James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Those working in Westminster and Whitehall consider themselves to be at the centre of national life – and that whatever happens there takes on huge significance for the population at large. And so the sexual harassment scandal unfolding within Westminster is portrayed as a national crisis, with the public watching in horror as their elected representatives are shown to be capable of morally reprehensible and even criminal activity. In reality, this attitude seems unlikely in the extreme.
This is absolutely not to belittle the nature of allegations, many of which are dreadful and for which people are being rightly held to account – either through the law or the court of public opinion. But what’s a genuine and real scandal for those that work in, or comment on, Westminster politics, is likely to be seen as unsurprising by much of the public. Such is the contempt many voters have for Westminster, few seem destined to change their views on the British political scene by all this. After all, it’s not as if voters believe most politicians are more honourable and admirable people than the rest of us. Quite the opposite.
When I moderated focus groups around the time of the MPs’ expenses scandal, it was shocking how little the scandal affected what people thought about politicians, Westminster and the political process more broadly. In practically every group I recruited and ran, people made clear they always viewed politicians as selfish, out of touch and on the take – and the expenses scandal merely confirmed what they already knew. While the reality of life in Westminster changed as a small number of MPs faced criminal charges, and as some faced deselection and internal rules were changed, there was no major shift in public opinion, as public respect and trust was already at rock bottom.
What was true for expenses looks set to be true for sexual harassment. While the most recent polls were undertaken early in the course of this scandal, the polls show headline views on politics haven’t changed. According to Ipsos MORI, who polled between 27th October and 1st November, after Jared O’Mara was suspended by Labour, voting intention by party hasn’t moved, the party leaders’ ratings haven’t moved and the Government’s ratings haven’t moved either. It will be interesting to see if the next polls reveal any change, although it seems unlikely.
While this lack of movement in the headline polls is surely a reflection on the contempt with which politicians are held (and the fact that bad behaviour appears to be evenly spread between the parties), it might also reflect the fact that sexual harassment is something that a very large number of women have direct, personal experience of. A YouGov poll conducted between 18th and 20th October showed around half of women have this direct, personal experience. With this in mind, it will not be a shock to voters that Westminster, run as it is by people they don’t trust or respect, has a problem with it.
The parties have a legal and moral duty to deal with harassment where it appears. But does all this mean, as it stands, that it’s not important politically or electorally? No. The useful polling evidence that has surfaced since the scandal not only suggests that many women have experienced (often regular) harassment in their lives, but that younger and more professional women seem more concerned about it. This strongly suggests that the issue is going to become more important in the future, not less.
But in dealing with the issue, the parties, Government and Parliament need to consider two issues. Firstly, they should be wary of obsessing about what goes on in Westminster, rather than focusing on the issue in the country at large. People will expect wrong-doers in politics to be punished appropriately, but leading an existential conversation on harassment at Westminster will strike many as odd. People don’t hold Westminster up as any sort of beacon.
Secondly, as they set out legal and cultural responses to harassment, they need to find a way to deal with the divide that exists in people’s experiences and perceptions about what constitutes harassment. Voters are united in condemning the most serious harassment. But there are huge differences between older and younger women on what constitutes harassment and unwelcome behaviour, with younger women more likely to view behaviour as being unwanted, and also huge differences between professional and non-professional women on whether they’ve been harassed, with professional women much more likely to say they’ve been harassed. Blanket condemnation of what younger women view as unacceptable will cause problems with older voters who don’t share their views. And discussing harassment as if it’s ubiquitous will not chime with all women. They must keep this in mind as they take action against those in Westminster.