It’s taken less than a month for the ripples from the Harvey Weinstein allegations to be felt at Westminster. This is unsurprising and inexcusable in equal measure. Yet again, abuse of power has reared its ugly head in the form of sexual harassment.
Accusations against MPs have been unfolding in the press with furore, and last Tuesday the suicide of accused Welsh Assembly member Carl Sargent, arguably points to the first genuine casualty of a so-called Westminster ‘witch-hunt’ culture. But there is no all-encompassing way to discuss a sex scandal; sexual harassment is, after all, a resolutely grey area. The waters are murky and the line between flirtation and abuse moves in and out of focus, shifting depending on where you are and who you’re with. Harvey Weinstein unashamedly and deplorably abused his position by sexually exploiting numerous women. In the wake of this, First Secretary of State Damian Green is being investigated by Whitehall for ‘fleetingly’ touching a journalist’s knee. Are these two things the same?
The answer is, of course, no. But they spring from the same fundamental use and abuse of power which all too often manifests itself in misogyny. I, and every single female friend I know, have been shaking off sexist cat-calls like horseflies and turning inappropriate behaviour from co-workers into funny dinner party stories for years now. So it’s with a grimace that I ask: why are we surprised that this is happening in Westminster? In a hard-working, hard-drinking hothouse of powerful men, where secrets are a tradable commodity, this abuse of power is - appallingly - inevitable.
But what can be done? Meticulously examining every politician’s personal life with a fine-toothed comb is not the answer. After all, watching porn or having consensual (if extra-marital) affairs does not make you a bad politician. We can’t, as it stands, fire politicians for just being a bit of a dick. Instead, we must turn this moment into a watershed. Gone are the days of turning a blind-eye, or putting abuse down to thread-bare social norms of the 70s and 80s. Practical, systemic changes can be made: plans for a non-partisan HR department in parliament are already underway. Women can, must, talk to each other about the best ways to professionally turndown unwanted advances from co-workers. Boards of directors must pointedly hire women so as to foster professional environments that aren’t dominated by men. School-aged boys must be explicitly taught how to treat and respect the girls around them.
Ultimately, and dauntingly, what desperately needs to happen is an overhaul of values and a move away from a society in which women are consistently and instinctively undervalued. And despite its position as the driver of policy, Westminster is a reflection of society – not the other way around. But at the same time, Parliament must recognise, identify and eradicate the chauvinistic values so engrained in its nature – is this really too much to ask?