Beneath the spectacle: Challenging Sexual Harassment at the UK Parliament [re-blog]

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This blog post by Cherry Miller (University of Birmingham) was originally published on Political Studies Association blog here on 10 November 2017. It is being reproduced here with permission from the Political Studies Association (PSA) as part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.


I recently completed empirical doctoral research that took a workplace ethnographic lens to examine the everyday performance of gender, beneath ceremonial displays of power, within the British House of Commons. It involved detailed ethnographic research and raised a number of issues, arguing that sexualisation is a significant component of gender relations within Parliament. It also very much echoed the continuums of violence that have been reported in the newspapers recently. Examples of behavioural conduct experienced by male and female participants within three working worlds – parliamentary researchers, MPs and members of the House Service – range from low level (compulsory jocularity, lookism, and unsolicited texts for dates); to the harassing behaviour of MPs towards committee staff within the House of Commons and on overseas visits, to physical contact such as rummages at bars. Sexual harassment was shared in the gender regimes of all three ‘working worlds’ that I examined. Given the gravity of the situation at Westminster, many have been asking – how can change come about and what might that change look like?

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Being cautious about ‘tipping point’ proclamations

Sexual harassment inside the UK Parliament has a longer genealogy than the discreet episodes in the news, which gives myself and others’ reservations about ‘crisis’ or ‘tipping point’ proclamations – why is this now a crisis and why hasn’t it always been treated with such seriousness, a crisis of what and for who? A survey conducted by Channel 4 news in 2014, very clearly reported high levels of sexual harassment and raised questions about gendering sexual harassment as a solely ‘woman’s issue’ because the research found that a third of men and women researchers had experienced sexual harassment, and men were more numerous in respondents who had experienced harassment. The Leader of the House answered an Urgent Question on 30th October 2017 on tackling sexual harassment in parliament and the party leaderships met for a ‘summit’ on 6th November. But what sort of material changes and discursive changes can be made?

 ‘Material’ changes to gender regimes

1.Codes of conduct, training and proceduresThe Nolan Principles of public life (selflessness, integrity, leadership, objectivity, accountability, openness and honesty) have been long established for MPs, though they are rarely (in)formally reflected on. With regard to broader ethics and reflection, a pattern in my research was that an ‘all hands on deck’ arrangement of time meant that there is less time to formally reflect on ethics. Compulsory management training has been suggested for MPs though Caroline Lucas MP suggested that this should be more encompassing. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Hudson made ‘strong representations’ that the Respect Policy, that had lapsed for House Staff and was reintroduced in July 2014, should include other parliamentary actors. For the House Service, there could be greater institutional recognition that they are stewards of Parliament rather than servants of MPs. At the summit on the 6th November, the party leaders agreed an independent grievance procedure.

The challenge with codes, training and procedures, as with the hotline for parliamentary researchers, is that policies can represent the end of institutional responsibilities rather than their start and becomes the responsibility of individuals to make use of them. Obstacles to reporting should be addressed. A persuasive argument about non-reporting is an insidious argument addressed by both Rainbow Murray and Alison Phipps: that a notion of meritocracy (a contested discourse, not least since political appointments are not strictly scientific) stymies reporting since complainants may not want to damage someone’s career (even if the person is disrupting others’ careers in the workplace). Furthermore, the dissemination, reflection, uptake and rolling evaluation of these codes and procedures is important. Furthermore, should design be a participatory and discursive process beyond the party leaders, given the trauma to individuals?

2.Personnel changes: Showing leadership and making personnel changes is important and parties should apply sanctions consistently. Ruth Davison MSP suggested that we need to ‘clear the stables’ with a ‘big shovel’. Debates on recall should come with caution because women MPs may possibly be more vulnerable to deselection attempts in local parties and could be disproportionately affected. Furthermore, The Guardian argues that personnel change in and of itself may feed the Westminster obsession with runners and riders.

Personnel changes are important because there are broader temporalities to injury such as experiencing a wilful ignorance of harassment by political leaders and Whips. Micro-affirmations towards those who have buried or have committed wrongdoing themselves such as promotions, as Ava Etemadzadeh discussed, can be disempowering and shows a lack of recognition of pain. John Mann MP has recommended a menu of sanctions upon MPs. Disclosure checks on constituency staff was also raised by Dr Lisa Cameron MP. Focusing on individuals is important, but will some of the scripts of power survive these actors, whilst (re)individualising the issue?

3.Institutionalising key critical actors outside of parties: MPs themselves may struggle to provide pastoral care and training as employers because they do not have the time to build these relationships. Therefore institutionalising critical actors is important, such as the Women and Equalities Select committee that was created in 2015. As Sarah Childs has suggested, individuals have invested personal capital taking on battles for gender (in)equality. At the moment complainants can go to the media for justice which is unsatisfactory for both the victim and accused. This apparatus should be outside parties and confidential, involving sexual violence experts. The setting up of an HR department would be a good start and for researchers to be formally employed by parliament. A personnel advisory service can currently sit in on interviews when MPs recruit staff, but currently, it is not a compulsory service. The UNITE union parliamentary branch, should receive institutional recognition from Parliament. However, any engagement with a critical actor is coupled with the performativity of complaint that some respondents feared and ‘turning something into a thing’. ParliaGender – the workplace equality network for gender (in)equality, may be given a stronger role in making representations to the House and could also continue  to use ‘soft’ methodologies at Westminster in addition to codes and procedures such as focus groups and interviews – which has already been conducted successfully – but the Workplace Equality Networks must be properly resourced.

4.Structural questions of institutional power that reproduce gendered norms: This systemic problem goes beyond sexual harassment and is entangled in (in)direct structures of power and hierarchy, differences in pay, availability of alcohol, stratification, seniority, long hours, differences in contacts and networks, a greedy institution in terms of time, that produces mistake anxiety, bullying, one-upmanship, racism, and poor communication. A more radical solution would be that local government – matched by funding, could eventually be seen as an equally esteemed route for a job in politics and can address (ideas about) the concentration of power at Westminster, but this could be arena-shifting and is not exempt from problems of sexual harassment.

Discursive changes to gender regimes in Parliament

Now that we have looked at material aspects of gender regimes, we can challenge some of the ideas, constructions and scripts around power and sexual harassment at Westminster. This is because these ideas may survive more material changes.

1. Reconceptualising power – analysing concentrations of structural power is a good start but this conception of power does not stand up when analysing peer harassment from juniors that occurs ‘out of earshot’ of formal supervisory relationships. Examples include a male researcher reporting horseplay from another researcher, the auditability of female MPs in a chocolate bar system by male researchers, peer harassment for MPs, and a member of the House service outing a male parliamentary researcher in front of an office intern. We may still be left with the ideas of misogyny, homophobia, dominance and hegemonic masculinity, even when structures are changed to be more equal. In the Mark Clarke case with regard to sexual harassment and bullying of young activists, discourses of celebrity and prowess combined with his structural ‘power over’ activists. Therefore ‘power over’ models can simplify what is going on and how authority and power is gendered in its current form. Masculinity, after all, differs in similarly structurally empowered men. This suggests, in my view, that ideas about power are also important in addition to formal structural power. Change might mean reconceiving power, or more specifically, changing the gendering of power away from dominance, towards ‘power with’ others.

2. (Loss of) context – Judith Butler suggests that to be injured is for the addressee ‘to suffer a loss of context’. What makes ‘context’ particularly important to the Westminster Parliament is that behaviour falls below our expectations of a workplace, not least one that legislates on rules for others. Sentiments from participants when discussing gender inequality within this context and the disjuncture between formal modernisation rhetoric and standards of other workplaces, included feeling thunderstruck, incredulous, fury, a zooming out of workplace interactions and describing institutional arrangements as: ‘crazy’, ‘weird’ and ‘ridiculous’. It can be alienating for bystanders who often provide the emotional labour to those who have experienced wrongdoings. A proper discussion about the locus of Parliament and political parties within society and expectations on its members is needed.

3.Discursive change on sexual harassment as a knowledge – The term ‘sexual harassment’ is being fought over and contested, beyond its formalistic legalistic usage that sets a criminal threshold. The way that harassment is spoken about within this institutional arena is important. Brant and Too have foregrounded the ‘workplace origin’ of sexual harassment discourse. Parliament is referred to as an “organism, not an organisation” – thus sexual harassment, a workplace discourse, has arguably not been put on its proper footing in this institutional arena.

‘Man up’ narratives are unhelpful – whilst it is not an illegitimate argument that that sexual harassment affects different men and different women differentially, this does not justify commodification of gender discourses – that is, that men and women can voluntarily ‘man up’ and grow a thick skin. We cannot schedule our reactions to sexual harassment.  Some people are immobilised by sexual harassment, for others, it comes later, some are not overwhelmed and transformed utterly. Sexual harassment has been described in discourses of high jinks, bantz, ‘sex pests’, and ‘Pestminster’. Brant and Too note that this discourse is based upon a localised irritant that ignores responsibility and agency of perpetrators. It does not capture what is going on institutionally.

The potential effect on policy regimes

We may now reflect on broader gendered policy regimes coming out of the UK Parliament. The TUC found that 52% of women and 63% of 18-24 year old women had experienced sexual harassment. A question is whether sexual harassment may catalyse responsiveness to other forms of harassment and underfunding of sexual violence services and adult social care too? Whilst sexual harassment is made illegal under the Equality Act 2010, third party harassment was removed from the Equalities Act in 2013, and makes employees more vulnerable at work. The Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, Rt Hon Maria Miller MP highlighted in Parliament that 2/3 of girls in schools had experienced sexual harassment. Domestic violence charities and Rape Crisis Centres have received inadequate funding. Given Women’s Budget Group’s budget assessments since 2009, the 22nd November budget might be a sensible time for the government to act now on gender equality.

My comments here do not ‘reveal’ a ‘truth’ about the essential gendered nature of the UK Parliament. But they do offer some early thoughts on the (re)production of everyday sex/gender hierarchies within the House of Commons. These comments are not exhaustive of the issues at play and I welcome discussion to understand and address this further.


Cherry Miller is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham and has recently successfully defended her doctorate into the performativity of gender within the British House of Commons. She tweets @CherryMMiller.

Image: UK Parliament: CC BY-NC-ND

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