‘Why the Wellingborough by-election is a huge win for Parliamentary standards’

Eden Kulig

The Wellingborough by-election is notable for a number of reasons; overturning an 18,000 Conservative majority would be historic in normal times, although the ongoing death spiral of the Tory party does seem to have rendered these results priced-in for now.

Gen Kitchen, at just 28, will also join a small number of MPs still in their twenties, and will hopefully be a much-needed voice in Parliament for issues facing younger generations.

Bone has become the first MP to lose seat over bullying and harassment

But the by-election is also historic for another reason, and that’s in the manner of Peter Bone’s departure.

After being found guilty of bullying and harassment by the Independent Complaints and Grievance System (ICGS) – the system set up in Parliament in 2018 to conduct independent inquiries into complaints against MPs’ conduct – Bone was suspended from the Commons for six weeks, triggering a by-election and making him the first MP to lose their seat as a direct result of an upheld complaint against them of bullying and harassment by a member of staff.

And although the episode has been unedifying, it is also a kind of victory for the ICGS, which has only been in operation for around five years, and which suffered a number of teething problems in its initial stages. 

Grievance scheme put in place in 2018 bears fruit

Before 2018, there was no way for anyone working in Parliament to make any kind of official complaint about an MP’s behaviour through an independent system – parties claimed to have ‘internal processes’ but they had neither the resources nor the incentives to investigate complaints properly.

Parties could remove MPs from certain positions following complaints, but they couldn’t remove them from office – only the electorate can do that. Complainants could go to the press, but it was an intimidating prospect; your word against theirs, with a high chance you would end up getting sued for libel. 

Power imbalances persist between MPs and staff

As a former Parliamentary staffer myself, I know what a strange place Westminster can be to work; politics is a system of people acutely aware of their own relative power and influence – all politicians have some, some politicians have a lot, and the people who work for them typically have very little.

Parliamentary staff are typically very junior considering their roles and responsibilities, often in their first jobs out of university, earning a modest paycheck for a job in central London, and highly reliant on their bosses for references, career development and patronage.

All of this can make for an enormous power discrepancy between politicians and their staff, and unfortunately it’s a discrepancy some MPs take advantage of.

No external oversight of MPs as employers

There is still no real HR system in Parliament, with every MP’s office being run essentially as a small business, with the MP acting as employer, manager and HR department all at once.

They can hire and fire who they like, or make the job so unbearable people feel forced to leave. There’s no external oversight of roles and responsibilities, and staffers can find themselves expected to carry out a range of tasks at the MP’s discretion.

If their MP is a good employer, this set-up can mean a front-row seat to the inner workings of British politics at a very early stage in your career, but if they aren’t, it can mean working for a public figure who bullies or mistreats them, with no way of changing their behaviour or bringing their conduct to light.

Bullying MPs make things lonely and professionally difficult

Being politicians, they are mostly also capable of being charming when required, and it’s incredibly isolating to work for someone they know to be a bully, but who is also capable of putting on a completely different face to the wider world, and who is even perhaps very highly spoken of by others.

Competition for jobs in Westminster is fierce, and so for those early on in their careers, the prospect of resigning from a job in an MP’s office can mean losing not only their income, but also their hopes for their future career too.

It’s no surprise staffers so often put up with unacceptable behaviour, and even now, it’s pretty impossible to make a complaint about a politician’s behaviour while still working for them.  

The system is still too slow

Reading through the grim account of Peter Bone’s behaviour, I can only imagine how victimised and powerless his former staffer felt, and how much perseverance and courage it must have taken to bring this complaint to light.

The system still takes too long to deal with complaints, and to my knowledge no victim has ever been offered compensation for experiencing workplace bullying or unfair dismissal.

Still, it is an improvement on what came before, and Peter Bone’s suspension shows there is finally some consequences for MPs who behave in this way. Many more have gotten away with it, but I doubt the former MP for Wellingborough will be the last to be removed in this manner. 

The characters of who we entrust with power matters, and my time in politics made me think that character is so often revealed by how people with power treat the most junior individuals who work for – or with – them.

Bone’s treatment of his staffer proves he’s unfit for office

So I’m glad Peter Bone’s gone, and not just because he seemed to spend most of his time in Parliament signing EDMs about Big Ben bonging for Brexit, or blocking bills to criminalise upskirting, or speaking on such pressing issues as the need for an official Margaret Thatcher Day. His treatment of his staffer proves he was fundamentally unfit to hold office.

And whoever the former employee is, while I doubt he’ll be cheering on a Labour victory, I hope his ex- boss’s departure from Parliament might provide some level of closure after what sounds like a horrific experience working for him. 

And while I know it’s traditional for MPs to pay tribute to their predecessors in maiden speeches, I wonder if in light of the circumstances, Gen Kitchen might want to break with custom, and perhaps pay tribute to his former employee instead.

He did a good and a brave thing in bringing Peter Bone’s behaviour to light, and it will have been at personal cost. This by-election is not just a victory for Labour, but for standards in public life too.

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