FOR women who have had any level of involvement with the Labour Party other than crossing a box every few years, allegations that they tried to cover up sexual assault complaints with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) will come as no surprise. It should not take three women waiving their rights to anonymity to fix a very broken culture of misogyny and sexism within their party.
Former staffers Laura Murray and Georgie Robertson told BBC News last week that they refused to sign non-disclosure agreements with the Labour Party after they complained about possessive and inappropriate behaviour from more senior male colleagues.
Unfortunately, this is not the first instance of the party attempting to cover up allegations of sexual assault.
Four years ago, well-known former activist, Bex Bailey, took to social media to report that she had been raped by a senior colleague at a party event. Despite not being a paid member of staff, she claimed she was discouraged from reporting the incident and was told it would “damage” her political ambitions. At the time there was no clear established process for investigating these claims within the party.
It emerged in 2020, following the publication of a leaked report into the handling of the party’s anti-semitism crisis, that Labour did not actually have a formal complaints handling process, despite being a party that had half a million members.
What exactly has to happen for the Labour Party, a so-called party of equality, to take women’s complaints and safety seriously?
It will be difficult for many women members not to feel let down by the lack of progress made by the party over the last few years. Forcing women to sign NDAs after complaining about sexual harassment isn’t how we tackle the issue of misogyny and sexism within our society.
The Labour Party in particular has a responsibility to lead the way on this and as the largest progressive party in the UK, we would expect them to “do better”. Instead of attempting to cover up unacceptable behaviour, Labour has to lead the way to eject men who continue this predatory behaviour towards women.
By attempting to put these NDAs in place, Labour essentially created an environment where men’s behaviour could go unchecked because the culture makes them feel invincible. Both Murray and Robertson reported behaviour that men may not initially view as predatory without women speaking up. They said that senior colleagues put them “under pressure” to go for after work drinks. They made comments about their personal lives and levels of attractiveness. Some men may view this as friendly banter, but women are often uncomfortable about being asked questions about this.
They also reported “obsessive levels of communication” and received messages late into the night and even early hours in the morning. While we live in a culture that is “always on,” boundaries out of working hours have to be respected – especially when your employer was literally founded to represent the interests of the working class.
Murray made the interesting point that because she was more junior, she did not know how to protect herself. This is a key point. If junior members of staff do not feel safe reporting the actions of more senior colleagues, they will not feel as though they can speak up for fear of repercussions. Labour – and all large organisations – has a duty to ensure they are taken seriously and swift action is taken. Crucially, women should be believed.
Today/Yesterday/This week, senior women in the party spoke out against the use of NDAs, including youth representative, Lara McNeill. They called on leader Keir Starmer to be more “transparent” about transforming the culture. While this call is welcome, the onus cannot be placed on women to fight for survivors’ voices to be heard. Culture change comes from the top and now, Starmer has to take a no-tolerance approach towards this behaviour.
The Labour Party has denied the use of NDAs and told the BBC and the Guardian they take complaints very seriously, but this attitude has not filtered down through the party. Labour must establish a robust complaints procedure that is not simply a form on a website. They must offer women members support and advice independent of the party and signpost them in the right direction. But most crucially, the party should listen to women, believe them and take swift action against the men they have complained about.