Anne Jenkin was driving when it happened and ended up swerving all over the road to avoid the MP trying to “stroke my neck”.
Theresa Villiers was just starting out in politics and invited to speak at a Conservative party function when she had to dodge the organiser's “groping” hands. Mary Creagh was seven years old and in the school playground when a bunch of bigger boys chased and sexually assaulted her. Jess Phillips was asleep on a sofa after a party when she woke to find her then-boss (she wasn’t working in politics at the time) trying to undo her trousers.
As it happens, there were no Liberal Democrat women interviewed for the Evening Standard article in which these four Tory and Labour MPs told their stories, in the hope of encouraging others to come forward. But doubtless some have similar stories, too. Sexual harassment happens in all walks of life, which is why it was inevitable that the #MeToo movement inspired by the Harvey Weinstein allegations, which has seen women everywhere telling personal stories of sexual harassment and violence, would eventually reach Westminster.
But it also happens to people of all political persuasions, factions and camps. It’s not a party political issue, however alarmed Tory women are at what they see as a laddish, aggressive strain of “brocialism” emerging on the left and however angry Labour women are with what they see as unreconstructed sexists on the right. It's about gender and power, not about ideology. And since all parties have skeletons rattling around their closets, it's time to stop chucking stones at each other's glass houses and confront the bigger problem.
The most vulnerable women in politics aren’t the ones you hear about, but the ones too junior and frightened to talk
Until now, the signs haven’t been promising. Last week, the Labour MP and shadow cabinet minister Clive Lewis was quite rightly forced to apologise for using the words “get on your knees, bitch” at a fairly raucous event organised by the pro-Corbyn movement Momentum in September. Obviously, those aren’t words anyone in public life should be chucking around, even if they were in a pretty specific set of circumstance – Lewis was onstage speaking to a member of the audience (whoa there). He said it as a joke, after this person was asked to duck down so others could see (OK, but still pretty dodgy). Crucially, that person was in fact a man (oh). The tape duly emerged three weeks later via the right-wing gossip site Guido Fawkes (hmm). And while the whole episode was promptly condemned as “completely wrong” by Jeremy Corbyn, Tory women point out that Corbyn’s very good friend and shadow chancellor John McDonnell has never been forced to apologise for an equally dubious past “joke” about lynching the Tory MP Esther McVey.
You don’t have to be much of a cynic, in other words, to wonder whether, in among the understandable indignation, there are some cheap party political points being scored here. And that’s pretty much exactly what women are looking to their elected representatives not to do about sexual harassment. What we'd like, thanks, are some practical solutions to a practical problem women face and for all political parties to set an example by coming down like a ton of bricks on cases of sexual aggression under their noses.
The most vulnerable women in politics aren’t the ones you hear about, but the ones too junior and frightened to talk – interns and researchers, volunteers, activists who desperately want to stand for parliament and don’t realise until too late that the kindly MP offering career advice over a drink isn’t kind at all. Villiers is an ex-Northern Ireland Secretary now, but she was still a candidate for European elections when she had to fend off wandering hands; Jenkin, now a peer, was a secretary at the time. Both are describing things that happened years ago, but which happen still, to women (and sometimes men, too) in parliament who often don’t have a line manager to complain to or even formal employment rights. They are speaking up now precisely in order to make these victims feel less alone, less vulnerable and more confident in coming forward – perhaps through initiatives like LabourToo, a new website for Labour people to disclose stories anonymously, or some sort of new parliamentary HR department as proposed by shadow equalities minister Dawn Butler.
So, yes, Clive Lewis should have known better than to use degrading language for a cheap laugh and he needed to apologise. But now he has, it’s time to admit that this is merely the tip of the iceberg – and that things said in plain sight aren’t nearly as alarming as the ones still going on behind closed doors.