“#TimesUp”, the headlines read during the Pestminster scandal of October 2019 when 14 MPs were accused of abusing their power. Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, gives her take on what’s change, and other allegations of unacceptable behaviour since.
The ‘Pestminster scandal’ broke two years ago this week. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, 14 male politicians were suddenly being called to account in Westminster over accusations of sexual harassment and bullying.
Unlike in the Harvey Weinstein case, however, the news agenda moved on from what The Sun had dubbed “Pestminster” pretty quickly. There was one resignation from within Theresa May’s cabinet, a cross-party committee was created to lead cultural change and a phone line was set up for victims to report allegations of wrong-doing. But, two years on, many believe progress has been too slow.
Labour MP Jess Phillips summed up the frustrations in an interview with The Guardian this week. She said: “I don’t want to say nothing has changed because the former Commons leader Andrea Leadsom and those working with her had a real will to set up a system that would work…But the culture hasn’t changed.”
“Two years ago the ‘Pestminster’ scandal broke and allegations of harassment and abuse by MPs made headlines for weeks. But until three months ago, you’d have been forgiven if you’d forgotten all about it. This is because, despite how shocking the allegations were, since then mainstream political parties have been deafeningly quiet on the issue.
Men who abused their power and position to harass women were discreetly rehabilitated. Investigations were dropped or dragged out until they no longer made the news. Of the 14 MPs who were initially accused, not a single one lost their job as an MP. It seemed like the impact of Pestminster would be buried.
But then, until three months ago, you might have thought that Mark Field had gotten away with slamming peaceful protester Janet Barker against a pillar by the neck – an incident that also provoked widespread public outrage until, like Pestminster, it was quickly brushed under the carpet. You’d have been wrong.
A few weeks ago, Field announced he was standing down at the next election, after two decades as an MP. He claimed this was due to Brexit, but his decision came just hours after Women’s Equality Party activists cable-tied themselves outside the hotel where his selection meeting was taking place, wearing red dresses in tribute to Barker. And after months of similar protests in the Commons and elsewhere, a recall petition in his constituency, two billboard campaigns and, most crucially, the well-publicised fact that journalist, campaigner and rape survivor Jenn Selby would be standing against him for election.
In August we announced that we would also be standing four survivors against four MPs facing unresolved allegations of harassment or abuse. The four MPs were all men who were identified in that initial Pestminster scandal and who had, until now, faced no consequences. In the three months since we launched that campaign, we have taken more action on Pestminster than the mainstream parties have managed in two years.
This is not to say that action had been entirely lacking until then. Changes have been made - among them an independent complaints scheme and a Westminster ‘hotline’ to give advice to staff experiencing inappropriate behaviour. Meanwhile some MPs have continued to push for action, laying the groundwork for more robust policies on harassment. But with women MPs and staff still reporting a ‘toxic’ culture of widespread and unchecked sexual misconduct, political will for real reform has been noticeably absent.
And all the while, those MPs identified in the original scandal continue to sit and vote on legislation that affects women’s lives, secure in their knowledge that consequences remain slight.
Just look at Damian Green. When journalist Kate Maltby made an allegation of sexual harassment against him, Green was forced to resign from his ministerial position and apologise to Maltby after it was ruled that her claim was “plausible” and that he had lied to the investigation. But just days later, Green’s ‘friends’ provided text messages to the Mail on Sunday which purported to show her flirting with him, but which had in fact been doctored. The resulting article was part of a coordinated smear campaign against Maltby – and is reported to have discouraged other women from coming forward with their own allegations against Green.
In the aftermath, there were calls for Green to resign as an MP but he didn’t. Instead, he remained a senior Conservative and currently leads the centrist 80-strong ‘one nation’ Tories.
Or look at Ivan Lewis. In 2008 he publicly apologised after a young civil servant asked to be transferred out of his office, because he had “bombarded” her with inappropriate texts. Then, during Pestminster, it was revealed that further allegations of harassment had been made by a 19-year-old woman. An investigation was begun by Labour, but his resignation from the party (soon after he had been told that his case would go to a hearing) meant that investigation was dropped. He remains an MP.
In the last two years at least 18 MPs have been accused of harassment or assault. Every single one of them is still in the House of Commons. There is no mechanism for their constituents to remove them.
Compare this to the expenses scandal of 2009. In the wake of revelations about crooked spending, the speaker, six cabinet ministers and two backbench MPs resigned. Thirteen MPs stood down at the next election. Five were deselected by their parties. Three MPs and two Lords were sent to prison. The Recall Act 2015 was introduced to ensure that any MP who abused their expenses in future could be removed by their constituents and earlier this year Chris Davies lost his seat via a recall petition for falsely claiming office decorations on his expenses.
Our campaign has prompted Labour to finally suspend MPs who had been under investigation for harassment for months, and to deselect candidates who were facing allegations. The Liberal Democrats now plan to adopt our policy on changes to the Recall Act in response to our campaign.
Pestminster was base camp and there is still a mountain to be climbed when it comes to tackling abuse, but the Women’s Equality Party has proven that progress is possible. Now we are waiting for the other parties to catch up.”
Images: Unsplash, Getty, the Women’s Equality Party.