We will never end violence and harassment while it continues to thrive in Parliament
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) – a business lobbying group – has made headlines after a dozen women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct, including an alleged rape.
This comes less than a month after the director-general of CBI stepped down after claims of sexual harassment, exposing a problem prevalent across every single industry. There is a culture of baked-in, widespread misogyny that creates a potentially unsafe environment for women. According to reports, CBI’s initial response to the rape allegation was to encourage the victim to seek counselling but they also, shockingly, did not pursue the matter any further. Their handling of the investigation has left some victims reluctant to come forward.
Sexual misconduct thrives in a climate of impunity and political apathy
From the film industry to lobbying groups to our emergency services, sexual misconduct, abuse and sexism is shockingly prevalent. Although a big part of that stems from the inequalities at the core of our society – inequalities around pay, childcare, gender-based violence, representation and more – sexual misconduct also thrives in a climate of impunity and political apathy.
This is particularly the case in Westminster, the heart of government, which has seen a torrent of sexual misconduct allegations and incidents in recent years. Headline after headline has revealed a culture of misogyny at the epicentre of our political establishment, and one Westminster appears to have no interest in addressing. These range from rape and sexual assault allegations, to harassment, bullying and sexism. It’s not only the sheer volume and frequency of MPs facing allegations of abuse, harassment, assault, or rape but also the complete failure to act from this and previous governments that makes this a national scandal.
In 2022, Boris Johnson’s premiership came to an abrupt end after it emerged he had known about a number of allegations of sexual misconduct against then-deputy chief whip Chris Pincher, but had promoted him, protected him and refused to suspend him from the party. Pincher resigned as deputy chief whip after allegations of groping, and it quickly emerged that there had been multiple allegations against him of inappropriate behaviour, stretching back to 2017.
The government is unashamedly protecting powerful men accused of abuse or harassment. It’s clear that protecting their political image is more important than integrity or tackling workplace abuse and misogyny. Is it any wonder that sexual misconduct is so rampant in other environments like the CBI? Yesterday news emerged that the Treasury and Department for Business and Trade have “stopped engaging” with the business lobby group pending the outcome of an investigation. Whilst this is no doubt an appropriate response, it smacks of insincerity when the government itself is so rife with sexual misconduct. In fact, it follows the exact same pattern applied to ministers and MPs when accusations of harmful behaviour emerge; obfuscate, distance themselves from the issue and then quietly resume to business as usual when the dust has settled.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t account for the reality of sexual misconduct, sexual assault or rape claims, which can be difficult to investigate. It often comes down to one individual’s word against another’s, which tends to favour the person with greater power and authority. Allegations are also rarely reported to the police, and when they are, the chances of a punitive outcome are small; less than 1 per cent of reported rapes result in a conviction in England and Wales.
A more effective approach would be a proactive one, instead of waiting for allegations to arise. That means looking at the structures in place that create a culture where sexual misconduct happens, addressing the gendered inequalities that disempower women and protect abusive men, and adopting a zero-tolerance approach that ensures no individual found guilty of abuse of power is allowed to do so again.
Violence and harassment in our society will never be properly addressed and eradicated whilst it thrives in Parliament.
Changing this culture has to come from within Parliament itself, to set the standard that they then ensure every organisation, business and institution measures up to. Workplace abuse will not stop until powerful men are held to account and misogyny at the core of British politics is firmly rooted out.
Mandu Reid, leader of the British Women's Equality Party
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