Women MPs stand together: exactly the problem

Parliamentary and everyday sexism

The current furore has produced a morally outraged cross-party consensus, but the last thing we need is yet more investigations, judge-led enquiries, quangos and powers to suspend or expel MPs, says James Harvey

For a few days last week, the war in Ukraine and the ‘partygate’ saga were replaced on the front pages and the news programmes with stories about the toxic culture in Westminster and allegations of sexism, misogyny and bullying at the heart of British politics.

The furore began following a story in the Mail on Sunday quoting an unnamed Tory MP, who claimed that Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, attempted to distract Boris Johnson during prime minister’s questions by crossing and uncrossing her legs à la Sharon Stone in Basic instinct.1 Cue outrage from across the political spectrum. Labour MPs responded by arguing that such accusations were unacceptable and revealed a deeply sexist culture at Westminster. Tory women MPs joined in by condemning the story as disgraceful and an example of the treatment that women in politics faced every day. Johnson himself threatened the “guilty party with the terrors of the earth” for making comments that were so offensive and demeaning to women.2

This cross-party consensus continued in the days that followed, as women MPs recounted their experiences of sexual harassment and unwanted advances, combined with wider allegations of a culture of bullying and entitlement amongst senior politicians. With the media reminding us that other MPs were subject to formal investigation following various accusations of improper conduct (alongside the two-day suspension from the Commons of leading Labour rightwing MP Liam Byrne for bullying former members of his staff, and the resignation of Tory MP Neil Parish for watching pornography on his mobile phone in the Commons chamber), it seemed that the reputation of ‘our’ parliamentary representatives could not get any lower.3 The government front bench and the Labour leadership, along with mainstream editorial writers and commentators, all agreed that the situation was now completely unacceptable and that something must be done.

What that something was seemed all rather familiar and formulaic. It was familiar because we have been here so many times before. Whether cause or effect, media attention on wrongdoing by MPs has grown, as the reputation of politicians and parliament has fallen.4 Given that the ‘problem’ this time was deemed to be largely one of ‘culture’ and ‘behaviour’ rather than anything more fundamental, the solutions proffered by the politicians, jurnos and editors were cosmetic institutional changes. It was suggested that restricting the consumption of alcohol in the Commons would end the testosterone (alcohol?)-fuelled culture that encouraged bullying and harassment, whilst others believed that positive discrimination to increase the numbers of women elected as MPs would give the badly behaving males in the House some manners.5

The usual managerial ‘solutions’ of compulsory anti-discrimination training, strengthened codes of conduct, more powerful independent investigation bodies, changes in the ways that parliamentary research staff are employed, as well as the whole panoply of human resources initiatives, were dragged in too.6 Like all the condemnations from the government and the political establishment in general these proposals parroted the ‘official feminism’ and ‘equal opportunities’ policies that are now so central to bourgeois common sense. Other than a handful of bigots and reactionaries, who wants to demean women and keep them ‘in their place’? Who now isn’t a feminist? Who doesn’t want to smash the glass ceiling and ensure that a select few women reach the very top echelons of politics and society? Moreover, who isn’t opposed to bullying and discrimination in the workplace? Who now doesn’t stand for equal opportunities for all at work and throughout society generally?

Real change

The Marxist critique and opposition to this bourgeois ideology is clear and should be our starting point in understanding what goes on in the House of Commons - and elsewhere for that matter.

While women have won or been granted formal equality, the revelations about Westminster tell us something profound about society at large. If women MPs, including serving ministers, are treated with such contempt, how do we think the mass of women, working class women, are treated by the very same people? What goes on in everyday workplaces, bars, sports clubs and domestic settings? Women are not only commonly treated as sex objects, they, the mass of women, constitute, at work, worst-paid labour, and, at home, they are unpaid servants. That double burden suits capitalism because it lessens the cost of renewing and reproducing labour-power.

With that in mind, our goal is not more female MPs, or another female prime minister, or a female leader of the opposition. We are not interested in facilitating careerists climbing the career ladder. When it comes to the workers’ movement, we want to put an end to careerism and that, of course, applies to the trade unions, political organisations and parliament too. Why? Not because that would be such a wonderful end in itself. No, ending careerism in the workers’ movement is necessary if we are going to realise our goals of ending capitalist wage-slavery and the age-old oppression of the female sex, which, of course, goes back to the very origins of class society itself.

Naturally, our current crop of career politicians have no idea, no wish, no commitment to such an outcome. Instead, MPs - Tory, Lib Dem, SNP and Labour, including the so-called ‘left’ - put their careers at the front, centre and back of their entire approach to politics. Yes, they have far more in common with each other than with the electorate, which has to be flattered, bribed and conned every four or five years.

