Labour frontbencher Cat Smith has described the way that the Tory chief whip handled allegations against an ex-minister and serving Conservative MP as “terribly disturbing” in an interview with LabourList.
The shadow minister for young people and voter engagement, who attends shadow cabinet meetings, was asked about the Tory MP arrested last weekend on suspicion of rape following allegations by a former parliamentary staffer.
While the Conservative Party has described the allegations of sexual assault and rape as “serious”, the whips’ office has decided not to withdraw or suspend the Tory whip while the police investigation continues.
Smith said: “It’s a very serious allegation, and I find it so terribly disturbing that there is a woman who has tried to raise alarm bells and has basically been turned away by the Conservatives’ chief whip.”
She added: “Powerful men seem to get away with an awful lot. Have we learnt nothing from the #MeToo movement? Other industries have sorted themselves out and addressed this head-on. And I worry that parliament in particular is a bit slow off the mark here.
“It’s difficult because of course the withdrawal of a political party whip has to be a decision for a political party – it can’t be for parliament to come in and do that, it just doesn’t work procedurally – but I’d like to see the Conservative Party taking this incident a lot more seriously than it is.”
According to The Sunday Times reports, the ex-staffer complainant in her 20s alleges that the Tory MP assaulted her, raped her and left her so traumatised that she had to go to hospital.
The revelation that a serving MP had been arrested came soon after ex-Tory MP and former party whip Charlie Elphicke was convicted of sexual assault. He was found guilty of three charges of sexual assault.
In a wide-ranging interview with LabourList, Smith also:
- Described violence against women as “ingrained in our society”
- Praised Keir Starmer’s “inclusive” leadership
- Confirmed she still supports electoral reform and a “more proportional voting system”
- Said the introduction of a proportional voting system for the House of Lords is “difficult to argue against”
Commenting on the culture in parliament, Smith said: “I think it’s not as bad as it was but there is still a problem with some senior people thinking the rules don’t apply to them.” She added: “One of my biggest frustrations about politics is how pale, male and stale it still is to a large degree.”
Asked about the argument that there is a rape epidemic on university campuses affecting young people, Smith said: “I certainly recognise it from my own time at university.
“I was a women’s officer at the students’ union, and the numbers of women that I had to support through rape and through abusive relationships, I think was probably quite an eye-opener for me at the time.”
The frontbencher told LabourList: “Men still use sexual violence to control women. Two women a week are killed by their partner or former partner. We do have a massive problem with violence against women.
“It’s so ingrained in our society and culture that often I think it’s quite difficult to see because we just normalise it. I am so hopeful that the generation of young women that are coming into politics, that we are having a #MeToo moment, means we can change that.”
Smith said she intended to do her university degree in religious studies but “had a massive crisis of faith and switched to do sociology and gender studies” and did her dissertation on the role of women in the Labour Party.
Asked about the focus by young activists on identity and different forms of oppression, Smith said: “As a labour movement… we don’t necessarily always recognise the fact that patriarchy in society means men are more powerful, that white people in society are more powerful.
“We don’t always check ourselves on that. Sometimes I think that there is a tendency, amongst some people in the labour movement, not to want to acknowledge these things because it’s all about social class.”
Smith, who is often considered a Corbynite, was very positive in the LabourList interview about new leader Keir Starmer’s approach, in contrast to criticism from the party’s left over recent months.
Asked about the difference between Starmer’s style and that of Jeremy Corbyn, she said: “It’s difficult to know what’s Covid and what’s actually about having Keir’s leadership.
“I’ve got to say, Keir is very good at starting meetings on time, keeping us on an agenda, and being very thorough and efficient. I think he’s really managed to push us into shape.
“And in terms of what we’re doing now as an opposition – sometimes people use this is a negative thing – I think Keir’s forensic leadership is exactly what the country needs.”
She added: “One of the things that puts people off voting is to see a divided party. I think that what I’ve really liked under Keir’s leadership is the way that he’s been so inclusive.
“It’s no secret that I nominated Jeremy Corbyn for leader and then Rebecca Long-Bailey in the leadership election just gone. But having that broad team at the top of the Labour Party, I do feel like my politics and opinions are taken seriously.”
Smith’s voter engagement brief covers electoral reform, which has been found to be popular among Labour members. Polling last year revealed that three-quarters of members believe the party should back proportional representation (PR).
Asked about PR, Smith said: “I would support a more proportional voting system… In terms of my own personal opinions, I would be minded very much to support a change in the electoral system. I think first-past-the-post is just not really fit for the 21st century and the multi-party democracy that we have.”
She added that other changes, such as “weekend voting” and “Australian-style pre-voting”, should also be introduced to make it easier for people to engage with our democratic processes.
Smith revealed that “there will be something shortly” from Labour on consulting party members about electoral reform, which Starmer promised to undertake while campaigning in the Labour leadership election this year.
On House of Lords reform, Smith said: “Personally, I think there’s no place in a modern democracy to be having unelected peers put [in parliament] for life. Even when we find out they’ve done terrible things, we can’t get rid of them. It stinks.”
She added: “There is a lot of work to be done on reforming the House of Lords. In whatever form a second chamber takes, I think a proportional voting system – it’s very difficult to argue against it, isn’t it? First-past-the-post was of its time, but I think its time has long since left us.”
Smith is also leading on Labour’s opposition to the government plans around introducing mandatory voter ID, which critics say would risk disenfranchising 3.5 million citizens – 7.5% of the electorate – in the UK without photo ID.
Referring to the pro-mandatory voter ID argument that this system works in other countries, she pointed out that – unlike those places – the UK does not have ID cards and therefore “many struggle to prove who they are”.
But asked whether the UK should introduce ID cards, as favoured by the New Labour government, Smith said: “I think the British public would not be up for having national ID cards. What I do think is that we should be making it easier for particularly vulnerable people to access ID. ID is very expensive.”
Below is the full video of our ‘in conversation’ event with Cat Smith MP.