An environment of hyper-masculinity, a culture of staying silent to advance and protect careers and a backlash against the ‘Me Too’ movement – Adam Bienkov, Sian Norris and Sascha Lavin lift the lid on an endemic crisis at the heart of British politics 

“I genuinely think Westminster is beyond saving now,” Tara O’Reilly, a former Labour Party staffer who left Parliament after speaking out about the abusive and predatory behaviour so many young women still suffer there, told this newspaper. “It’s literally diseased and I don’t think there is the political will on any side of the political spectrum to change it.”

O’Reilly entered Westminster as an idealistic, young working-class woman who was determined to make a real difference. After starting as a parliamentary researcher for a Labour MP, she quickly became a rising star in the party. Hoping to change the political culture that had excluded so many people from backgrounds like hers, she set up a cross-party organisation designed to help young women from all backgrounds get their foot inside the Palace.

But after years of witnessing and experiencing abusive and harassing behaviour from male colleagues and MPs, O’Reilly said she became completely “burned out”.

“It’s so sad,” she told Byline Times. “I set up Women in Westminster to try and help women get into positions like the one I was in… but I absolutely wouldn’t advise women to work in Parliament now.”

She describes life in Westminster as “lawless” with the sort of sexually abusive behaviour practiced by some men within the Palace dismissed by senior figures as “just politics”.

“If you really wanted to, you could get away with pretty much anything,” she said. “I remember a few years ago, when I was working in Westminster, an MP who had been accused of rape at the time came over to speak to the journalist who I was having a coffee with. And he immediately, when he was introduced to me, made these jokes about what he was accused of having done. He was saying things like ‘if I’d done it, if I had raped her, I would have at least remembered it’. And that was the moment where I was just like, ‘yeah Westminster is done for me’.”

For sexual predators who work in Parliament, young ambitious staffers can seem like the perfect target. Unlike some workplaces, where staff are actively encouraged to speak out, young women in Parliament are often pressured into keeping quiet.

“You are inadvertently, and also often quite directly, told to keep your mouth shut”, O’Reilly said. “You are told that it will affect your career, and that it will ruin the reputation of the party that you’re trying to get elected. I was repeatedly told that ‘you’re going to make the Labour Party look bad and you’re going make Parliament look bad’ and ‘you really care about democracy, don’t you Tara?’.”


A Toxic Drinking Culture

Many of the documented cases of assault and sexual harassment in Westminster have taken place within the confines of Parliament’s bars. Yet calls to reform Parliament’s drinking culture have been heavily resisted.

Last month, the Prime Minister dismissed calls for restrictions on drinking in Parliament, telling his own MPs that “had alcohol been banned in 1940 we might not have won the Second World War”.

Parliament’s watering holes – including the famous ‘Strangers’ Bar’ which backs onto a terrace overlooking the Thames – are where careers are often made and broken in Westminster. Yet this culture of alcohol and patronage can exclude those who are unable or unwilling to take part.

Labour MP Stella Creasy is among those who have spoken out about how his culture has helped exclude women and those with young families from getting ahead in politics.

“If you are a young activist who wants to get into politics then hanging around the bars and making middle-aged men who should know better, feel like they’re big and important because they might give you a job, is how you get a job,” she told Byline Times.

Some men use this culture to make themselves the “gatekeepers” to a career in politics, Creasy said, with sexual favours sometimes held out as a requirement for advancement. 

“The worst thing for me is that their employers know about this behaviour and they basically turn a blind eye to it,” she added. “Even when they’ve got clear evidence of somebody admitting that they basically said ‘yeah, because I run your office, you know, this girl’s got to sleep with me if she wants a job’ and they just say ‘well, boys will be boys’. So it’s everything to do with power and everything to do with people feeling like they’re special and different from the rest of us.”


Labour MP Stella Creasy speaking in the House of Commons with her newborn baby strapped to her

Backlash

There was some hope after the ‘Me Too’ scandal broke in 2017 that the toxic culture pervading Westminster may finally be tackled. However, Stella Creasy believes the culture has only got worse.

“I was looking back at an article I wrote in 2018 about Me Too and everyone’s saying ‘oh, you know, is this going to be the big sea-change moment?’” she said. “But, if anything, the backlash that inevitably comes when you start to challenge that power to be privileged, and that power to be entitled, gets bigger every single time.”

Part of the reason for the resistance to change is that some of the biggest abusers and their allies are often in positions of power themselves. “It’s a case where everyone just protects each other’s skeletons so that their own skeletons don’t fall out of the closet,” Tara O’Reilly told Byline Times.

Speaking out about this culture comes at a cost.

O’Reilly has since moved on from Westminster and said it would be very difficult for her to ever return to Parliament.

“If I wanted to go back into Westminster, I think I would really struggle to find an employer who would be willing to take me on because I have a whistleblower reputation now,” she said. “Speaking up in the way that I did, and then putting my personal life at risk, with my finances and my not coming from a posh background, like most of the people I know there, was a huge, huge risk and a problem for me when I did eventually leave.”