Thus together they treat the Commons as their ‘workplace’ and propose regulations and policies to deal with the pestering, leching and drunken lunges made on staff in terms of employment law and human relations ‘best practice’. This is far from a mere stylistic quibble, for it tells us a great deal about how contemporary bourgeois politics sees the role of MPs, the nature of the Commons and its relationship to the executive and the state as a whole.

Historically, the Commons has a legislative function, but it also had a significant role in representing the electorate and holding the executive to account. If even the most basic GCSE textbook outlines these functions, they also point to the relative historical decline in the power of the Commons in relation to the executive - notably through the strength of government patronage and the power of the whips. Thus, far from acting as ‘the grand inquest of the nation’ so beloved of constitutional theory and pompous politicians during great occasions of the House, real power in the state lies with the executive, whilst this ‘representative’ institution is reduced to a noisy claque, whose sole role is to support the government (or alternative government). This concentration of power in an elected dictatorship further reinforces managerialism - or rather depoliticises parliamentary politics by further shifting real decision-making to the executive or a largely unaccountable civil service, quangos, courts and other state bodies Far from holding anybody really to account, MPs merely act as mediators, becoming in effect social workers dealing with ‘case work’ and seeking redress for constituents from the state.

If the current controversy shows how bourgeois politicians treat being a parliamentarian simply as a means for personal advancement or merely as a job, it also points to the need for the working class movement to adopt a radically different approach, which repoliticises the function of being an MP. We have plenty of good historical examples from both Britain and internationally to show how socialists can use elections and parliaments to agitate for militant action and facilitate the popularising of the programme. Using parliament as a platform to make demands and to explain the case for socialism - the real questions of politics and power - not solely dealing with individual constituency complaints or engaging in parliamentary games: that is how revolutionary parliamentary work should be, and has been, conducted since Liebknecht and Bebel in the late 19th century or the Bolsheviks before 1914.

This type of repoliticisation also requires recreating the historical relationship between the workers’ movement, its leadership and its elected representatives. Elected representatives such as MPs and councillors should be under the tight control and close supervision of the party: they are not individuals pursuing a political career, but servants of the party and its programme. Like all leading figures in our movement, they should regularly report back, be fully accountable, subject to recall and take only the wage of a skilled worker. Needless to say, office staff, researchers, etc, should be party workers on a party wage and not appointed at a whim or as a favour.

What an MP says and does should be decided by the party. Sitting in the Chamber and going to some dull select committee is far less important to us than going round the country supporting strikes, speaking to meetings and all in all building the movement. Speaking in the Commons is, of course, vital. Parliamentary privilege allows things to be said (and reported) that otherwise cannot be said (and reported). But, if needed, our MPs should be quite prepared to risk suspension for using unparliamentary language or risk a prison sentence for calling an illegal demonstration. If that triggers a by-election, so be it. All the best MPs have been kicked out by the speaker or have served time.

Looking at how Labour MPs have framed their response to the current furore, we can see just how far away they are from the militant tradition of the international working class movement. We can also see how their managerial politics and acceptance of the constitutional order are far removed from any real commitment to radical democracy and the socialist transformation of society. Not only do Labour MPs and liberal critics fail to link parliamentary sexism to the nature of class society itself: they propose measures that would, in fact, give more power to the prime minister, to government, to quangos and to judges. Instead we need to treat parliament as a battlefield, in which our MPs are at war.

  1. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10746873/Tories-accuse-Angela-Rayner-Basic-Instinct-ploy-crosses-uncrosses-legs-PMQs.html.↩︎

  2. www.thetimes.co.uk/article/boris-johnson-defends-angela-rayner-against-perverted-basic-instinct-claim-8fc3hfwmm.↩︎

  3. www.independent.co.uk/independentpremium/uk-news/parliament-harrassment-bullying-mps-icgs-b2070857.html.↩︎

  4. In its modern form this process might be said to have begun with the ‘expenses scandal’ in 2009 and its impact on ‘public trust’ in bourgeois politics and institutions. See: www.newstatesman.com/politics/2019/05/mps-expenses-a-very-british-scandal; www.theguardian.com/politics/2009/may/15/michael-gove-mps-expenses; and: www.thetimes.co.uk/article/labour-accused-of-delaying-commons-harassment-report-wngn890xx.↩︎

  5. www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/ben-wallace-drinking-culture-westminster-tory-mp-porn-commons-b996784.html; www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/may/01/sexism-harassment-parliament-westminster-commons-mps.↩︎

  6. www.theguardian.com/politics/commentisfree/2022/apr/30/its-time-for-a-rethink-on-mps-role-in-staff-issues; www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/lindsay-hoyle-porn-neil-parish-parliament-b2069284.html.↩︎