By Carys Hill, Women’s Officer for Warwick Labour
Combabes, Happy International Women’s Day! You are all incredible, and I am so lucky to be surrounded by inspiring, supportive, and strong women and comrades- every day.
Today, I remember why I’m Labour: in 2010, when my family and I desperately needed a women’s refuge, there were none to help: the Tories and the Lib Dems, as one of their first actions in Government, had closed and/or drastically reduced the funding to women’s refuges. In fact, by 2012, they’d cut over a third of all local authority funding to domestic and sexual violence services.
When Tories say they care about my rights, welfare – and even, my life – as a woman, I know how far from the truth they speak.
I’m sure I don’t need to go on about what our party does for women – it’s a home for all of us here. I’ll never have been prouder of my party, and sure that it was the political home from me, than when I could proudly call my mum and tell her that our 2017 Manifesto guaranteed a Violence Against Women Commissioner and to provide more stable central funding for women’s refuges and rape crisis centres. I was so proud to ring her again, when the Exit Poll was released, to let her know that maybe tomorrow, women like us would have our lives acknowledged and protected.
Today, whilst acknowledging the strength and solidarity of our party in supporting women and being the home of so many strong, brilliant, capable women, I think it’s important that we also acknowledge the wrongdoings it also does, and the considerable work that still needs to be done. Even in the policy that I excitedly rang my mum about – the new Commissioner was appointed to enforce “minimum standards” in tackling domestic and sexual violence, and it did not promise to restore the central funding for women’s refuges and rape crisis centres that has been lost.
We also have not been untouched by systemic, widespread and institutionalised sexual harassment and violence in politics. The structure of Parliament is built to sustain violence against women and undermine them should they speak up on such violations. The MP is the boss and the recruiter – giving them the benefit of not only social and cultural power rooted in and maintained by patriarchy, but hierarchical and structural power; meaning, at every level, the system works to undermine and violate our bodies, our voices and our testimonies.
The Labour Party is complicit in this. When Bex Bailey bravely came forward reporting that she had been raped at a Party event when she was 19 by someone senior to her in the Party, she was discouraged by a senior Labour official from reporting it.
Under the current complaints procedure, you have to call or email the Head of Complaints, which is far from an independent position – rather, it has been reported by many within the Party to be a political appointment. After this stage, you’re given informal advice on how to proceed. Many women have reported that this ‘advice’ often insinuated they should drop the claim. If you want to go further and make your complaint formal – as all sexual harassment claims should be – you’re asked to make a statement. The accused is also contacted for a statement. For many women, this is a big red light: often, the accused works in the same office as you, and you have to interact with them on a frequent or even daily basis. Then, after this, we get to what as I see as the biggest obscenity in this process: the National Executive Committee.
Should you even get to this stage, your claim is taken under by the sexual harassment panel of the NEC, which is made up of party political representatives and appointees. Whilst your statement is anonymised, it is often not kept confidential because of the incestuous nature of the Labour Party – the initial call is not anonymous, making it relatively easy for figures on or related to the NEC sexual harassment panel to get their hands on the name of the complainant.
Our procedures are not fit for purpose: we need an independent body, external to the party who will trust and protect the lives our women. We need more than just an independent investigation into Bex Bailey’s case: every case needs to be free of gatekeepers who work to prevent us from speaking out. Every case and every woman needs to be treated with trust and respect, rather than suspicion and contempt.
Today I stand proud to be a woman in the Labour Party. It is my home, and I hope it always will be. But let this not distract us from the systematic problems in our own back-garden. If the Labour Party truly wants to protect and represent women who are systematically abused, harassed and undermined, and bring about a society where every woman is free from the violent and oppressive hand of a man, then we need to begin to practice what we preach, and bring about justice for our own.