A watershed moment? Is the era of 'locker room culture' in politics at an end?

Written by Jenni Davidson on 3 November 2017 in Inside Politics

With the Prime Minister being urged to end ‘the locker room culture’ at Westminster and amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour at Holyrood, political parties are taking a zero-tolerance approach to sexual abuse and harassment

Me too - Image credit: Press Association

When the Harvey Weinstein scandal hit the headlines a couple of weeks ago and women began recounting their own experiences of harassment and abuse under the hashtag #metoo, some men may have been surprised by the extent of the issue, but few women will have been.

The real question then was whether the #metoo trend and the outrage at the actions of Weinstein and others would actually make a difference, or whether it would simply make the headlines for a few weeks before everything continued as before.

Would it be the ‘Jimmy Savile effect’ that would tip the balance into dealing with an issue that many knew about but few dared report? Events since suggest it has emboldened others to speak out.

Over the past week, the focus has moved from showbusiness to politics. Allegations emerged last weekend of sexual impropriety at Westminster, starting with claims, since confirmed by the MP himself, that Tory minister Mark Garnier had asked his secretary to buy sex toys for him and that he had called her ‘sugar tits’.

What followed was the passing round of a list of Conservative MPs allegedly connected to sleaze. While some of it relates to consensual affairs, others are linked to harassment and inappropriate behaviour, with certain male MPs described as “handsy”.

The list includes 40, mostly male, MPs, including a number of government ministers.

And while some politicians have already instructed lawyers to represent them, the ensuing scandal has claimed its first scalp.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigned on Wednesday following reports that he had repeatedly put his hand on the knee of the journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer 15 years ago and made inappropriate comments to colleague Andrea Leadsom.

Reflecting on past behaviour, he said it had “fallen below the high standards that we require of the armed forces”.


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Theresa May’s second in command, Damian Green, is now being investigated over allegedly sending a suggestive text to a young journalist, which he denies.

Separately, an anonymous woman alleges she was sexually assaulted by an MP on a foreign trip and her complaint was not taken seriously.

And a young Labour activist, Bex Bailey, has claimed she was advised not to report an alleged rape at a Labour event because it would harm her career.

Ruth Davidson, too, found herself in an awkward position. Her office, apparently, attempted to distance her from Conservative MP Stephen Crabb, who last year was implicated in a sexting scandal, by contacting someone who had tweeted about Davidson’s support for Crabb several months ago to deny she had ever supported anyone for the Conservative leadership other than Theresa May.

However, this only served to highlight Davidson’s well-publicised comments in support of Crabb, as well as a sexually loaded speech at a party event for Westminster journalists, where Davidson made a joke about the sexting incident.

The extent of the problem at Westminster, and the widespread acceptance of it, will not have been a surprise to many, but when allegations emerged of inappropriate behaviour at Holyrood, this was more unexpected.

Holyrood does not have the same baggage of misogyny. Although far from gender balanced, it’s smaller, friendlier and, until recently, three out of five party leaders were female.

And while Westminster has many closed rooms, the Scottish Parliament is, quite literally, more transparent. Many of the meeting rooms have glass walls. So do MSPs’ offices.

Although, as Health Secretary Shona Robison pointed out, there was no reason to think that the Scottish Parliament would be completely immune to something that was happening everywhere else.

After the story appeared in the Sunday Herald, lawyer Aamer Anwar told the BBC that female parliamentary staff, “everybody from interns to MSPs”, had spoken to him about harassment.

He referred to a “catalogue of abuse, everything from cyber stalking to touching up to inappropriate behaviour to actual physical assault”, adding that “nothing is being done about it, there’s a lack of confidence in procedures”, while criticising the “abject silence” on this issue.

Allegations related to all parties, he said.

The SNP then announced that it was investigating two sets of allegations, although it declined to specify whether they related to Westminster or Holyrood.

