I COULD START THIS PIECE BY TALKING ABOUT MY EXPERIENCES OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT, but then so could pretty much any woman I know. That is why the hashtag #metoo has been trending so much in the last few weeks.
The reality for women is that in all aspects of their lives, men will overstep the mark. They will be too free with their hands and their remarks; they won't accept no for an answer, claiming we play 'hard to get'; or they will completely overstep the mark and stray into illegal actions. Just ask the women you know, and suddenly the stories will flow out. The time they were groped in a club; or when someone flashed them. The list may be short or long, more or less shocking, but there will be a list.
Women aren't alone in suffering harassment. Male comrades too will have felt the unwanted attentions and behaviour of some. Because, let's be clear, sexual harassment is about power and control. It is a form of bullying, not about sex and desire. And the responsibility for that behaviour lies with those who perpetrate the acts, not those who suffer them. No one is ever 'asking for it', or behaving in a flirtatious way that encourages it. This is about exerting power over an individual, and putting the other person in their place.
When this scandal broke in October with the Harvey Weinstein story in Hollywood, and with victims in this country too, I don't think many thought the toxicity of this would spread so quickly and with such far-reaching consequences. But the bravery of the women who spoke out inspired others to find a voice, to call out the behaviour that they had just accepted as part of the culture in the field in which they lived or worked. And that bravery in turn saw many women using social media to find a voice - not a usual experience, since male voices on social media so often drown out female voices. In the last few weeks I have been alerted to women I know being raped, aggressively attacked and subjected to appalling behaviour, things I never knew about them before this point.
The case of Bex Bailey telling her story of rape by a more senior Labour Party person showed a level of bravery I cannot imagine. Bex may not be on the same wing of the Party as me, but her words simultaneously moved me to tears and lifted my spirits. She gave me hope that if women speak up, then we really can confront and change this culture.
A culture shift in Westminster looks likely with all parties signing up to an independent grievance procedure for Westminster's political staffers, who really do have to put up with awful behaviour from their MP and peer bosses (I saw that in action in the few weeks I volunteered for my MP in 2000). Ultimately, though, the only way to resolve all the issues that surround MPs’ staff is for them to be directly employed by the parliamentary authorities, with proper staffing structures etc in place, and the opportunity for trade union representation to give them the support and advice they need.
But we shouldn't kid ourselves that the rest of the labour movement doesn't have questions to answer on this issue. The trade union movement and political parties have much in common, in the merging of working lives with personal lives, bringing together paid staff with enthusiastic volunteers. I know this more than most because my partner and I first started our relationship at a union conference, him an activist, me a union staff member, and nearly ten years, a mortgage and two kids later the labour movement and trade unions remain a huge part of our lives and common interests.
The drinking in bars at union conferences may lead to consensual relationships, but they also lead others to think they can overstep the mark, not that booze in any way excuses this behaviour. The familiarity those situations create allows the more questionable behaviour to travel under the radar. We need to call out inappropriate remarks and behaviour whenever we see them because, if we don't, that atmosphere will put off the future of our movement.
We also need to create a culture where victims feel able to report sexual harassment, knowing that it will be dealt with sensitively, and in the way that they want it to be.
We should believe those who report this behaviour, not question their right to raise their concerns. Reports of false claims should not taint how we treat those who come forward, because there is little evidence to suggest such false allegations are rife or politically motivated. Those who come forward are brave because they know the risk of a hostile response.
If victims wish to formalise their complaints, we should have robust procedures in place to support them, including the right to representation. But we must allow natural justice to prevail, ensuring that those who are accused get as much detail as possible of the allegations in advance, and of course have a formal hearing, an independent appeals process and a right to representation.
There has been much talk of the response to this misogynistic culture targeting women and telling them to 'avoid' such situations. But as a mother of a son and a daughter, it is not my girl who I am worried about, but my son. She knows her own mind, and at a young age is already clear that she doesn't have to do things she doesn't want to. My son, however, faces the reality of an enforced sense of masculinity which praises dominant male behaviour, lauds overinflated egos and translates empathy and emotional responses into weaknesses.
This stifling culture can only contribute to a belief by some men that harassment is acceptable. Jordan Stephens, one half of hip-hop duo Rizzle Kicks, has written and spoken very eloquently on this issue. It is this attitude which is the illness we must address if we really want to change things.
The labour movement really must ask itself some tough questions in the next few weeks, scrutinising past behaviour and ensuring that in future no inappropriate behaviour goes unchallenged. We must come up with some robust procedures to respond to complaints, ensuring that everyone is treated with respect and sensitivity. Our response to this will tell people whether our statements about equality are sincere or just empty rhetoric.