Sexual harassment allegations should be bigger than political parties

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 23 February 2018 in Comment

Mandy Rhodes on recent allegations of sexual harassment in the Scottish Parliament

As a woman, a feminist and a commentator who has a front row seat on how political stories swarming around the parliamentary bubble evolve, I am increasingly uncomfortable about the way allegations of sexual harassment are being (mis)managed.

It seems that all normal rules about anonymity, employment law, and even human decency are being eschewed as political parties themselves attempt to traverse the newly ploughed territory left behind in the wake of Weinstein.

And it’s doing no one justice.

But firstly, a disclaimer. No woman – indeed, no man – should have to endure abuse of any kind, particularly as part of a power dynamic that has been weighted so unfavourably against them. And where they have been brave enough to speak out, they should be listened to.

But equally, I don’t think a man, as that is the focus of the beast we are currently dissecting, should have to silently accept every public accusation that is thrown at him and put organisational reputation ahead of his own.

Former children’s minister Mark McDonald may or may not be guilty of the allegations levelled at him. His party-political fate is currently waiting to be sealed. But if last week’s drip-drip of stories have shown us anything, it is that you shouldn’t always believe exactly what you first read.

As with all allegations centred on the grey area of human behaviour, there are always two sides to a story. And where interpretation and judgement, rather than clear breaches of law, are called into play and then set within a kaleidoscope of competing interests, not least the fact that a political party always has one eye on political expediency, one must question whether the interests of an alleged victim or indeed a suspected perpetrator are best served by an opaque internal process where the final judgement rests with a political hierarchy and leaves so much room for manoeuvre.

How can anyone have full confidence in such a process to do the right thing?

As we understand it, amid the furore that followed the exposure of Weinstein and claims by the human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar that women had suffered a catalogue of abuse at the hands of men within the Scottish Parliament, McDonald was accused of sending sexually inappropriate messages to a woman who then made a complaint to the SNP.

McDonald resigned his ministerial post while the claims were investigated, although remained as the MSP for Aberdeen Donside.

A further allegation then surfaced which appeared more serious – a young woman apparently claimed she woke up in his hotel room after an SNP Christmas party unable to remember how she got there. And while the party assured no criminality was involved, McDonald was suspended while this too was explored.

In some respects, the exact details, for the purpose of this column, are immaterial because no one, not even McDonald, appears fully armed with the facts. Instead, this is an exploration about the rights and wrongs of a highly partisan process where the accused and the accuser are embroiled in a lengthy, quasi-judicial investigation that has no legal status and yet is being conducted like a trial, attracts reputationally destroying headlines and will end with a very public judgement, in this case, on McDonald, which either way, could politically crucify him.

What purpose does that serve?

The revelations that the Scottish Parliament was no different from any workplace, where women fell victim to inappropriate and sometimes potentially criminal acts of men in positions of power, was, in some ways, unremarkable – why would it not be the case? But crucially, it also shone a light on how different a workplace it really is.

MSPs are basically business entities, responsible for employing their own staff, who, by and large, are employed because they too passionately believe in the greater party-political cause.

Political loyalty is a cohesive and potent force and where everything at work is overlaid by a strong commitment to putting party first, the potential for abuse is inherent and obvious.

And while my inclination is to always side with the perceived victims in cases of sexual harassment, I worry too that natural justice is being sacrificed by parties in the current zeitgeist and as they act as their own judge and jury.

This is all about damage limitation for them, while for the accused like McDonald it is a no-win, regardless of outcome.

There will be some who say that any politician accused of harassment should be hung out to dry. But these are people’s lives, their careers and their reputations. Men and women – victims or not – deserve better in what has become a toxic mix in a nudge, nudge, wink, wink, pseudo-court of justice which in the end brings none.

The Scottish Parliament’s report on its sexual harassment survey will be published early next month. It will reveal, unsurprisingly, that behaviour in Holyrood mirrors that of the outside world.

How we then deal with what is a spectrum of behaviour among politicians who should rightly be held to a higher account, is the more difficult nut to crack.

The answer could lie with the sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct inquiry currently being undertaken by the parliament’s Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. And while this is not yet on the table, surely it can’t be beyond the wit of our political classes to design an independent complaints process that takes responsibility away from parties to simply police themselves?

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