Westminster is rife with bullying — our politicians lose moral authority when they treat workers so badly

Ayesha Hazarika
Ayesha Hazarika

It will come as no shock that there’s a lot of bullying in politics. It’s a highly charged, emotionally bruising environment where people don’t tend to hug it out at the end of a bad day.

Much of that is down to the personalities attracted to Westminster — wildly ambitious, sharp-elbowed and deeply insecure people doing battle to get up that greasy pole. Getting attention, making your mark and getting promoted isn’t easy in such a competitive environment.

The highs can be incredible but the lows can be crushing. And politicians often take it out on their staff — because they can and everyone else does. Staffers are often young — although not always — and for many it’s a dream come true to work for an MP.

Many have studied politics or have worked for charities or think-tanks, and arrive in Westminster with stars in their eyes. They feel lucky to be there, want to work hard, go the extra mile and make a name for themselves and their bosses. That also applies to more senior staffers or political advisers who are older and more experienced.

Many relationships are professional, respectful and successful but there are way too many instances of appalling behaviour where the staffer becomes the emotional punchbag for a frustrated and thin-skinned politician. MPs are essentially sole traders, in charge of their own busy, demanding offices. There’s no real HR department in Parliament or the political parties and we still have a macho, aggressive culture.

And it’s not just men. I know of many staffers who have had terrible experiences with female MPs — one was bullied for months, marched onto Westminster Bridge and sacked so that they wouldn’t make a fuss in the office. Who do you go to if you’re that staffer? You feel embarrassed at being bullied. You’re not going to rock up at the whip’s office looking for tea and sympathy.

Women and men who have complained about sexual harassment have often been smeared themselves, and all political parties have a terrible track record on how they handle these complaints. So you’re pretty much on your own, expected to suck it up as part of the job — and the mental-health implications can be profound.

Our toxic political culture and abuse of power has got to change. The inquiry led by Dame Laura Cox was right to call for a new independent complaints system because politicians simply cannot play judge and jury. That is a ludicrous, rotten situation. And it was shameful to see serious allegations of bullying involving the Speaker being weaponised by many MPs across the house yesterday for wider political purposes, with veteran Labour MP Margaret Beckett admitting that although abuse is bad, Brexit is more important — and she wasn’t alone.

"Women and men who have complained about sexual harassment have often been smeared themselves"

Of course the stakes are high on Brexit but our politicians lose their moral authority when they discard the employment rights and dignity of their own workers so casually. And so it’s Groundhog Day again — politics always trumps the victims.

Noor gets my vote to adorn the £50 note

There is already much debate over who will adorn the new £50 note , from Margaret Thatcher to Gareth Southgate. Apart from the Queen, the only other women on notes have been Jane Austen, Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry, so it’s high time we had a woman of colour.

Mary Seacole is a strong contender. However, another fascinating hidden figure is being championed by campaigner Zehra Zaidi and backed by MP Tom Tugendhat. Noor Inayat Khan was born in 1914 to an Indian father and American mother. She was a children’s author but when the Second World War broke out she joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was the first female radio operator sent to France in 1943. She ran a cell of agents and saved many lives across Europe until she was captured by the Nazis, tortured and murdered in a concentration camp.

She was famed for never revealing any information and her final word was apparently “Liberté". She came from a Sufi Muslim tradition and didn’t believe in violence but volunteered to fight fascism.

Her story has special resonance with the rise of populism, division, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred. Recognising this brave Muslim woman would be powerful reminder of the good that lies within us.

*Most celebrities are very coy when it comes to the less glamorous aspects of ageing — especially facial hair. As you get older, weird things happen. The hair on your head seems to get thinner while mysterious whiskers start appearing which could give ZZ Top a run for their money.

Patsy Kensit (Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock)

So hats off to Patsy Kensit for sharing a photo of her chin hair being removed, saying: “Threading away at my menopausal beard. The whiskers are pinging all over the floor but I no longer have a 5 o’clock shadow.”

I love her honesty and humour. But fear not. It’s not mandatory. You can always do a Conchita.