Jonathan Bartley

Why Cameron is half right about the need for a bullying Inquiry

By Jonathan Bartley
February 22, 2010

The Conservative leader is right that we need an Inquiry. He is wrong that it should be narrowly confined to the alleged goings on at Number 10.

If David Cameron really cared about "stamping out bullying" as his endorsement featured on the Home page of the National Bullying Helpline suggests, he would call for an Inquiry into the whole bullying culture at Westminster.

There is of course no evident political appetite for it. The Tories want to keep the focus narrowly on Brown. This could have also been a golden opportunity for Nick Clegg to make an intervention along such lines. He seems to have missed it. And with even the Church of England in no position to speak out either - with its own bishops the subject of bullying allegations – it looks as if no one will seize the moment.

Which is a shame, because everyone it seems is now intent in pointing out where the bullying is taking place. News outlets are starting to examine again how widespread workplace bullying is generally. John Prescott has even been tweeting away incessantly about the culture of bullying led by former News of the World editor Andy Coulson - now Cameron's head of communications.

Prescott believes that the Tories should have a long hard look at their own staff. But it is the whole political system that should be scrutinised. This is one thing you would think could now be agreed on. But this would not be dealt with by the narrow inquiry of the type Cameron is calling for, which wants heads to roll (and preferably the Prime Minister's).

The kind of thing the Tory leader is calling for is more a part of the problem than the solution. What is not needed is more blame. The bullying culture - so ingrained in Westminster life that hardly anyone notices it anymore - goes hand in hand with the blame culture that hounds people out of office. It is allied with a lack of forgiveness over the acceptability of making mistakes, and the intolerance and impatience which are features of Britain’s public life. It is little wonder if such things spill over into personal behaviour in newsrooms, party HQs and MPs' offices every now and then.

The presence of more women in Parliament was supposed to help address this. Perhaps it has. But the system is strong, and most political people do not know how to deal with conflict, let along challenge it, without resorting to more of the same. They are patterned into a set of behaviours based around defensiveness and a desire to dominate.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) defines bullying as: “Behaviour by an individual or group, usually repeated over time, that intentionally hurts another individual or group, either physically or emotionally.”

As the NHS website points out bullying can take many forms from teasing and spreading rumours downwards. "It includes name calling, mocking...gossiping, excluding people from groups, and threatening others." A common feature is also the use of power.

According to such a defintion, there's an awful lot of it about at Westminster. Indeed, we might say the system is built on it. Much is deliberately sanctioned, whether it be in the whipping system or the activities of political parties aimed at their opponents.

MPs often insist that a great deal of cross-party work goes on behind the scenes. It is true that it happens on some issues. But in the day-to-day mainstream business of party politics it is more often than not conspicuous by its absence. Take for example the recent chaotic struggles to build a cross party consensus around care for the elderly. It has taken the intervention of external agencies to bring it about, and its future is by no means certain.

Party politicians would benefit hugely from learning skills of mediation and conflict management, and these will need to come from outside the political system. Big business and many in the public sector, have been learning over the last few years how important such things are. They have been implemeting programmes of training which have helped to create productive and positive cultures. But this is just one of many measures that need to be explored. An inquiry to identify and evaluate the extent of the problems would be a first step. Only then can the necessary reform be pusued toward creating a culture that rewards virtue.

The prospect of a hung Parliament makes this all the more urgent. Our system is not currently one in which values of consensus and coalition can exist happily, let alone flourish.

[Update 17.05 The Times is now reporting that the head of the union for civil service mandarins has alleged that bullying is rife across Whitehall]

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.