A Boys’ World

by | March 31, 2021

“If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man.”

This is what Theresa May had to say about a woman’s position in Britain during her first speech as prime minister. Sexism is a safe, even fashionable issue for party leaders to be seen tackling, but action is harder to come by. Flipping through Balliol College’s annual records, I noticed Richard Jenkyns – Balliol alumnus, now Classics professor – recall his undergraduate membership in the socialist Leonardo Society: “In those days it was easy enough to believe in the triumph of socialism,” he writes, “but I cannot remember anyone pressing for the College to admit women. It was a boys’ world.” Fifty years on, leftist politics is still the “boys’ world” Jenkyns described.

In February, after three women councillors had been shortlisted to replace Liverpool’s mayor, the Labour party announced it was reopening the selection process without any explanation why. Labour Women’s Network believes the decision was motivated by sexism, and for good reason: only three out of ten directly elected Labour mayors, and just 24 per cent of Labour council leaders are women. Half of the current Labour MPs may be women, but the left’s exclusion of women from local and regional government is still felt. No woman has ever won a Labour leadership election; women candidates have placed last every year since the party was founded. There is still a big red glass ceiling over women in Labour, and a lack of young, motivated women isn’t to blame.

Sexism on the left became a mainstream issue in 2017 with #MeToo and the ‘Pestminster’ scandal. The first woman to speak up about the behaviour of a senior party official was Labour activist Bex Bailey, then 25 years old. Bailey stated that she was seriously sexually assaulted at an event as a teenager but was advised not to come forward as it could potentially “damage” her chances of future political success. In the aftermath, then-leader Jeremy Corbyn called on those who had experienced sexual assault in the party to come forward. Large numbers of women spoke openly about their experiences of sexual abuse in local Labour organisations, but direct, on-the-record accusations only fell on one Labour MP: Kelvin Hopkins, Corbyn’s close ally, whose indecent behaviour had been widely known and discussed in Westminster for years.

Ava Etemadzadeh was an undergraduate at the University of Essex when Hopkins sexually assaulted her. She invited him to an event at her society for Labour students after which he hugged her “very tightly” and “rubbed himself against [her]”. Hopkins then brought her to London for lunch where he told her that, had his staff had been away, he would have taken her into his office. Two weeks later she received a text from Hopkins saying he would have liked her to be his girlfriend and lover “were [he] to be young”. Etemadzadeh kept her exchange with Hopkins private for over a year, but was furious watching Corbyn promote him to the shadow cabinet in 2016 despite knowing about the accusations against him.

The situation was worsened by accusations levied against Etemadzadeh which maintained she was conspiring against the party’s left. In response to her interview with the BBC, one commenter called her an “obvious liar”, another a “Blairite femme fatale”, asserting that “Kelvin Hopkins was framed…because he is a close associate of Jeremy Corbyn.” Here, the pejorative “Blairite” not only means a supporter of the former Labour leader Tony Blair, but a betrayer of the left. To another viewer, she’s “a young woman manipulated by The Daily Telegraph.” On Twitter, she’s praised for “daring to accuse one of Jeremy Corbyn’s leftie mates.” It is impossible for women in the Labour party to speak up about sexual assault without being used by factions within Labour to make a deliberate point of their own. But the point wasn’t that the factionalism made it difficult for Corbyn supporters to believe Etemadzadeh  – it gave them an excuse not to, leaving sexual violence against women on the left an open secret.

Labour is meant to be the party for gender equality, as Etemadzadeh put it to me, but speaking to young women who campaign for Labour in their local constituencies, it’s obvious that not every male party member practises outwardly feminist principles. According to Louise Leslie, a student at Leicester and former policy officer, to experience sexual harassment in local politics is a common occurrence: “It’s a deep-rooted issue. I have to play a man’s game and have others take advantage of my body to prove that I am worth something in politics.” Leslie was sexually assaulted by a policy officer from a neighbouring constituency who “grabbed [her] thigh and attempted to force himself” onto her. Now more than a year has passed since Leslie lodged her complaint, yet the Labour party still has not taken any formal action. Leslie has heard rumours of the officer’s suspension but wouldn’t call that justice: “Labour is ignoring what victims need, and that is reassurance from the party.”

Cambridge University Labour Society co-chair Elizabeth Castell was only seventeen when she experienced sexual harassment at the hands of two adult Labour Party members who exploited her youth and sexual inexperience. Elizabeth was elected as her local Labour group’s delegate for the party conference, involving being away from home for four nights with her constituency Labour party secretary and another adult. She says the older pair, both in their thirties, plied her and her friends with alcohol before turning their conversation sexual: after talking about how he viewed the conference as a ‘sex fest.’ One of the men, her constituency’s party secretary, “slapped [her] friend aggressively on the arse.” There was a clear abuse of power, Castell says: “our own sexual inexperience and our young age was used against us to back us into a corner; we felt we couldn’t say no to whatever he spoke about or even him touching my friends in a sexual way.”

