The vulnerability of political staff should worry us
Last week my colleague and I – after we’d stopped screaming like girls - had cause to put a call into the Parliamentary Rodent Dude. Amid a wide ranging discussion on a number of issues, and a free and frank exchange of views on the state of our office, I asked for reassurance that Fortesque the Mouse was definitely a mouse, and not a rat. I hate rats.
Did you know that Parliament doesn’t have a rat problem? I’d always assumed that, given how close we are to the river and all the food knocking around, that the building would be home to ratty blighters the size of badgers. Apparently not. They are here, of course, but not in the numbers you’d expect.
When the allegations against Lord Rennard surfaced last week, there was quite a lot of knowing nods and winks. Well, everyone knows politicians are all at it, don’t we? They’re not known for their morality (expenses scandal, anyone?) and as they’re away from the duly designated spouse in the week it gives them the perfect opportunity to get handy with some ambitious Jocasta from the typing pool. She’s not going to complain, as she wants to keep her job and maybe get a promotion into the bargain. Makes sense, right?
This view is borne out by my Total Politics colleague, Felicity Parkes who seems to accept it not so much as a fact of life but as a rich opportunity. “I don’t turn my nose up at men and women who use flirtation as a tool of the trade – if you’ve got the body confidence then go for it.”
It’s this kind of idiocy – apologies, Felicity, but it really is – that creates myths about MPs who abuse their position and makes addressing the real problem more difficult. For a start, I am not sure what sort of “career advancement” these mystery young temptresses identified by Felicity are hoping to achieve. We are bag-carriers. There is no promotion. That’s one of the soul-destroying things about working here. You come, you work, you may get a couple of modest pay rises and a change of job title which actually means nothing, and you leave. That’s it. This isn’t the West Wing. We don’t start off as Donna and end up as Leo McGarry in this place, and no number of quickies with random backbenchers is going to change this.
Of course, there are people here whose aesthetics outstrip their intellectual abilities, just as there those who have been promoted beyond their ability because of their connections. This is as true in politics as it is elsewhere, but titillating twittering about Parliamentary naughty times with sexually feral researchers on the lookout to attract a powerful politician with a quivering thigh is like the rats: simply assumption and not borne out by the available evidence.
However, the real problem lies with the personal power that MPs have over their staff. This is something that needs to be addressed urgently. Bag-carriers are employed by their boss who is their line manager, HR department, and chief executive. If we have a problem with our employer, we have nowhere to go. IPSA pay our wages but do not oversee our working life. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has no remit in this area. Consequently, bad behaviour from our MP, sexual or otherwise, is not subject to the usual remedial measures required by law in other companies, which would be ironic if it wasn’t so appalling.
In short, if our boss is an arse, we either try and handle the misery or we walk. And if you want to make a career in politics, the latter is often not a desirable outcome especially if you consider that even if you do leave, you’re reliant on your MP for a reference. Politicians have a great deal of power over their staff, without any kind of consequent responsibility.
“It is hard to judge the extent of these problems because people who work for MPs have strong natural loyalty both to their MP and to their political party, so may well not wish to speak out,” says Max Freedman, chair of the Parliamentary branch of Unite the Union. “But we believe that instituting a proper, independent grievance procedure would at least give staff the confidence that if they raised complaints these would be fairly addressed.”
I’ve been extremely lucky with my bosses so never had to avail myself of Max’s services and most MPs I know are not the stereotype beloved of lazy journalists making up for their lack of copy by a bit of politician-bashing. But the fact remains that something needs to be done. Is it really correct in this day and age that bag-carriers bear a similar relationship to their employer as a twelfth century serf did to the lord of the manor with roughly the same number of rights?
The situation is ripe with the opportunities for abuse be it the unwanted attentions of a sweatily enthusiastic boss, demands to work unreasonable hours, summary dismissal, or the whizz of a stapler thrown in anger.
Maybe the Rodent Dude was wrong about rats in this place after all.