Abusive relationships between people in the House of Commons

Dame Laura Cox’s report on bullying in the House of Commons is a painful read. Like most people, it calls up memories of relatives and friends who have been abused – mostly women and girls, but not exclusively. Violence against women and girls is an epidemic globally and I spent five years campaigning against in the 2000s as Director of ChildHope. Whoever expressed the notion that bullying is gender-neutral (p70), as cited by Cox, was living in Cloudcuckoo-land and it is a relief that Cox has shattered that delusion. Like many I crave to express simple, unconditional support, not least as I hugely respect many of the staff, who have courageously encouraged independent action in a public statement, and yet…

Cox invited staff in the House of Commons to tell her about their experience of bullying and the majority of those who came forward pointed to horrifying experiences of bullying and harassment and a lack of action from either senior staff or MPs in response. Lawyers have been indispensable to the cause of feminism; their sharp focus and credibility as purveyors of persuasive evidence make them excellent allies to the feminist cause. So the slightest disagreement with Cox feels difficult. And yet, when Cox calls for the Commons to be subject to the same ‘standards’ (ignoring the complexity of that in relation to bullying) as other workplaces, she fails to take account of both its uniqueness of the Commons and what it shares with other workplaces.

She quotes a staff member, “And the House of Commons, for all its unusual features, is ultimately a place of work for everyone, including MPs, their staff, and all the House staff appointed by the Commission” (2018: p25). It is not ultimately a workplace; surely it is ultimately the central meeting place of our democracy. That doesn’t mean we should tolerate bullying – if anything we should campaign against it more strongly within the Commons than elsewhere – but how we do that is even more complex than usual given the way power and hierarchy operate in Parliament.

The bullying that goes on arising out of performance management procedures (p.48), and as an abuse of power by more senior officials, is one of the aspects that makes the Commons rather similar to many workplaces in some senses. Academics have received similar charges recently. Familiar too are the simple categorisations of people in organisations into either victims or bullies, forgetting the obvious problem that many people are both. Sadly Cox’s implication that in most workplaces people treat each other with civility is not borne out by research. I teach postgraduates to undertake research on management as senior managers/consultants and most reveal similar patterns from the corporate, public and voluntary sectors around the world.

However, unlike parliamentary officials, who have a clear hierarchy, MPs operate in a different kind of organisation – they have multiple bosses in the form of their party leader, local party, constituents, and the Speaker, all operating in overlapping contexts. So how to respond to their abuse is more complex. The Cox report is at its strongest as a political document (in the broad not narrow party political sense), demanding action; I hope all concerned, and especially those with clout, respond with the urgency that the problem deserves.

There is also a strong argument for independent intervention when a MP is accused of abuse but the report is at its weakest on the ‘why’ so it is easy to imagine how this might be established in a way that just causes further problems. Let’s consider a cause of past inaction. MPs’ failure to reprimand or report each other reminds one staff member of the mafia, “the omertà that many MPs practice in respect of bad conduct by one of their number. This is partly the result of a prevalent perception among MPs that the world outside does not understand or appreciate them as a group and therefore that they must surround any one of their members who is under attack with a waggon train of mutual support” (p141). This is misleading for two reasons. It is extremely difficult for MPs to take action against other MPs, especially in the same party or on the same select committee, because so much of politics is about seeking support for campaigns, amendments and causes that the politician is desperately seeking to advance. If you want someone to back your action for climate justice, are you going to use up your social and political capital ensuring that another MP is investigated for abuse? That is not to excuse bad behavior, but we need to understand its causes in order to address it.  The other reason is that while we want to discourage people from being gangsters, we want to encourage people to become MPs. So we need to take action against bullying but not against all MPs as a group or Parliament as an institution.

Senior parliamentary officials are trying to protect both the reputation of Parliament and their staff at the same time. The implication in Cox’s report that  some are out of touch is again unhelpful. Maybe some are but it is more significant that they don’t have much power given that they don’t employ MPs – MPs are like 650 tiny businesses, employing staff, and their only bosses are in the party and in constituencies. When MPs treat their own staff badly, and MPs’ staff can be on the receiving end of even worse abuse than parliamentary staff, it is even harder for them to complain. They are often party members and do not wish to harm the reputation of the party to which they feel huge loyalty and belonging. It is the local party in constituencies and the whips, who have more leverage over MPs than parliamentary officials. The Cox report has increased the potential risk of allegations of abuse to the reputation of political parties, and this is useful because it may make whips more pro-active in future.

So I would encourage anyone developing Cox’s proposals into more detailed recommendations to take into account the emotional politics of bullying. The intense loyalty to the institution and to democracy  – but also party, cause or faction for politicians – can both intensify emotions and lead to processes of collusion. It is important to work out what kind of pressure and collusion is involved here, because it will make the recipes for change far more workable.

My final plea is that action against bullying and harassment puts as much emphasis on prevention and reconciliation as punishment, although there is a place for all three. So Cox’s recommendations constitute about one third of what is needed and may only lead to the worst perpetrators being punished. For the rest, you need inter-disciplinary approaches to management, preferably informed by psychology, sociology and flexible approaches to human resources, and you need the concerted support of a wide range of people – journalists, citizens, whips, officials, MPs, party leaders – to take action not just to call abusers out or put right historic wrongs, but to stop them in the first place. It is easier merely to blame either a few apparently nasty or negligent individuals or to pin the problem on an ill-defined idea of ‘culture’ (or the institution of Parliament). It is more respectful relationships we should aspire towards and that will not be achieved by structures, policies or codes but by developing processes of continual improvement. If you want to know what I mean by that then see the complexity management group website.