If Theresa May Is Facing Toxic Masculinity In Parliament, Imagine What It's Like For Everyone Else Working There
By Georgia Aspinall Posted on 23 Oct 2018
‘The moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted. She’ll be dead soon.’ That is the quote from one unnamed Tory MP, in reference to Theresa May and her handling of Brexit so far. ‘Assassination is in the air,’ said another, with others saying May should ‘bring her own noose’ to a meeting of backbench Tories and she is ‘entering the killing zone’, according to The Sunday Times.
This terrifyingly violent language used to describe Theresa May has been condemned by various political actors, including Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper and Steve Baker - politically some of her fiercest critics. With calls to expose the MPs who made the statements and remove their whip, the biggest surprise to come from this is that it’s actually, finally being taken seriously. Because, in parliament, verbal abuse and aggression is part and parcel of the toxic culture.
‘Tantrums, shouting and swearing happened all the time,’ says Emily*, who worked as a senior parliamentary researcher under various Tory MPs, ‘You could hear from their office throwing bins… there was one MP who threw a bin at a researcher and we could all hear him crying.’
Emily’s experience is not rare, as was proven by Dame Laura Cox’s report into widespread bullying and harassment at Westminster, which was published last week. With staff describing MPs being verbally abused every day, Cox spoke of ‘some women being treated as [MPs’] personal servants, with veiled threats to have them moved if they failed to comply with requests.’
Now, more than 80 people have waived their anonymity to sign a letter urging the immediate implementation of Cox’s proposals from the report. Signed by MPs and journalists alike, the letter comes after calls for Commons Speaker John Bercow to step down given his mishandling of the abusive culture – after all, this toxic environment has been known to the public for years and privately known for much longer - and his own personal bullying accusations, which he strongly denies.
For Charlotte*, who currently works for a Labour MP, workplace bullying and harassment permeates Westminster. ‘The first MP I worked for had a reputation for being difficult,’ she said, ‘I had to up my anti-depressant dose while I was working for her to the max because it was so stressful and seriously impacted my mental health. As soon as I started working in this new office, I could taper my medication off again immediately.’
While Charlotte didn’t want to detail the bullying she experienced, she states hers is just one of many, many stories. ‘Good [MP’s] do exist. but the numbers who treat their staff like shit are not an insignificant minority,’ she continued, ‘I know loads of horror stories about what MPs have done to their staff, literally throwing things at them, and how it has caused them to suffer from mental ill health, you just hear them on the grapevine.
‘But it’s a very hush hush vibe, to be a good aide you have to be discreet about all sorts of things, which then eventually means you don’t talk openly about things that should be widely known.’
According to Charlotte, when you’re working for a party that’s built from championing the working class, like Labour, having such a terrible working environment is made even worse by the fact you can’t tell your family- your MPs electorate- for fear of them losing faith in the party.
‘I didn’t tell them about how bad it was for ages because I felt that was like betraying part of my duty,’ she said, ‘which was to make the MP look good to their stakeholders and electorate. But then I was like, “no, I need to be able to vent to my family sometimes”, it’s not my fault if that changes the way they choose to vote, because everything I said to them is true.’
For Labour MP Jess Phillips, tackling your own in-house issues is essential to deal with bullying and harassment. ‘We are all too keen to point the finger when it is our opposition never when it is our own,’ she told Grazia.
Explaining that ‘power, friendship and politics are the reasons MPs who are known to be bullies have escaped scrutiny for so long, she made headlines this week after a debate in the Commons led to her calling out 12 people who she claims continue to get away with bullying and harassment. While she didn’t name them, she stated, ‘nothing I have heard today fills me with any hope that politics will be taken out of this’ and that those 12 people ‘won’t just be walking around for the next 20 years.’
Mishandling of the issue is a huge bone of contention in parliament right now, with Bercow not only being called on to step down but some MPs also claiming that this issue should be tabled until Brexit is going smoother (whenever that will be…).
‘The conversation about Brexit is not more important,’ Jess told Grazia, ‘I feel that Bercow has become the totem in this fight and that his future is more interesting to most people than the actual issue of the culture which we are all responsible for. I am interested in much broader changes which I think changing management is part of that for sure, but I also think that getting rid of the speaker alone won’t simply make bullish misbehaving MPs suddenly become brilliant employers.’
It’s the bullish MP’s that Emily says cause the biggest issues around bullying and harassment, because ‘[the power] just completely goes to their heads and they exploit young people coming straight into these jobs out of university who haven’t been in a normal working environment.’
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Coupled with the high pressure of the job and the frat party culture, where alcohol is ‘readily available’ according the Emily, this working environment becomes so normal that she found her ‘social norms around working culture’ became skewed. ‘When I started my corporate job they had a no-drinking policy and I remember thinking “what? I can’t have a gin and tonic after lunch? That’s ridiculous.’
‘In parliament, it’s not unusual for your boss to go for a dinner and then coming back after having a lot to drink and you’ve just been sitting in the office and have to suck it up,’ she continued. But that’s exactly where the problem, which she describes as ‘endemic’ can get even worse. And MPs think they can get away with it because ‘people want the job so much, you’re working for peanuts and can only do it for a few years, so MPs know you’ll ultimately end up moving on.’
It’s what not only causes bullying but also researchers to be forced well outside of their job requirements for their MP. ‘There were loads of incidents of being asked to do really inappropriate things,’ she said, “go to my house and pick this up”, “go through my wardrobe to find this”, “I’ve left something at my girlfriend’s house can you go and pick it up and while you’re there can you dump her and leave a note?” those kind of things happened all the time.’
It’s this general abuse of power that MPs practice, or specifically backbench MP’s according to Emily, who “it tends to be quite rife with” because “no one is watching and the party doesn’t care about you that much”, that Bercow has failed to tackle and, as evidenced by the abusive narrative around Theresa May, continues to mismanage.
However, if Emily and Charlottes stories prove anything, along with the various examples from Cox’s inquiry, it’s that Theresa May is relatively untouchable versus the many, many parliamentary staff that face verbal abuse and harassment every single day. She may have the power to warn these people in the House of Commons, but for the people that allow parliament to run smoothly and MPs to do their jobs, they’re at a loss.
‘One of the bits of advice that I was given when I started working in Parliament was to write everything down, like a diary of bad management,’ says Emily, ‘But I would say speak to your manager in the office as and when it happens, don’t keep it secret.
‘If you don’t feel comfortable, then go and speak to the new support services the House has introduced for that purpose,’ she continued, ‘but don’t just bottle it up because you think you have to be loyal in the job. And do not think it is normal, feeling stressed at work, and being bullied, and being harassed is not normal and Parliament is no exception.
*names have been changed
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