The conviction of former Tory MP Charlie Elphicke for sexual assault plus the arrest of another for alleged rape in the last week has cast a stain on politics and once again raised the question: is Parliament a safe place for young women and men to work in.
When the #MeToo movement hit Westminster almost three years ago — dubbed Pestminster — there was a lot of soul-searching and promises, but has anything really changed? Not much, according to female insiders.
There is a new complaints system but that alone is not enough. I spoke with Labour’s feminist campaigning MP Stella Creasy, and Caroline Nokes, Conservative chairwoman of the women and equalities select committee.
They agreed that while some change was happening, there was a long way to go and there is still a culture which puts young women and men at risk and doesn’t support them if they make a complaint.
Creasy says it still “takes an awful lot of courage and persistence to come forward ... people are worried about their career, that they won’t be believed and [will be] going up against powerful people with powerful friends.” Nokes points out that men make up 70 per cent of all MPs, the whips’ offices are still very macho, and there are a lot of older MPs working with young people in a boozy atmosphere. “We need a culture fit for the 21st century so if your son or daughter goes off to work in Westminster, you have confidence that they are going to be in a safe environment,” she tells me.
Nokes recalls ex-MP and GP Sarah Wollaston expressing concern about how much alcohol was consumed in Parliament. “She was labelled a killjoy, but she was right. It’s not good for health, decisionmaking and behaviour.”
People are worried about going up against powerful people with powerful friends
Having worked at the heart of Westminster for almost 20 years, I’ve seen and experienced terrible, creepy behaviour from older men. I once remember finding two young female advisers in the toilets at a party, both of whom were hiding from the same drunk and “handsy” MP. It was like a Benny Hill sketch.
Female staffers all have stories about being groped, lunged at or propositioned by older men. It almost felt part of the job and Creasy is right.
When you are young, ambitious but junior, you don’t want to cause trouble and get a black mark against your name in an environment where power and patronage of older white men can make or break your career. That was true in my day and it still is.
Despite recently having a female prime minister and there being a record number of women MPs, the business of politics is still very masculine and old-school.
I was always struck by how some men in politics felt it was their divine right and indeed imperative to employ attractive young women or men, like it was a perk of the job, and had a belief that they would fall in love over late-night drinks or on an overseas trips.
For the older powerful male MP, it was all quite romantic. For the younger aide it was gross, stressful and often very dark.
No system of rules alone can stop this kind of behaviour. It shouldn’t be about the younger person having the herculean courage to fight back.
Male MPs need to stop thinking it’s Ok to behave like this. And it needs leadership from the top, but to many women that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. The fact that the whip hasn’t been removed from the unnamed Tory MP accused of rape speaks volumes.
Here’s what a young political staffer who herself had experienced sexual assault texted me late last night: “Nothing has really changed. They don’t care about women.”