The news of Met Police officer Wayne Couzens pleading guilty to the murder of Sarah Everard feels like a punch in the gut. As a woman, there is always the fear: that the man staring at you will get off at the same stop, that the one shouting a comment about your appearance in the street will get violent, that there will be nobody around or willing to help if the worst does happen.
As a Labour member, you hope that the party you belong to would be a safer environment than a street at night. But women in Labour know there are creepy MPs and high-profile activists in our own party to avoid. Some brave women have revealed their experiences of being sexually harassed, assaulted or raped by supposed ‘comrades’. A reasonable assumption to make is that there are individual misogynists but the party would, at the very least, support any woman reporting such violence.
That assumption brings us to Mike Hill, the former Labour MP for Hartlepool. He was accused, by a woman who worked with him from 2017 to 2019, of sexual harassment, numerous sexual assaults and many acts of detrimental treatment. An employment tribunal judge has now upheld her claims for harassment, including multiple sexual assaults.
The judge ruled that – on the balance of probabilities, the same threshold that should be used by Labour in its complaints process – ‘Ms A’, as she is known, was subject to unwanted sexual conduct and was victimised by Hill, who was in breach of the Equality Act. The judgment seen by LabourList reveals the ex-MP had in 2016 produced a witness statement for Ms A in which he said she had “acute” PTSD and he knew she was a vulnerable person in 2017.
The tribunal accepted Ms A’s account that Hill begged her to work for him in parliament. It was not disputed that after she accepted the job and gave notice on her accommodation, he texted to withdraw the offer of sharing a two-bedroom flat with her. “Sharing a space and having a great time with a woman who doesn’t want me ultimately. Don’t think I could cope with that.” Also accepted were Ms A’s allegations that Hill sexually assaulted her in the one-bedroom flat they then had to share and in his Westminster office.
There are too many details in the judgment to repeat them all here. It is a long document, full of toxicity, filled with descriptions of a woman’s vulnerability and of a man’s manipulative behaviour. That after these allegations were first made the last Labour leader campaigned alongside Hill, and the Hartlepool MP was kept in the parliamentary party then and under the current leadership, is shameful. It is another punch in the gut.
After being briefly suspended from the party when a complaint was made, Hill was readmitted because the party paused its investigation into the case. It is understood that this was done to allow the complainant, Ms A, to pursue her complaint via other routes. Labour says it followed its rules and procedures throughout. This only shows they are not up to scratch.
The hope is that the new sexual harassment complaints process being developed by the party, following the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on Labour antisemitism, will help in situations like this one. But making the process wholly independent or introducing independent oversight is far from the only measure needed.
It is not only the procedural aspect that is distressing, but the broader response in Labour to such conduct. Few in the party with any kind of platform have drawn attention to the Hill case. Sadly, the most high-profile acknowledgement of the case by a parliamentarian was probably when a shadow minister quit during the tribunal, after being accused of deterring Ms A from making a complaint.
Labour has recently done commendable policy work on violence against women and girls, releasing a green paper and repeatedly drawing attention to the subject, particularly after Sarah Everard went missing. The opposition has also – rightly, in my view – pointed out that rape has been effectively decriminalised under the Tories.
But none of this detracts from the experience of Ms A, who says she is “extraordinarily disappointed and shocked at the lack of support from the Labour Party”, and the experiences of all Labour women who have been let down. The case of Mike Hill should be the final wake-up call: Labour must do better by women.