The hard left makes a mission of misogyny
Labour is quick to condemn Tory sleaze but the party’s female MPs find the worst abuse comes from their own side ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In a horrible perversion of her sonnet, it’s hard to keep track of the number of methods male politicians have found to disrespect women. There are spreadsheets and WhatsApp groups dedicated to detailing sexual misconduct at Westminster but even they are struggling to keep up with the allegations of harassment and intimidation.
A group of parliamentary researchers has compiled a dossier of almost 40 Conservative MPs, including 15 current ministers, who are accused of behaving inappropriately towards colleagues and junior staff. The LabourToo website is also gathering anonymous stories of abuse. An “upsetting but not surprising” number of women have made allegations against men at all levels in the party, according to one of those involved. Among the examples is a councillor who reported an assault and was urged to drop the complaint if she “wanted a future in Labour”.
Bad behaviour is not all as black and white as sexting or groping
Some of the rumours may be unfounded or driven by a desire for revenge. Perhaps a few women are overreacting to an innocent compliment or flirt. Most MPs are more interested in casework than canoodling, but there is a genuine cultural problem at Westminster where the hierarchy of the party system mixes dangerously with late-night sessions and cheap bars. Often politicians are compulsive risk-takers, who merge narcissism with neediness. Too many of them think they are above the rules and, of course, they are not. Just as happened during the expenses scandal, outdated assumptions have been exposed. John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, was right to tell MPs yesterday that “there is a need for change”.
Theresa May has promised tough action to protect Westminster staff but Mark Garnier, the minister who has admitted calling his former assistant “sugar tits” and asking her to buy two sex toys (one for his wife, the other for a constituency worker) remains in his job, which includes promoting the reputation of Britain abroad, at the Department for International Trade.
Labour has suspended Jared O’Mara — who ousted Nick Clegg as MP for Sheffield Hallam — after he was found to have been responsible for a string of misogynistic and homophobic tirades. Yet he was still selected by the party as a candidate, despite warnings from local activists, having secured the backing of Momentum, the left-wing pressure group. To complete the party hat-trick, Lord Rennard, who was publicly accused of sexual harassment by four women, remains a Lib Dem peer and was out campaigning for Vince Cable in June.
Not all the bad behaviour is as black and white as sexting or groping. There are 50 shades of grey when it comes to political misogyny. It includes the “everyday sexism” of the veteran Tory backbencher who asked a young female Labour MP to step out of the lift reserved for members during Commons votes because he assumed she was a secretary.
After more than 20 years writing about politics I can say that the increase in the number of women in the House of Commons has made a real difference to the atmosphere. Conservative grandees no longer cup their hands in front of them in the chamber as if weighing the breasts of female MPs, but it still seems incredible that during his failed 2005 leadership campaign, David Davis, now the Brexit secretary, paraded female supporters around in T-shirts with the slogan “DD for Me” emblazoned across their chests.
Laddishness characterised the New Labour years, when political deals were struck at football matches and female journalists patronised by the swaggering spin doctors. I will never forget Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press secretary, turning to me at the end of one lobby briefing and saying: “So Rachel — any questions about Cherie?” I may have been one of the very few women there but, like my male colleagues, I was more interested at the time in the Kosovo war than the prime minister’s wife.
In Young Marx, the engaging first production at Nick Hytner’s new theatre The Bridge, Karl is portrayed as a philandering drunk who is so busy fighting capitalism that he turns up late to his own son’s funeral. He shows no respect to his wife and humiliates the family maid (with whom he also has a child) but that is irrelevant to his followers who are more interested in dialectical materialism than women’s equality.
‘There are other forms of oppression apart from the class system’
At the weekend, Jeremy Corbyn condemned the “warped and degrading culture” of sexual harassment that exists at Westminster and insisted MPs must be held to account. But some of the worst examples of misogyny can be found among his own supporters on the hard left. It is moderate female Labour MPs who are the subject of the most vile sexist abuse from the Corbynista social media trolls. Jess Phillips, the MP for Birmingham Yardley who has had multiple rape and death threats, said recently that left-wing men were the “absolute worst” for the cause of women and “don’t think of you on the same level”. Jess Asato, a former Labour candidate, recalls how an MP tried to kiss her outside a conference marquee, even though she was engaged and still in her teens. “The Labour Party should be a sanctuary away from the structured sexism of society rather than a mere replication of it,” she writes in Progress magazine. “If anything it is harder for women to report abuse and easier for men to escape censure in the party. The power imbalances within Labour are stark.”
It is not only the lungers with Che Guevara badges or the “beer and sandwiches” machismo of the trade union movement that are the problem. There is an aggression underlying the attitude to women among the devotees of Mr Corbyn’s “brocialism”. John McDonnell once asked of Esther McVey, then a Tory employment minister: “Why aren’t we lynching the bastard?” Clive Lewis insisted he was speaking to a man when he issued the order “get on your knees, bitch” but that’s not the kind of language that someone who truly respects women would ever use.
The hint of violence is not a coincidence because Mr Corbyn’s supporters see feminism as a distraction from the true socialist cause. As Caroline Flint puts it, the hard left has “never understood that there are other forms of oppression apart from the class system”.
There is a self-righteousness on the left that blinds Mr Corbyn’s supporters to their own flaws, but Labour sexism is just as sinister as Tory sleaze.