Run By Men, For Men

Anyone walking around Parliament’s corridors soon notices the many photos, pictures and statues of men dotted around the estate. There are few similar portrayals of female politicians. In large part this is due to the fact that, until fairly recently, women were an overwhelming minority in this place.

Before Tony Blair came to power in 1997, just 10% of all MPs were women. By 2019, the figure had more than tripled to 35%.

But while these women – dubbed ‘Blair’s Babes’ by tabloids – changed how Westminster looked, not everyone was happy about it.

For Professor Sarah Childs, who co-authored the ‘Good Parliament’ report – on how to make the House of Commons more representative and inclusive – “those who previously had their power, unquestioned, are looking to reassert their positions”.

“What we might be seeing is actually a backlash to the increased presence of women and other groups in Parliament,” she told Byline Times. “There’s a recognition that the composition of the place, whether that’s on the administrative and/or on the political side, is shifting and that those new groups are making different demands on the institution.” 

Few politicians represent this macho culture like Boris Johnson himself.

The Prime Minister, who has a long record of making sexist comments about women, has made little noticeable effort to reform how Westminster works. Indeed, some of those around him have reportedly actively tried to stop it being exposed. After female Conservative MPs blew the whistle on their colleague Neil Parish for watching porn inside the Commons, Johnson’s chief strategist David Canzini reportedly criticised them for speaking out about it.

Prof Childs argues that there is “a hyper-masculinity that we see associated with the Johnson Government”, which she believes may explain the sheer number of abuse cases reported during his premiership.

Just as the power held by one man – Boris Johnson – has contributed to Westminster’s sexual harassment epidemic, so too has the power held by all men in Parliament. As academic and author of ‘Sexual Harassment in the UK Parliament’, Christina Julios, told Byline Times, an unequal Parliament is an unsafe workplace for women.

Although female representation in the Commons is at record levels, men still dominate in Westminster. As revealed by the Byline Intelligence Team’s investigations, only a quarter of the highest-earning civil servants are women; just over a third of special advisors to ministers are women; and, as of November, 11 Government departments had no women of colour ministers. 

Women not only occupy fewer top-level positions, they also earn less. This newspaper has revealed that male special advisors and civil servants are paid more than their female counterparts, demonstrating how entrenched gender inequality is. The gender pay gap also exists amongst MPs: on average, for every £1 a male MP earns from a second job, a female MP will earn just 37p.


MISOGYNY IN NUMBERS

  • 56 MPs currently face sexual harassment investigations, including three Cabinet ministers
  • 72 Conservative MPs had not attended parliamentary anti-sexual harassment training by October 2020
  • A 63% gender pay gap exists in MPs’ second jobs
  • The top 10 highest-paid male special advisors are paid 22% more than their female counterparts 
  • 75% of the highest-earning UK civil servants are men
  • As of last November, 11 government departments have no women of colour 
  • 36% of special advisors to ministers are women

Getting Away With It

This intertwining of power and sexual harassment means perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.

Conservative MPs Charlie Elphicke and Andrew Griffiths had the whip restored by Theresa May despite facing allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour at the time. Elphicke was later found guilty of assaulting a parliamentary worker and another woman; while Griffiths was found to have raped his wife and sent “depraved” messages to two women constituents. 

The former Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan, sentenced last month to prison for sexually assaulting a minor, was initially defended by his Conservative colleague Crispin Blunt, who later retracted his statement. MP Rob Roberts was suspended following allegations of sexual harassment – but has since had his Conservative Party membership restored and continues to sit as an independent. 

This is not purely a Conservative issue, however. 

Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins was eventually forced to quit the party despite previously being promoted by former leader Jeremy Corbyn following allegations of sexual harassment. 

The Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Anthony Lester faced allegations of sexual harassment – that were dealt with so poorly, a House of Lords committee responsible for members’ privileges and conduct published a damning report saying the handling risked putting other women off from reporting sexual misconduct in the future.

Just this week, SNP MP Patrick Grady was suspended from Parliament for two days following a complaint about him inappropriately touching a 19-year-old member of staff.

Yet, even when men are caught harassing women, the power they wield means they often get away with it. For Tara O’Reilly, this failure to act against abusers means women are now even more reluctant to speak out.

“When the ‘Me Too’ scandal first hit Westminster there was a sense of optimism, like, ‘oh my God, finally it’s on the radar and something will change’ and so people were willing to take the risks in speaking out”, she told Byline Times.

“But I think now that people have seen how Westminster hasn’t changed, people won’t speak out or report abuse that has happened to them. The truth is that Westminster hasn’t changed in the slightest and I don’t think it ever will.”

The Rape Crisis charity supports women who have experienced rape, sexual assault or abuse or any type of sexual violence. Visit rapecrisis.org.uk or call 0808 802 9999 if you have been affected by any of the issues highlighted in this investigation

Have you got an experience to share about sexual misconduct or misogyny in Westminster? Contact Byline Times’ Political Editor Adam Bienkov confidentially by emailing adam@bylinetimes.com

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