Parties must do more to support the volunteers entrusted to investigate harassment complaints

"The responses to the various sexual harassment and abuse scandals from the parties are changing daily."
"The responses to the various sexual harassment and abuse scandals from the parties are changing daily."

By Emma Burnell

Once again politics is going through a crisis of its own making. The scandals around sexual abuse and harassment have been a ticking time bomb for years. Women in all parties will tell you they've been raising this alarm for some time. They were largely ignored as an inconvenience. So of course, the parties were then caught on the hop when the scandal exploded.

So far, so Westminster. It is a reactive place and however much politicians like to talk about the future, they actually spend most of their time reacting to the recent past. All too often this means responses are put together too quickly and are not always as well thought through as they could be. The implications aren't fully considered. Too often the responses to crises such as this contain the seeds of future problems.

In this case, we're ignoring the people who will be tasked with assessing the behaviour of party members: the volunteers. No-one talks about this group. No-one seems particularly bothered by what they are being asked to do. But once the press has moved on, they will be the ones left trying to enact the systems which have been set up. And those systems are likely to demand that they spend time wading into the worst behaviours of their colleagues.


British politics is always like this. We solve one problem, but do so in such a slapdash way that we create new ones. Take, for example, the response of the Conservative party to the scandal that engulfed their youth wing a year ago. Their response wasn't to do the hard work of ensuring they have a proper system of safeguarding to ensure young political activists couldn't be exploited. Instead they just abolished their youth wing. They then failed miserably to capitalise on the surge in youth turnout at the election, a result that may well have cost them key seats and Theresa May's majority.

The responses to the various sexual harassment and abuse scandals from the parties are changing daily. The Labour party has hurriedly issued new processes for how this will be dealt with internally, though these will apparently not be used in the investigation of the case of the allegations of rape made by Bex Bailey.

All three main parties' complaints processes draw on their volunteers to play a pivotal role in investigating issues and implementing the rules. As parties are made up largely of volunteers, this is only right. For the Labour party and Liberal Democrat's this is through their elected committees. For the Conservatives it will be a chair of an Association or non-party employee who sits on a regional board.

These are widely sought-after positions. Labour is currently expanding its National Executive Committee (NEC) and the places are being hard fought over. Liberal Democrat internal elections are also highly competitive.

Labour's rapid rise in membership around its leadership contest last year led to the NEC having to police the eligibility of many thousands of members. This was highly controversial, with some supporters of the leadership feeling that members were unfairly targeted.

Precious few people asked about the fairness towards the people who did the investigating. I was privy to some of the messages these NEC members were wading through, as well as witness to the levels of abuse they received as they did so. It's not a pleasant process. There are important questions to be asked about the party's duty of care owed to these volunteers.

The same is true in all other parties. If volunteers are enforcing difficult rules and witnessing – somewhat relentlessly – the worst of their fellow party members this will take a very real toll on their wellbeing.

The floodgates have opened on sexual abuses and harassment and these volunteers are going to be spending a great deal of time over the next few months and weeks (maybe even years) looking at some of the nastier aspects of human nature. Not from strangers, but from their fellow members - sometimes even from elected members they have fought for.

It is essential that all parties take this into account when planning how they will deal with their complaints processes. Emotional support for those making complaints is essential, but so too is that support for those who hear them.

Politics relies heavily on volunteers. As more and more is asked of those who will oversee internal discipline, I hope parties can also ensure they take proper care of those they ask to make these decisions.

Emma Burnell is a freelance journalist writing about politics and the Labour Party. You can follow her on Twitter here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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