Anyone who’s experienced workplace bullying will know it can become all-consuming: the intimidation and humiliation invade your psyche, spilling over into every area of your life so you’re miserable round the clock. That’s the thing about bullying: it cannot be reduced to a particular incident and how it feels in the moment. It’s a pattern of behaviour, which can have a greater cumulative effect on an individual than separate acts of unpleasantness.

The reaction to findings of bullying by former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab shows just how poorly understood this is. Lawyer Adam Tolley KC was asked by the prime minister to conduct an investigation into Raab’s conduct after several official complaints were made about his behaviour during his time in charge of the Ministry of Justice and the Foreign Office. Last month Tolley concluded that, while he could not uphold all the complaints against Raab, the deputy PM had acted in a way that intimidated civil servants through “unreasonably and persistently aggressive conduct,” with an “unwarranted punitive element,” and that his conduct was “inevitably” experienced as undermining or humiliating. He was clear that the need to protect the identity of the complainants meant his report contained limited information about his findings.

That didn’t stop pundits and politicians poring over what was in the report to question whether this could be really said to constitute bullying. Column inches and talk-show chat were given over to debating whether Raab had been hard done by and was right to claim the bar for bullying had been set “too low”. Should civil servants be able to tolerate harsh critical feedback and a cabinet minister publicly questioning their compliance with their employment contract? Cue plenty of snarky comments about thin-skinned civil servants.

But this spectacularly missed the point. Tolley wasn’t giving a blow-by-blow account of what happened, but making an informed and impartial judgment call about the impacts of Raab’s behaviour. Acting in a punitive way that humiliates junior colleagues is an abuse of workplace power dynamics: it is totally unacceptable conduct that can have a pernicious impact on the wellbeing of others at work.

There are useful parallels to be drawn with coercive control in domestic abuse. While bullying is not defined in law, coercive control is a pattern of behaviour that has been defined in criminal law since 2015. This creates challenges in a criminal justice and family courts system where it is easier, in relative terms, to establish the facts about whether a particular incident did or did not take place than it is to make judgment calls about behavioural patterns and relationships – about what is unacceptable and even criminal, and what is OK.

Unfortunately, bullying investigations necessarily involve an element of subjectivity

Workplace bullying investigations can face similar complexities. It is not simply about whether or not someone committed a particular action on a particular day, but how their behaviour generally fits into workplace relationships, and the impact it has on others. Workplace bullying always come in shades of grey rather than black and white.

There is perhaps no greater indictment of how toxic the workplace culture can be in Westminster and Whitehall than the fact that former Commons Speaker John Bercow – the man ultimately in charge of professional standards for the whole institution – was found to be a serial liar and bully by a watchdog in 2022. The inquiry noted that, were he still in post as an MP, his behaviour would have resulted in expulsion from Parliament.

Unfortunately, bullying investigations necessarily involve an element of subjectivity, which means that any findings of wrongdoing will invariably be discredited and undermined by the political allies of men like Bercow and Raab.

Putting the I into idiotic

Last month the Conservatives had to apologise for putting out a leaflet in Norwich that wrongly told people they did not need to take any form of ID along to vote ahead of May’s local elections. That’s no longer the case, thanks to reforms introduced by none other than the Conservative government which require all voters to show specific forms of photo ID before being allowed to cast their ballot.

Ministers claim this is about combatting electoral fraud. But the Electoral Reform Society says in-person electoral fraud is an incredibly rare crime because it would be so easy to spot if committed on the scale actually needed to fix an election. There were only two convictions between 2010 and 2018. And these reforms risk disenfranchising millions of voters: 2.1 million people do not have a form of photo ID that would enable them to vote. Ethnic minority Britons, people with learning disabilities and young people are disproportionately affected.

Since January they have been able to apply for a new form of free voter ID, a voter authority certificate. But it has emerged that only four per cent of that large group of people without photo ID have done so. And there has been no transition period during which people turning up to vote are told they will in future need to bring ID. This “solution” to a virtually non-existent problem will make it harder for some people to exercise that most fundamental of democratic rights, to vote.

Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist

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Columns, Home Front, May 2023

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