Last week, more than 100 current and former Labour staffers wrote an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn demanding “urgent clarification” over the claim that “senior party staff decided not to take sufficient action” following allegations of inappropriate behaviour levelled at his press and events manager David Prescott. Tackling sexual harassment and bullying in Westminster has been in the spotlight since the publication of Dame Laura Cox’s report in October last year, which concluded that a “culture of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence” was enabling abuses of power and mistreatment of colleagues to go unchecked.
Unfortunately, although the issue is now out in the open in a way it has never been before, the open letter from Labour staffers is the latest evidence that Westminster workers do not trust their complaints to be taken seriously. The signatories stated that while they want to see our party in government, that can’t preclude asking ourselves uncomfortable questions. They argued that Labour “should, and can, lead the way in challenging and eradicating sexual harassment and bullying in work environments”. They’re correct.
If Labour is genuinely committed to stamping out sexual harassment and bullying in Westminster, there is no doubt that we need to practice what we preach even when accusations surface about political allies or well-connected friends. But we need to go further than that. Jeremy Corbyn was elected to the Labour leadership on a platform of ‘changing the way we do politics’. It remains to be seen whether a Labour government could or would carry out root and branch reform of the way parliament works for the people who work in it, but there is no doubt that it should.
What better way to fulfil Corbyn’s mandate to change the way we do politics than to acknowledge that the workers of Westminster deserve far more than a new code of conduct and an empowered Commons Standards Committee? The Houses of Parliament should have a modern, politically independent and sufficiently-staffed HR function.
This would provide parliamentary staffers with a clear channel through which to make complaints, raise issues and mediate disputes with colleagues. It would help ensure parity of treatment for employees in different offices, regardless of role, party or factional alignment. It would also provide a centralised reporting system for cases of sexual harassment – and other serious abuses of position – to be officially logged, recorded and dealt with appropriately.
It’s no coincidence that a history of poor professional conduct, or worse, is often allowed to go unchecked for much longer in industries and workplaces where there is no or limited access to HR support. When there are a high number of people in your place of work, almost all of whom have different direct employers, or who might be freelancers, interns or temporary contract workers, it makes it very difficult to maintain an adequate record of individuals who have been the subject of repeated complaints from colleagues.
In high-staff-turnover environments, this problem is exacerbated. Without a genuinely effective central resource for staff to raise issues, ‘official’ institutional memory of past incidents is fairly short. This creates situations where a third or fourth case of, say, bullying can be treated as though it were a first transgression.
This breeds the kind of office culture where workers frequently end up giving each other informal warnings – ‘don’t apply for that job if she’ll be your boss’; ‘maybe don’t get in a lift by yourself with him’ – based on a mixture of personal experiences, gossip and second-hand accounts of past incidents. Needless to say, this isn’t the most effective model for protecting staff wellbeing.
It’s true there are issues that parliamentary reforms alone wouldn’t resolve – any centralised HR department in parliament would not cover employees of any party’s headquarters, for example. It’s also true that an appropriate system for parliament would be difficult to design. But these problems aren’t impossible to overcome, and it’s important that the broader issue isn’t kicked into the long grass in favour of in-fighting over specifics.
It’s clear that Labour must review its internal disciplinary procedures, and put in the time and work necessary to rebuild confidence that we will handle disclosures and disputes with integrity. But if we want to change the way politics works for people who work in politics, we need to look beyond party structures.