Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi) in The Thick Of It

POLITICS

Is a bullying crackdown in Westminster the next phase of #MeToo?

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein era, something seems to be shifting, says Gaby Hinsliff – throwing staplers around Number 10 is no longer deemed acceptable

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Even five years ago, that might have been the fairly brutal response to anyone in politics complaining about bullying at work. Screaming, swearing, pinning people up against walls or throwing staplers around Number 10 were seen simply as part of working in a uniquely high-pressured environment. And if you couldn't hack it? Well, there were plenty of other people who’d happily have your job and it was regarded as pretty snowflake to complain. The same attitude prevailed in Fleet Street, the City and plenty of other competitive workplaces full of chest-beating alphas (female as well as male, it should be said), where the ends were seen as important enough to justify the meanness.

Only now, something seems to be shifting. It's no longer quite so socially acceptable to be caught carrying on in public life like the nightmare boss out of The Devil Wears Prada. And while this new sensitivity to the way power can be abused might well have something to do with more millennials reaching positions of seniority, or more women reaching a critical mass in the workplace, what it mostly resembles is the next phase of #MeToo. When the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, surveyed parliamentary staff in the wake of recent scandals, there were more complaints of bullying and unreasonable behaviour than of sexual harassment. Now, it seems we're finding out exactly what they meant. 

It’s unclear yet exactly who bullied whom in the case of Debbie Abrahams, who was forced to stand aside as shadow work and pensions secretary at the weekend while what Labour calls a "workplace issue" is resolved. (She says she has experienced "aggressive, intimidating and wholly unprofessional" behaviour from unnamed individuals in Jeremy Corbyn's office and she’s not alone in complaining about that; the party, however, says it has received several complaints of her bullying staff members).

But Labour MP Paul Farrelly has apologised if he has “inadvertently upset” a female clerk working for the parliamentary select committee he sat on, who quit on health grounds after saying she had become anxious about dealing with him. Meanwhile, the Speaker, John Bercow, faces calls to stand aside following claims that he bullied his own female private secretary into leaving eight years ago, with critics arguing that he's the wrong person to preside over cleaning up parliament.

Screaming, swearing, pinning people up against walls or throwing staplers around Number 10 were seen simply as part of working in a uniquely high-pressured environment

There's no suggestion of sexual harassment here, no obvious connection to the scandals of the Harvey Weinstein era. Yet both involve powerful people used to getting what they want, allegedly taking advantage of underlings who can’t easily speak up. And, as with the stories of sexual harassment spilling out of Westminster, which so often involved men whose sleazy reputations everyone knew but didn’t publicly discuss, in hindsight it seems weird that this issue has taken so long to surface. When Gordon Brown was accused of throwing phones across the room, when rumours spread of whips physically intimidating MPs or senior politicians on all sides reducing aides or civil servants to tears, in retrospect those stories shouldn't have been shrugged off as gossip. Yet a thuggish minority somehow managed to convince everyone that this was part of everyday rough and tumble at Westminster – as normal, if occasionally regrettable, as working long and unsociable hours. The same was true for other senior figures in national life whose saintly reputations have, for years, hidden very different behaviour behind closed doors.

But it’s not normal, and nor is it even necessary, to take out the undoubted stresses of political life on people who can't answer back. The truth is there are plenty of ministers who wouldn't dream of calling their staff c***s, even when operating under the most intense pressure themselves, who don't motivate by fear or start kicking the furniture when things go wrong. The awkward truth about bullying is that it so often reveals less about the victim than it does about the perpetrator's own ability to cope when the heat is on. And we all know what they'd say about people who don't fare well in hot kitchens.

@gabyhinsliff

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Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi) in The Thick Of It
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Politics
Westminster
Harassment

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