Theresa May should launch a formal investigation into sexism and racism in her party
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott has warned that endemic abuse may deter young women from becoming involved in politics, describing the racism and sexism she has endured in the last week as a ‘perfect storm’.
Much of that abuse came from online trolls and bigots, and politicians across the spectrum have rightly committed to tackling online harassment.
However, in her article for the Guardian Abbott also references three separate incidents of inappropriate behavior by elected Conservative politicians, about which the government party has been remarkably silent.
Firstly, she mentions the Conservative councillor who retweeted an image of Abbott as an ape with lipstick. Secondly, she cites the ‘misogynist text exchange’ involving senior cabinet minister David Davis. And thirdly, she points to the experience of another female MP of colour, the SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, whom Tory grandee Nicholas Soames barked at while she was speaking in parliament.
Now, the individuals involved in each of these cases have either apologised (Davis and Soames) or been suspended (the councillor). But dealing with the individual incidents is not good enough.
These stories reflect a systemic problem within the Conservative Party, whereby racist and sexist behaviour is considered acceptable — even by those at the highest levels of government. When issuing the Brexit secretary’s ‘apology’, a spokesman said the text exchange was private and ‘self-evidently jocular’.
Are we to understand that such comments are commonplace in private Tory exchanges? If so, that has serious implications for the way they view female or BME colleagues and should be investigated.
Last year, Conservatives of all levels were quick to slam the Labour Party over allegations of anti-Semitism within the party ranks. Labour, rightly, took those allegations seriously and launched a full-scale review. While the Chakrabati Report has its faults, it acknowledged the immense damage that any form of prejudice does to our political system.
Theresa May loves to brag about her party’s record of female prime ministers, and her own record of encouraging women in politics.
Faced with this serious charge — that the behaviour of senior Tories could deter women from becoming involved in politics — the prime minister should launch a formal investigation.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterSign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.