And former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said in her Daily Record column that she had “certainly heard stories of sexual harassment by several male MSPs against female colleagues and researchers.”

The Scottish Parliament was quick to react. Following the allegations, Scottish Parliament chief executive Sir Paul Grice and Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh issued a statement describing the reports as “disturbing and deeply concerning” and called for a “unified approach” across the parliament and political parties.

They said that the numbers of cases reported in the last five years had been in single figures and not all of those related to MSPs, but Grice and Macintosh admitted that there could be further unreported cases.

They said: “This is a problem which exists across our wider society and the parliament cannot claim immunity to it.

Over the lifetime of this parliament, the number of reported cases of sexual harassment has been very low.

However, it is important that we ask ourselves whether that truly reflects the scale of the problem or simply reflects a culture where people do not feel able to come forward and report it.”

Commenting on the low figures, Transport Minister Humza Yousaf tweeted: “If this had been about race figures, I wouldn’t pat parliament on back for low incidents of racism, I’d say the reporting system is flawed.”

A meeting was called of representatives from each of the political parties and a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach agreed, with all parties committing to revisiting their own procedures.

Macintosh announced that an anonymous survey will be sent out to everyone who works in the parliament to gauge the real extent of the problem, while a new phoneline will also be set up for parliamentary workers to call for advice.

The Scottish Government took a strong line in underlining the need to change male behaviour rather than simply make reporting easier.

John Swinney was intentionally chosen to comment on the allegations in a statement to parliament rather than Equalities Minister Angela Constance.

He said: “The Government wants to make it clear that it is the conduct and behaviour of men that needs to change if we are to end the sexual harassment and abuse of women, whether in their workplace, their social life or their home.

“Therefore, as the most senior male minister in the Scottish Government, I wanted to answer this question and to make it clear that it is up to men to make those changes, and that men must examine their own behaviour.”

Swinney called for a change in culture, so that “rather than the onus being on individuals to raise complaints or express concerns, individuals are not exposed to circumstances that might give rise to such complaints.”

But Labour MSP Monica Lennon has called for the parliament to go further and to carry out an independent review, informed by women’s organisations and trade unions.

It would look at the culture of the parliament more generally, including the running of the Scottish Parliament by an all-male group of MSPs.

To date, the extent of the issue at Holyrood is unknown, although the view is that it seems unlikely it is as prevalent as at Westminster.

Ruth Davidson told the BBC: “In terms of a widespread problem of harassment, that is not something that we’ve seen evidence of, but we’ve got to ensure that anybody that has had an issue does feel able to come forward and able to report it so that we can know about it and then we’re able to act.”

However, there may well still be a number of incidents that have not been reported and dealing with the issue is a complicated one, because while some staff are employed directly by the parliament, others, such as journalists, simply work there, and researchers and office managers for MSPs are employed directly by those politicians.

This leaves it up to individual MSPs and the political parties to have appropriate procedures in place for handling allegations of harassment or abuse.

Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur has called for MSPs’ staff to be given clear information about how they can approach the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland.

The First Minister has suggested that the allegations could be a catalyst for change, not just in parliament, but as an example across Scotland.

She said: “This could be a real watershed moment where we see deep-rooted cultural change.

“I’ve been a woman in politics for 30 years. I know that in politics, and the same will be true in other walks of life, that this is the kind of behaviour women have felt they just have to put up with and this is a moment, I think, where we can say, ‘no, we don’t just have to put up with this’.”

As Kezia Dugdale said in her Daily Record column: “But you have to ask why women – even elected, strong, independently minded women – haven’t stepped forward and told all.

“The truth is they don’t want to be singled out. They don’t want to be cast as troublemakers and they fear not being believed – or if they are believed, that nothing is done and no action taken.”

With one UK Cabinet resignation already resulting from the fall-out and other resignations and sackings expected, perhaps those women who have previously kept quiet about sexual harassment and abuse in the corridors of power will no longer feel silenced.

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