I sit on the plane to New York, I’m going to the UN with the Women and Equalities Select Committee to talk to other countries about what we do in the UK and learn perhaps what we could do better. I didn’t book the ticket, one of the committee staff in Parliament booked it for me - I don’t have to do things for myself anymore.
Two men sit either side of me. They both have their computers out, they are busy drafting letters and emailing, arranging things for themselves when they are in the States. I’m nosey so I peer over and note that one is writing to an ex-president, another is arranging a world tour of some sort of artistic event. They are busy doing the stuff I used to do. I used to be a worker ant, I used to be the one who arranged things rather than just the queen bee who attends things.
While the men get on with their scheduling and making the presentations they will give, I diligently read the papers that have been prepared for me, send a few emails of direction and then I watch films. I watch The Shape Of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. They are about completely different subjects, yet the subtext of both is exactly the same and they are stories that we all need in our lives at the moment: stories of triumph over the forces that say some people matter and some people don’t. Just like everyone who watches these films, I root myself in these stories on the side of the people who the world thinks don’t matter. We all want to think we are the righteous, even the least righteous think it.
The committee staff who booked my tickets, booked my hotel, wrote all of my briefings, will arrange all of the events I attend while I am away, these are the people who have been treated as if they don’t matter. To be clear, not these exact ones, the Women and Equalities Committee is a friendly lot. I mean their colleagues, their class in the parliamentary hierarchy. Just like Elisa, the lead in The Shape Of Water, they are mute, hidden, scurrying around doing antisocial shifts. The latest bullying scandal to hit Westminster is about these people, the people who do the work that makes those of us that matter look good.
Newsnight have reported that an alarming number of women have come forward to talk about the way that they are treated in a hierarchical environment where one party - the politicians - are untouchable. It does not make for comfortable viewing. Women, and all the cases are women, claim to have been bullied to the point of sickness, belittled, publicly humiliated by their paymasters, moved sideways to avoid embarrassment, constructively dismissed, and forgotten. In any workplace this would be bad, but in the one where I work, the balance of power makes it unbearably toxic.
Mandates can make monsters is what I conclude from this scandal. It may sound hollow but there are very few monsters and many more people for whom every single vote of their mandate represents a person they don’t want to let down. The arrogance of an electoral back-up is dangerous in the wrong hands.
Add on top of this a place of work where people literally open the doors for you, arrange your lives and provide you with the intelligence and, in some cases the actual words, that you speak. These people never get the credit that they deserve for the work that they do. Yes we could do better, have better policies, tougher action (or any action at all) against bullying but the problem is the culture. A culture where some people matter and some people don’t.
The actions of even just one degrades us all and chips away at confidence, making people think why bother with this voting malarkey?
I don’t want to be anti-politicians, I think it is lazy rhetoric. Similarly I don’t want to bash on about elites - this narrative too has been hijacked by idiots who use it for nothing more than to prove how right they are, invariably they are not. I believe in Parliament, I believe in democracy, I believe in the vast majority of those people I work amongst. I just wish that our parliamentary democracy would not keep being quite so flawed.
We live in dangerous times and our democracy is under threat. We shouldn’t be providing ammunition to those who seek to harm us. Authoritarian behaviour by those in our democracy is music to the ears of authoritarian leaders around the world. The fact that the main alleged perpetrators seem to be two MPs precious few people have ever heard of doesn’t matter. The actions of even just one degrades us all and chips away at confidence, making people think why bother with this voting malarkey?
We must be more honest about our own failings and seek to change them, not with tar and feathers for anyone who is caught out but with real action to stop a system designed to create entitlement. So I will start. The vast majority of work that has my name on it is at the very least done with someone else helping me. My colleagues who have bullied staff have no reason to think that they are any better than the women who have come forward, in fact they are no where near as good. Perhaps the real punishment would be if we took away all of their staff and all staff support in Parliament - even, God forbid, made them make their own coffee. See how long your mandate lasts then, mate.
I am an MP. It is my job. I am not a special princess and I am not hero. I am not the sole reason that I was elected, I am 25% of it at best. I am a woman sat on a plane that someone else booked for me. I will work long, hard hours while I am away but so will the committee staff who are with me. For that they deserve credit. We couldn’t do it without them and we should stop pretending that we do. We ain’t all that.
Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley