A woman’s place is in the House: reclaiming civility, tolerance and respect in political life

Dame Laura Cox, author of a 2018 report into the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff, argues that the behaviour of too many parliamentarians is misogynistic and a cause of capable women MPs leaving parliament, or having to accept behaviour that would not be permitted in any other workplace. She says that this is in part an institutional problem, and calls for a more open, tolerant, respectful and conciliatory politics.

We are living currently in a very angry world. Our parliament, the central institution of our representative democracy, should be setting an example of tolerance and civility, but instead, civility and willingness to compromise seem to have faded. Political discourse generally has been impoverished by antagonism and extremism. Those more constructive qualities of reflection, cooperation, collaboration and consensus seem to have fallen by the wayside.

In addition to bitter, adversarial politics, there has been an upsurge in reports of abuse, intimidation and assault. In recent years, independent inquiries into events at Westminster – including my own report into the bullying and harassment of Commons staff – have recorded a disturbing number of acts of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment alleged by members of staff and MPs against other MPs, as well as among staff and members of the House of Lords.

The macho behaviour and posturing so frequently displayed in our political debates have disproportionately and adversely affected women in public life. The women affected are not only politicians. Women journalists, academics, campaigners and political activists have all reported instances of intimidation, abuse and even physical violence. In June 2016 a serving MP, Jo Cox, was brutally killed on the street in broad daylight.

Why has our politics become so misogynistic? There are, in my view, a number of contributing factors, including the still unacceptably low numbers of women politicians; the rules and customs of the parliament where they serve; and the resistance to change of parliament as an institution.

As regards numbers and participation, our parliament still has a serious gender imbalance. We need a diverse parliament to improve the quality of decision making and to ensure its legitimacy in the eyes of the public. We cannot take public trust for granted. It must be earned. A parliament that fails to reflect the gender, ethnic and social composition of the nation poses a serious constitutional challenge.

This is a continuing problem. The number of women in parliament is very slowly increasing, but the figures speak for themselves. As of April this year there are only 220 women MPs (34% of the total), and just 223 women in the Lords (28%).

In addition, this gradual increase in numbers is still relatively recent. Women only really started to enter the world of politics in increasing numbers in the 1980s, and the world they entered was a world of rules, customs, practices and structures designed by and for men, and controlled by men. So it isn’t just about numbers. It is usually a hope that simply increasing the numbers of women in an organisation will magically transform a male-dominated environment for the better. But this is not enough on its own to bring about change. We need to look at the ‘terms and conditions’ of the job.

To state the obvious, women live different lives from men. Women coming into parliament enter an institution where the rules, systems and practices have developed over centuries during which women were entirely absent. Many of the rules are not written down in Standing Orders, but are conventions which govern daily business. And they are underpinned by additional, subtle and hidden practices, which are difficult for women to identify and tackle. There are also party-political ambitions and loyalties to grapple with. The role of the whips reinforces those loyalties, enforcing party discipline and serving often to silence women and prevent them from speaking out about intimidation and harassment.

Some women try to fit into a male-dominated organisation by adapting to the established male norms, keeping their heads down and not being seen to make a fuss, often at considerable cost to themselves. Problems arise when women do not want to conform to systems and practices that they did not devise and that they regard as incompatible with their lives and with the work they are there to do. Those women who do not conform are seen as ‘rocking the boat’ or challenging the established order. Deeply held attitudes of entitlement and misogyny by some men can then rise to the surface, and what may start with little acts of ridicule and belittlement can readily progress to anger, abuse and aggression.

In parliament deeply embedded assumptions about the skills and temperament needed to be a good parliamentarian and about appropriate forms of behaviour in its chambers have resulted in a backlash against women who challenge the notion that you need to do things this way—and a backlash too against those women who rise up the ranks and ‘do not know their place’.

A couple of years ago, when Theresa May was Prime Minister, I read an interview with Baroness (Emma) Nicholson, who said this of Prime Minister’s Questions: ‘If the centrepiece of parliamentary debate is one woman being pelted with mud for up to an hour by predominantly male opponents it sets the tone for the whole week: it’s a bear pit.’

The parliamentary website describes the form and style of debate in the House of Commons in more polite terms:

The style of debate in the House has traditionally been one of cut-and-thrust; listening to other Members’ speeches and intervening in them in spontaneous reaction to opponents’ views.

This style of debate can make the Commons Chamber a rather noisy place with robustly expressed opinion, many interventions, expressions of approval or disapproval and, sometimes, of repartee and banter.’

Ultimately, of course, it is the Speaker who controls the Commons, decides who speaks and when, and adjudicates whether a line is crossed. But different Speakers will have different levels of tolerance. And in recent years we have surely seen for ourselves too many examples of the bear pit to which Baroness Nicholson referred, and of intransigence and bullying. This featured heavily during the Brexit debates, but long predated them and has continued unabated. The collective male jeering and finger wagging that goes on when women MPs are speaking is a deeply unattractive spectacle. And we should remember that verbal sexual harassment has so often been defended by its perpetrators, as ‘just a bit of banter’ when women have complained.

