20/02/2018 15:50 GMT | Updated 08/03/2018 09:54 GMT

MPs Who Harass Must Be Publicly Embarrassed, Say Senior Female Politicians

HuffPost UK survey exposed 'boys' club culture' in Parliament

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Harriet Harman and other female Labour MPs

Two senior politicians say the believe sexist attitudes in Westminster are slowly changing - but those who harass and abuse should be “publicly embarassed”.

HuffPost UK spoke to Harriet Harman, the longest-serving female MP in the Commons and Conservative peer Anne Jenkin, after we carried out a survey of women politicians asking them to share their experiences of bullying and harassment.  

It follows a swathe of allegations of inappropriate conduct in Westminster, from offensive comments towards women to sexual assaults and most of the 40 MPs who responded reported being the victim of some form of harassment or bullying.

Many reported being subjected to misogyny on a regular basis, including “lewd” remarks about their appearance, boorish behaviour in the Commons chamber and finding it harder to get things done as a woman in Parliament. 

Harman, who has lobbied for equality since she was elected in 1982, said:  “Although we have made huge strides, woman are still outnumbered two-to-one and many female MPs are newer than their male colleagues and are therefore seen as more junior.

“But this should not be the case - every constituency is equal and every MP elected to represent their constituency should be seen as such.

Leonid Andronov

“The MPs most comfortable around the House are the ones who have been there longest - and the ones who have been there longest are generally men.  They set the culture.

“Female MPs also tend to last a third less long than men, because they are more likely be in a marginal seat and more likely to have entered politics late because of personal or family circumstances.”

The Camberwell and Peckham MP agreed plans to set up an independent complaints body - led by a cross-party working group chaired by Commons leader Andrea Leadsom - should be hastened.

“It is so important to have independent adjudication in these matters, because if you are talking about a senior MP being accused of something, then that could have huge implications for their party,” she said.

“It could mean a cabinet resignation or even a by-election - and a political party would not be able to help considering its own interests.  Someone removed from the politics of the situation must oversee complaints.”

Harman said despite things “progressing steadily” within Parliament, she remains worried about rising numbers of external threats made towards MPs, including those on social media. 

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“They must be seen not just as a threat to individuals - which they are - but also in many cases as an attempt to silence women, and undermine our democracy,” Harman added.

“Voters elect their MP, and the person they choose must be allowed to get on with that job.

“The problem, as ever, is that women MPs want to do exactly that.  They want to get on with their job and they do not want to divert attention from their constituents’ concerns to their own issues.

“But I think a culture change is underway, and I think it will be led by the younger female and male MPs.  They are what I like to call sons of the women’s movement - who hold values that their partners and women they work with are equals.”

Government ministers - including health secretary Jeremy Hunt - have called on social media companies to do more to tackle abusive behaviour online.

Senior Tory backbencher Nicky Morgan has also warned those who fail to address abuse and threats are “playing with a fire which will eventually consume them as well”.

Baroness Jenkin, who with Theresa May co-founded the Women2Win movement which supports female Conservatives, said she believed politicians found guilty of harassing their colleagues and staff should be “publicly embarrassed”.

Parliament UK
Baroness Anne Jenkin co-founded Women2Win

“I think the Westminster environment, which has this toxic mix of testosterone and stress and power and booze, can be a very unhealthy one,” she added.

“If the Lords stays late, after the final vote the women go home and the men go to the bar.  So I think we have to accept there is a gender divide here. Personally I feel that the bars should be closed, but I don’t see how you would ever be able to put that into practice.

 “Added to that, you have people who cannot get home to their families every night and live a normal life – they are left hanging around to contend with all these pressures.

“It is not a normal professional working environment.  If you have been in Parliament a long time you become institutionalised  and then you have no idea how a normal working environment functions.

“I feel there should be more flexibility for politicians in arranging when they can see their families, and how they manage their lives.”

She added: “I think things are in hand, and that things will change.  The steps Andrea Leadsom are taking are positive.  Politics is a tough game, and a tough environment, and people coming into it need to be resilient. 

“What one person regards as a bit of fun could be something someone else takes offence at and I think there is some difficulty with the differentiation for some people. But of course unacceptable behaviour is unacceptable, and most people know where the line is.

“I don’t think we can do much more than make it clear to serial offenders – and they know who they are – that they will face the consequences and be publicly embarrassed.”