I like and respect the Speaker. But his accusers deserve to be listened to
Parliament will be a better place because of John Bercow's time as Speaker. But to suggest staff who have complaints about his behaviour are engaging in a 'witch hunt' is offensive and victim blaming, writes Jess Phillips
I wish to be an honest broker in the bullying and harassment fight that is currently going on in Westminster. Many will say I am not – I have been called the witchfinder general on more than one occasion. If I had a pound for every time colleagues have joked with me over the past few months about if they can stand near me or not in case I think they are harassing me. I laugh it off, I’ve got bigger fish to fry than being permanently mortally offended. Most mean nothing by it.
The thing I have repeatedly tried to stress since this sorry episode has come to light is that warm words about taking action and vitriol in the face of abuses uncovered are useless if they are used only as political capital. If you really care about improving the safety and working environment of those in Parliament and politics you have got to be willing to standardise this desire. You can’t want action only when your political opponent is caught out.
That is why when James Dudderidge approached me as a person who cares about this issue, to sign some EDM or something against the Speaker, I basically told him to do one. One notes complete radio silence from Mr Dudderidge on the sexual harassment or bullying allegations facing some of his other colleagues.
That said, I was really sad to see the comments by the Sarjeant-at-Arms referring to the allegations against the Speaker as a “witch hunt”. The comments are horribly gendered, and bear in mind most of those who have come forward and made complaints about parliament have been women. Also to dismiss these complaints out of hand is really offensive to the people who have come forward, who deserve if nothing else a proper process to be followed and for their complaints to heard fairly.
I like the Speaker. In fact, I’d go further than that – I respect him deeply. I think when he leaves his post Parliament will be a better working environment than when he began. He has, with the help of others, radicalised the place. He has fought hard for MPs, chiefly women MPs, to at least have an attempt at a decent family life.
This isn’t just good for MPs it is good for representation. It improves our democracy. Similarly, policies like the opening of the nursery have also benefited the staff of parliament, many who work the same ridiculous hours we do. He is a dedicated champion of all forms of equality, and that might seem small outside in the world, but you have no idea how bold this is in a place desperate to cling on to the past.
I think my feelings about the Speaker are mutual. I get the impression he likes my steel and commitment. He pushes me to keep fighting, to keep speaking up.
So I will. Unlike James Dudderidge, I don’t only care when my opponents are incriminated. I care no matter what. Regardless of my view of the Speaker I think that those with complaints deserve them to be heard.
I also don’t buy the line that MPs didn’t know what was and wasn’t good behaviour before the advent of the Respect policy. It’s basic common sense. I think people should be accountable for their actions, and others – and I include myself in this – should be willing to appreciate change where change has demonstrably occurred.
There is a plot against the Speaker by some Tories; to deny this would be stupid. To suggest there is a ‘witch hunt’ and in that to sweep up those who have dared come forward is victim-blaming.
Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and Associate Editor of The House magazine