Do the adversarial and gladiatorial features of our parliamentary proceedings favour men to the detriment of women, especially when the numbers of men far outweigh those of women in the chamber? I think there is a strong argument that they do. The website description, albeit politely expressed, reinforces the message that, in order to be taken seriously during debates, women must also participate in this traditionally robust ‘cut and thrust’ and noisy repartee. Former Cabinet minister Amber Rudd has described her discomfort at seeing women MPs participating in the name-calling and belittling of opposition members. And it seems to me that such an atmosphere does more to facilitate sexism and sexual harassment than to curb it. Sexist barracking becomes normalised. And the protection afforded by parliamentary privilege has allowed patronising remarks and the language of sexism to enter the debates, as part of this accepted cut and thrust. Those who indulge in it are protected from sanctions of the kind that we see regularly being applied in other places of work. And, ultimately, parliament is a place of work.

Recent research by the Inter-Parliamentary Union has highlighted the extent to which the presence of women parliamentarians across the world has resulted in a backlash and in gender-based acts of intimidation or psychological, physical and sexual violence against them. Their report, published in 2016, found that 81.8% of female politicians globally had been psychologically abused, while 44.4% had received death, rape, beating, or abduction threats. As the authors point out, these findings suggest that ‘such behaviour against women parliamentarians exists, to varying degrees, in every country, affecting a significant number of elected officials. Such violence impedes the ability of women parliamentarians to do their work freely and securely and has a dissuading effect on women’s political engagement in general.’

This to me is one of the most troubling aspects of what is happening. Acts of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment are affecting more women than men and are being specifically targeted against women because they are women, with the intention of intimidating them, or persuading them to leave. So, the implications extend far beyond the acts of violence and abuse themselves, serving to impede women’s ability to do their work, deterring other women from engaging in politics at all, and communicating the broader message that women generally do not belong in public life.

During the Brexit debates one MP, referring to then Prime Minister Theresa May, told the Sunday Times: ‘The moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted. She’ll be dead soon.’ Another told the Mail on Sunday: ‘She should bring her own noose to the ‘22 committee’. The profoundly shocking nature of such comments was exacerbated by the fact that serving male MPs felt comfortable making them openly. The remarks were rightly widely condemned across the political spectrum, but they are clearly part of a much wider problem about how women are treated and referred to, and about the increasingly aggressive and offensive discourse in public life.

Social media has certainly played its part in upping the ante, increasing the use of inflammatory and sexist language, both inside and outside Parliament, and encouraging violent attitudes and behaviour. Increasing numbers of MPs complain of horrific online abuse and threats of violence, putting them in fear and persuading a number of them to quit the scene. What more eloquent expression of this could there be than women of the calibre of Heidi Allen and Nicky Morgan both citing the amount and intensity of abuse as a reason for standing down as MPs or even quitting politics altogether? These problems have all been voiced for some time now, and by increasing numbers of women. Yet nothing seems to change.

Certainly, as far as the role of social media companies is concerned, there are calls for more regulations to control them. They have already made some steps to appease their critics. On their own, however, these remedies will not be enough. The genie is out of the bottle: we must look at what needs to be done offline and at the institutions themselves. In that respect, part of the problem is a deeply rooted resistance to change in Parliament. Those who benefit from the current rules of the game see little incentive to change anything and are hostile towards those who try to advocate a different way of doing business.

So what is the way forward? Behaviour of the kind I have been referring to can no longer reasonably be viewed as ‘the way we do things here’ or as the price to be paid for involvement in politics. Now that the nature and extent of the problems are so clearly visible, doing nothing is no longer an option. Solutions must be found, and there is both a personal and an institutional responsibility to tackle these problems. Individual politicians, both men and women, and parliament as an institution, need to set an example and put their own house in order.

Political parties need to develop robust mechanisms to increase the numbers of women in party leadership and decision-making positions; to allocate sufficient resources for women’s political campaigns; to adopt clear and transparent rules to ensure internal democracy and ensure the fair selection of candidates; to promote women candidates through focused training programmes; and to ensure that proper procedures are in place for preventing sexist abuse and for dealing promptly and effectively with complaints.

In parliament, the procedures now in place to address bullying and harassment must be regularly monitored and rigorously enforced, with meaningful sanctions for those found to have broken the rules. Further, parliamentary proceedings generally need to be reviewed, with a view to eradicating sexist behaviour. Rules, customs, conventions and hidden practices that effectively enshrine a sexist culture, no matter how longstanding they are, simply have no place in today’s world.

Individual politicians also need to reflect on their own behaviour: how to argue a point effectively; how to end hollow, angry rhetoric or sexist abuse and how to use moderate language or phrasing; how to show respect for someone who argues to the contrary; how to see one another’s point of view, to learn how to compromise; and how to lose an argument with good grace.

And those male MPs who witness sexist language or behaviour by others must call it out and not stay silent. This is not just a women’s issue. Men need to act too in order to change the culture that tolerates such behaviour.

I would like to think that the pandemic and the consequent hiatus in daily parliamentary life may have caused some people to reflect on these matters, perhaps to regret their past conduct, and to wish for a different way of doing things. Whether or not they have, we seem to have reached a tipping point. There is a good opportunity now to press the reset button and to move to a more open, tolerant, respectful and conciliatory politics. A woman’s place is certainly in the House, but she needs to feel confident that she is as equally entitled to be there as her male colleagues, and that she will at all times be treated with decency and respect.

This is a heavily abridged and edited version of A Woman’s Place is in the House: Reclaiming Civility, Tolerance and Respect in Political Life, which was published in Political Quarterly in September.

About the author

Dame Laura Cox is a former English High Court judge of the Queen’s Bench Division, serving from 2002 until 2016. She is also the author of a 2018 report on the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff.