When Michael Fallon put his hand on Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee, she reportedly lifted it off and told him that if he did it again she’d punch him in the face. In so doing she lived true to the sprightly and forthright nature we know her so well for. But that moment is an outlier in a world where power and party loyalties are at play.
All sexual harassment is ultimately about power and the use of it. Wherever women are subordinate to men in the workplace, they’ll be at risk of it. In Hartley-Brewer’s case, the would-be cabinet minister had met his match — she wasn’t going to lose her job if she’d smacked him one.
An equally forthright journalist, Jane Merrick, simply did not feel the same when he made a lunge for her, aged 29. A woman on the factory floor telling her boss to “do one” after he’s groped her would also know that feeling all too well.
Take that unequal power balance and introduce the febrile world of politics and you have a heady mix of inappropriate behaviour, abuse of power and — crucially — the twisting of loyalties, with some devastating consequences.
Ten days ago, Bex Bailey told Radio 4’s Carolyn Quinn that she’d been sexually assaulted at a Labour Party event. Raped, in fact, by a party member more senior to her. It took her two years to muster the courage to speak out and, when she did, she was essentially brushed under the carpet. Managed away.
When I first read about her rape on Twitter, I stopped what I was doing and listened in abject silence to the 10-minute interview. I was awestruck at the dignity of the young Labour activist I’d met and shared a platform with on several occasions. My heart sank. I could just imagine the situation and the vulnerabilities that were exploited.
You see, there are hundreds if not thousands of Bex Baileys — young activists still full of ideals and a positive outlook on life. I used to be one.
They join Labour because it represents hope and change. They meet other people like them and become part of a Labour family. A family with the love of strange pursuits like canvassing: traipsing the country’s arterial routes at ungodly hours to campaign for candidates they’ve never met in marginal seats and by-elections. All in the name of a free supermarket sandwich and a Labour government.
The feeling of that by-election win, of being part of something bigger, is such a kick. You’re turning the tide of political events. Making history. It’s addictive: bonds are formed, and an evening and weekend hobby becomes not just a job but a vocation — a way of life.
So when something as fundamentally awful as a rape within the family happens, those guilt-ridden emotions that Bex described — of shame, of the fear of not being believed and even, in many cases, wondering whether you’ve done something wrong — are all compounded by a more sinister threat: that speaking out would damage or hurt the family. Regardless of how explicit or implicit it was, it was there. The feeling that the victim, not the perpetrator, would be the one inflicting pain on the family at large.
The same fierce challenge of power and loyalties apply in the Scottish parliament today, where women within parties are acutely aware of who the pests are, but party loyalty comes first. When you live and breathe this world, you can’t pollute it with uncomfortable truths.
That’s why no party, however well-meaning, can fix this culture with a beautifully crafted harassment policy. It has to be done outside the political system, by completely independent agencies who will both handle the allegations and provide the necessary support to victims. Equally, all those with power in the party should undergo independent and compulsory training so that they understand what harassment is and what to do about it. That should apply to local party officers just as it does to those making judgements about members’ and politicians’ conduct.
Jeremy Corbyn has produced a shiny new policy but he has yet to introduce any independence to the system — the one thing Bex Bailey asked for, and has now been asking for years. If those with power want to do the right thing by the family, this is it.
This article was first published in The Sunday Times newspaper on the 12th of November 2017.