Whipped into shape: democracy and workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is not a complicated debate. Few would defend it and most understand the negative impact it can have on people’s mental health and sense of wellbeing.

Any business worth its salt will have a policy on bullying: a clear message that it will not be tolerated and procedures for reporting or disciplining those who are found to be bullies. Yet in Parliament, we constantly see cases of persuasion that resorts to the cruellest of tactics to coerce and bend others to the will of a party. Why is this?

‘Politics,’ people will argue – often politicians – ‘is a rough-and-tumble business, dealing with highly significant issues effecting lives that by their nature are highly contested.’ They will argue that a healthy democracy needs a forum for these issues to be debated in a full-and-frank manner. And when it comes to voting, when open debate must end in choices and numbers of votes, don’t whips have to squeeze people a little to vote one way and not the other? Such party discipline is all part of the parliamentary machinery which sustains our democracy.

Rebel MP Anna Soubry at the House of Commons on Wednesday

The vote on the Brexit amendment (13 December) was just the latest show-down to shine a light on the behaviour of the party whips. Newspaper headlines of MPs reduced to tears and shaking with fear, of the use of ‘bully-boy’ tactics by the whips, of journalistic accusations of ‘rebel MPs’ being traitors. Together, this does look like a moment when our democracy swiftly slid from the use of reason and persuasion to something more ugly. And though this slide may have quickly corrected itself, there remains a lingering question mark over the behaviour of whips. How and why is this behaviour tolerated in parliament? Doesn’t it all seem increasingly out of step with how work, generally, has made bullying such an unacceptable form of behaviour?

Undoubtedly the employment and legal situation of MPs is a major reason for this disparity. Theoretically MPs are employed by the Crown (they are paid by the Crown), yet the Queen cannot direct the work of an MP and has no responsibility to ensure their health, safety or welfare. Without such an ‘ownership’ of risk, is it any wonder that such risks as workplace bullying while inside the Paces of Westminster are not managed or dealt with?

Legally as well, MPs enjoy Parliamentary privilege and immunity for prosecution against slander and libel. This is an important law to ensure that MPs (and Peers) have a space to ‘say anything,’ but this can create a sense of impunity in its members. Members of Parliament cannot be arrested for acts undertaken as an MP within the grounds of the Palace of Westminster, on the condition that such acts occur as part of a proceeding in Parliament.

This is not to say that there are no rules. There is a Code of Conduct, with a committee and its application the responsibility of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Yet the code is very heavily weighted towards ensuring financial probity, and very little on conduct that might impact on someone’s health or wellbeing. The closest the code comes to mentioning bullying or harassment is a requirement that ‘Members shall never undertake any action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its Members generally.’ In other words, not very close at all.

A third element, which is probably at the heart of why whips can act with impunity, is to pick up the original point about the nature of politics. Politics operates in a kind of lawless zone of power and would-be politicians should understand this and accept they are working in a kind of gloves-off arena where the strongest survive. Our body politic can take the punches and is all the stronger for it.

Yet is it? Can we not say that our democracy needs to be based on something better? We need rational debate between representatives who are of ‘good mind,’ and able to work in a fear-free environment. This will require MPs to have a healthy dose of empathy and self-awareness if we are to see reasoned debate that can distinguish between the ‘will of the people’ and any one individual’s claim to speak in the name of such a will. Ignorance of the difference can create bullies at the individual level, and the spectre of despotism at the National.

Matthew Holder is head of campaigns at the British Safety Council