Ever since the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour, the issue of sexual harassment (and worse) has barely left the headlines.
Now it is dominating Westminster politics. Dossiers about allegedly sexually predatory Tory MPs are being compiled by their aides and a young Labour activist claims she was advised not to pursue a charge of rape against a senior party figure if she wanted to advance her career. Is this flood of allegations of corruption and even criminal behaviour vital for protecting young people working at Westminster? Or has a sense of proportion been lost as a witch-hunt is conducted?
The extent of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein (many of which he denies) was surprising even in an industry that has provided the standard metaphor for sleaze and sexual exploitation. The ‘casting couch’ perfectly captures the potential for abuse between older bosses and young assistants. It was inevitable that Weinstein’s case would flush out more. Within his own industry, Kevin Spacey has now become the focus of accusations. And beyond it, stories are emerging of sexual misbehaviour within journalism and specifically in the BBC.
But it is in Westminster politics where the issue has proved most explosive over the last week. Young aides – men as well as women) - have been going public with their stories of unwanted sexual advances (or worse) from MPs. The picture emerging is one of a sizeable minority of politicians exploiting their power of patronage to win sexual favours from young aides and of those aides being unable to find an adequate means of redress or actually being discouraged from seeking one if they want to protect their own careers.
The most striking case is that of Bex Bailey, a former member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, who says she was raped in 2011 when she was nineteen by a more senior party figure (not an MP). It took two years for her to feel able to report it to anyone but when she did so, to a senior party staff member, she alleges that they ‘suggested to me that I not report it. I was told that if I did it might damage me’.
Other junior aides in both main parties have been coming out with their own stories and a group of them, who have worked for Conservative MPs, has produced a dossier entitled ‘High Libido MPs’ intended, according to one of its organisers, to ‘determine how extensive this issue is’. By Wednesday, this dossier, published with names largely redacted in the mainstream press but not on social media, had reached a total of 45 Tory MPs including 15 ministers, some in the Cabinet.
Among those named are the international trade minister, Mark Garnier, who in 2010 asked his secretary to buy sex toys for him and referred to her as ‘sugar tits’, behaviour he described as ‘good-humoured high jinks’. The Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, admits to repeatedly placing his hand on the knee of the journalist, Julia Hartley-Brewer, at a Conservative Party Conference fifteen years and desisted only when she threatened to ‘punch him in the face’ if he did it again. The former Work and Pensions Secretary, Stephen Crabb, is accused of sending sexually-explicit messages to a nineteen-year-old job applicant; and Damian Green, effectively the deputy prime minister, is accused by the daughter of a family friend of brushing ‘a fleeting hand against my knee’ when discussing her possible future political career with him. Mr Green emphatically denies any wrongdoing.
So seriously does the Prime Minister take this tide of sexual allegations that she has called for cross-party agreement on new grievance procedures to protect all those who work at Westminster from sexual abuse. She has referred Mr Green’s case to the Cabinet Secretary for investigation and her spokeswoman studiedly refused to confirm the Prime Minister’s specific endorsement of Mr Fallon.
Most agree that there needs to be a better means available for those aides who think they have been abused to seek amends without their bosses being their own judge and jury. But at the same time, many people (and not just MPs themselves) believe the whole issue is getting out of proportion and that there is a witch-hunt going on.
Central to their alarm is the nature of the Tory aides’ dossier itself, which seems to bundle together serious accusations such as ‘making unwanted physical advances on a female’ or ‘paying a young woman to keep quiet’ about his activity, with cases of consensual relationships or even affairs between MPs. In one case, the entry simply says: ‘Affair – well documented. Indicative of character?’
In short, some MPs believe they are all being tarred with the same brush, as though rape were the same as the brushing of a hand on a knee. Some MPs cited are consulting lawyers about defamation.
The issue would seem to many to be a simple one to define but perhaps less so to resolve: where to draw the line about what is and what is not acceptable behaviour and whether those on the receiving end should or shouldn’t regard themselves as victims. Julia Hartley-Brewer was quite clear that she didn’t think of herself as a victim, much as she deplored the hand on her knee. Others most certainly do. And some would go further and argue that there is no line to draw: no young woman (or man) should be put in the position of having to decide where it is drawn and that any behaviour that might be construed wrongly is unacceptable.
To others, however, so absolute a position is little short of ridiculous. Politics, they would argue, is full of risk-takers (including those on the lowest rung of the ladder), and the risk-taking includes sexual risk-taking. They might even talk of kitchens and heat. Others say if a woman has been suffered a serious sexual assault the right thing to do is report it to the police. Others argue that a generation ago, when male politicians felt far freer to make sexual advances and demands than they do now, women were in a stronger position to deal with them. The journalist, Anne Robinson, said this week: ‘in the early days, 40 years ago, there were very few of us women in power and, I have to say, we had a much more robust attitude to men behaving badly. Now what seems to have happened, the glass ceiling has been shattered but running alongside that is a sort of fragility amongst women who aren’t able to cope with the treachery of the workplace.’
To some, this will seem an outrageous remark, tantamount to blaming the victims. They will perhaps brush aside too the complaint that MPs, against whom a very wide range of charges is being levelled, are being bundled together as uniform sexual monsters in what amounts to a moral panic and a witch-hunt. They will claim that nothing has really changed and that men in power continue to exploit the young who come to work for them and that only the sort of exposure that is now going on, broad-brush as it may be, can shame them into behaving properly.
Is that how you see it? Or do you think we are losing a sense of proportion?
Let us know your views.