Labour has now expelled the man in question, but the process has been long and drawn out, with Castell having to chase up developments herself to get a response. Castell has never felt more let down by the party: the incident was reported nearly two and a half years ago, but only within the last month has any action been taken. Like Etemadzadeh, Castell was accused of conspiring with the right wing of the Labour Party to see the man expelled: “I was forced to confront the reality that I would have to choose between telling our story, the truth, and voicing my political opinions without being called a liar.” Despite her consistent dedication to the left wing of the Labour Party, she chose to tell the truth “even if that meant being called a Blairite.”

While sexual violence is a reality for women in politics, Labour insists that it is the best party for women. This claim means that survivors brave enough to come forward are exposed to uniquely pernicious accusations. An outward dedication to women’s rights and an inward atmosphere of suspicion between the party’s warring factions enables abuses of power against young women on even a local level. Any woman who makes Labour look bad by exposing the behaviour of its male members can be dismissed as a “Blairite”. Etemadzadeh invited Hopkins to Essex’s event to engage with the party’s left, despite being a moderate herself; Leslie and Castell are both self-described socialists, ideologically aligned with Corbyn. But none of these true positions matters to those who would rather not believe survivors, taking any opportunity to look away.

The structure of NCC hearings does not allow complainants to choose their own legal representation. Where cases are escalated to Labour’s national constitutional committee (NCC), the party provides the complainant with a lawyer. Etemadzadeh says that Hopkins’ lawyers put emotional pressure on her by drawing out their first session. She was cross-examined by his team for a whole weekend, with sessions running to midnight; she was called a “liar” and a “fantasist”, and was asked if she was part of a conspiracy against Jeremy Corbyn. Etemadzadeh feels that the party’s power to appoint her legal counsel caused a significant conflict of interest, and that the lawyers the party provided did not properly protect her from attacks made by Hopkins’ legal team. After the hearing had finished, the NCC decided that the trial could not be concluded and the panel would need to reconvene, but Hopkins’ team failed to propose any dates for the trial to restart. When the case was finally reopened in January, just two weeks before the trial was due to take place, Hopkins quietly resigned.

It is no secret to Labour women that if they pursue justice, the personal consequences will be severe, especially if their accusations fall on a big name. Etemadzadeh has even heard from an MP that, according to Kier Starmer, the way her trial was conducted would never stand up in a real court of law. Etemadzadeh’s mental health was severely affected by the procedure, as was her professional life: she had to quit a job after her manager became “difficult” about her accusations against Hopkins. Labour’s procedure damages complainants’ chances of progressing into higher party roles, and deters survivors from coming forward, furthering a culture where authority figures are able to freely misuse their power without being held accountable. The whole procedure seems rigged against survivors.

In 2017, Labour commissioned Karon Monaghan QC to investigate sexual harassment within the party. The party has since updated its complaints procedures to anonymise cases and provide a helpline, but campaigners say this doesn’t go far enough. Ann Black, who currently sits on Labour’s National Executive Council (NEC), says one of the biggest problems is that “the number of complaints far exceeds the capacity of party staff and the NEC to cope.” In Black’s opinion, the party “has to find some way of ‘triaging’ complaints so that those involving sexual assault are dealt with quickly and effectively.” Black says that levels of online abuse are increasing, only adding to the workload of NEC members. Without an overhaul, delays and conflicts of interest will remain problems for years to come.

Grassroots work towards these changes is ongoing. Last year, Leslie founded the STOPIT Labour campaign group. By September, she hopes that the party NEC will have passed a motion to update its procedure. However, this update can only happen if people realise why an independent process is so important. “If we imagine the Labour Party as an office it’s clear as day to see why many people disregard their sexual assault. Not wanting the hassle, they just want to carry on as if it didn’t happen. Deep down, I felt it was easier for my position in the Labour Party to just forget it. It’s horrible that the structures we have built have made it easier to deal with things quietly.”

It is said that change has to come from the bottom up. But in this case, the responsibility falls on the party’s leadership to revert the damage done to Labour’s unity over the last few tumultuous years. When Castell was asked whether she thought her experience could be blamed on a long-lived history of sexism on the left, the response went: “I think the Labour Party and other left-wing circles have a very unique relationship with this culture. The [CLP secretary] was a self-proclaimed feminist, and because of this absolved himself of the reality of his own harmful actions.” Castell stresses the need to challenge men whose abusive behaviour is hidden behind a feminist persona. “Self-identification as left-wing is pointless if you use your power to manipulate and belittle women within your movement.”

Sexism and sexual violence are not problems specific to Labour, yet in no other party are survivors expected to give up their right to justice for the sake of the ‘greater good’. The party in its current state does not have women’s best interests at heart. Etemadzadeh says that Starmer has asked to meet with her, and that he wants to change things for survivors in the party, but words can never be enough.

When asked what the Conservative party does for women, Theresa May replied that it “keeps making them prime minister”. Labour’s success in increasing the number of women in parliament through all-women shortlists proves that leaders can make huge strides towards remedying sexism in their own parties. But in the “boys’ world” of the left, things will only get better for women when those at the top listen to them and implement the meaningful structural change they are asking for.∎


Words by Lauren Shirreff. Art by Nat Cheung.