Women across politics have been coming forward in the past couple of weeks, accounting their experiences of sexism faced inside and out of the chamber. Seemingly every day we see new reports of allegations of outrageous behaviour against our elected representatives.
This new explosion in allegations was triggered by The Mail on Sunday’s reporting of an anonymous male Conservative lawmaker’s claims that Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner had been attempting to distract Boris Johnson by crossing and uncrossing her legs. The MP likened Rayner’s actions to the provocative villain of the film Basic Instincts. The story has uncovered the prevalence of sexism in British politics, both in the chamber of the House of Commons and in the media. Boris Johnson has promised to clamp down on sexism in his party, calling the article “the most appalling load of sexist, misogynist tripe”.
There are some bad apples who are out of order, who behave like animals and are bringing Parliament into disrepute
– Suella Braverman, Attorney General
However, this is not the first time that Parliament has seen accusations of pervasive sexism. Dubbed the ‘Pestminster’ scandal at the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017, several accusations were levelled against MPs and the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) was established the following year.
Mere days later, it was revealed that another Conservative MP, Neil Parish had been accused by two female colleagues of watching adult material in the House of Commons on at least two occasions – a crime that carries a maximum two year sentence. Parish has apologised and resigned his seat, but it’s clear that there is still a deeply ingrained problem among our elected officials.
Attorney General Suella Braverman has stated that there needs to be a discussion about “moral standards” in wider society. While rejecting that there is a “pervasive culture”, Braverman denounced a minority of male MPs, stating: “there are some bad apples who are out of order, who behave like animals and are bringing parliament into disrepute.”
And it’s not just the Tories! On the other side of the aisle, one female MP has accused a shadow cabinet member of making lewd comments about her looks. According to the unnamed MP, she was described as the party’s “secret weapon” because women wanted to be her friend, and men wanted to sleep with her (although in less savoury terms), also insinuating that this would translate into more votes for the party. However, as yet no action is being taken by the Labour Party because no official complaint has been made. The MP stated that identifying herself in order to issue a complaint would not be in her best interests.
It’s hardly surprising that women MPs are reluctant to come forward, considering some of the reports of bullying behaviour towards them. Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth has suggested the party looks into these claims anonymously, stating: “Obviously this has to be investigated. We need to find out who these people are. I would expect the Labour Party to look into that.”
Currently 56 MPs are being investigated by the ICGS for complaints of sexual misconduct – not an insignificant number, considering the amount of male MPs numbers 430. Braverman commented: “I hope that if this is proven to be true, then we will see the most severe reprimand… I think they really do need to be subject to a recall, and no longer holding their privileged position as an MP.”
It’s long overdue that we radically overhaul the systems that keep our politicians in check
It seems however, that the culture of misogyny in British politics runs deeper than just a few ‘bad apples’. Fay Jones MP has commented on its ubiquity, saying “It is death by a thousand paper cuts, and we have got to a place where we are used to being spoken to in a derogatory way.” As well as this, Ruth Jones MP has talked about how female MPs are sexualised, stating “Here everybody gets looked up and down.”
What these past few weeks have revealed is how prevalent sexism still is in politics and the British media. It’s long overdue that we radically overhaul the systems that keeps our politicians in check. However, it’s undeniable that this is not a problem that exists solely in the benches of the House of Commons (even though these are the people who should be held to the highest standards): these are problems that persist throughout all aspects of society.