. Unfortunately, when power structures discriminate against women in our own institutions, whether that be the Labour party, trade unions, Labour-run councils, MPs and their own staff, or so-called progressive thinktanks and charities, action has been glacial while comrades protect comrades, citing years of friendship when of course we know sexual abuse is committed by so many, regardless of leftwing credentials.

It has left us wondering whether equality and social justice applies equally to women, or just when it is convenient for ‘brocialists’? After all, it was only when women had a significant cohort in parliament on the Labour side that issues such as sex discrimination, domestic abuse, caring responsibilities and lack of representation of women became more of a mainstream issue in leftist circles. Can we really be progressive if our first instinct is to protect the institution of the Labour party rather than the women who have been harmed? Perhaps the roots of Labour, based as they are in collective action, rather than individualism, has created an ingrained defence of the vehicles of our movement. While this could be an explanation, it surely is not an excuse for the continued inaction that we see.

No one doubts that the Labour party has been an institution which has achieved great change for women, but the successes of the past are no guarantor of justice in the present. It is up to everyone from the leader and their senior management team, to our elected representatives, and to each and every member, to challenge the institution to which we belong. Membership does not confer culpability, but it does mean we must stop pretending everything is perfect in Labour. True cultural change would require a voluble and public apology for getting things deeply wrong in the past; intensive and extensive training for all, compulsory for staff and elected representatives, perhaps including a bystander programme to empower members to speak out where they see harassment and bullying in all forms. Initially, it would send a strong signal that the party takes its safeguarding responsibilities seriously if it were to agree that all candidates, prior to election, should undertake enhanced disclosure and barring scheme checks.

Unbelievably, despite the huge outcry over MeToo, the Labour party still has not created a comprehensive set of policies covering bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, abuse, assault and sexual assault, including clear protections against victimisation for those reporting incidents. It is difficult for whistleblowers and third parties to flag inappropriate behaviour, and if they do, it is still unlikely that any action will be taken unless the immediate victim complains. Labour has a proud history of campaigning against corruption and abuse in societal institutions, it is time we did so within our own.


Jessica Asato is public affairs manager for SafeLives. She tweets @Jessica_Asato


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Jessica Asato

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