Earlier this week I went along to an event on ‘Women and Politics’ – subheading ‘what will the next government do for women?’ part of the Women of the World Festival. The hashtag was #CountingWomen2015
The venue – The Purcell Room at The Southbank Centre – was packed out and I think they could (and probably should) have have held the event at a bigger venue as it was sold out.
It reminded me of an event I attended about a year ago with Charlotte Henry organised by The Telegraph’s Wonder Women page in that once again it was brimming with intelligent women, passionately interested in politics.
However, yet again, frustratingly from my perspective, there seemed to be an invisible barrier stopping these women getting involved in politics to any greater extent.
The audience listened rapt whilst the usual horrifying statistics were reeled off by an expert panel which included Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society, Stella Creasy MP, Margot James MP and Jo Swinson.
Just 22% of MPs are women, 350 parliamentary constituencies in the UK have never been represented by a woman etc – the numbers were met with murmurs and sighs almost as if they were last week’s winning lottery numbers being read out.
These are the grim facts about politics, but what can WE do about them? seemed to be the speech bubble hanging over the crowd.
Doesn’t it make your blood boil? seemed to be the subtext of the presentation.
Doesn’t it make you want to do something? I thought.
On both occasions I kicked myself (mentally) for not bringing some Lib Dem recruitment forms along.
One audience member suggested that women dump parties altogether and form their own one simply as a vehicle to get heard.
As Jo Swinson MP, one of the speakers commented when challenged by the Chair, esteemed playwright Jude Kelly to come up with ways to give women more influence in the political debate said at one point:
‘You’ve all paid £10 to listen to political debate. That is buy-in [to politics]. Get involved!’
Towards the end of the evening, after recounting a depressing story of one of the three main party leaders giving a talk to a specially assembled group of women at Number 10 (one can only guess it was David Cameron or Nick Clegg) Jude Kelly asked the Panel:
‘What can we [women] do to influence political parties?’
Subtext: when will THEY listen to us.
As I tweeted at the time, I wanted to shout:
As I posted earlier, while women in their thousands UK continue to withdraw and disengage from the political arena it will be easier and easier for political parties to ignore them and marginalise issues they care about.
Why? Because women are just not in the room when they need to be – when political decisions are made and our elected representatives are selected by the chosen few.
When middle-class women in positions of power and influence in the media and the arts (of which Jude Kelly is just one example) shake their heads this just goes to emphasise the overwhelming powerlessness so many women feel about politics. Women who just happen to be chairing debates in an international women’s festival!
This is a ridiculous state of affairs and just adds to the problem of women being largely absent and unheard in British political culture in 2015.
I think women like Jude Kelly and others like her – women in public life, authors and journalists have a responsibility not to put things in the way – inadvertently or otherwise of other women becoming politically active.
I understand and am familiar with the many and varied entirely explicable reasons why women themselves might find it difficult to come forward and get involved in politics. However, I don’t think these alone should prevent women getting involved in some way and influencing decisions – at whatever level.
Not getting involved at all because the current party system is seen to not work for women is not going to help political parties become more women-friendly.
In fact, it makes things harder for those women like me who are trying to change the male-dominated culture of political parties.
We need to get more women into political parties and then into council chambers and then parliaments. Full stop.
I think two things help this process: women seeing other women active in their local area and women encouraging other women to stand.
I found campaigning for another woman in 2005 (Kathy Newbound in Maidenhead constituency) was pivotal in my decision to stand for election to my local council for the first time in 2006.
I think if I hadn’t seen Kathy out pounding the streets – a candidate I could relate to I don’t think I would necessarily have contemplated doing it myself.
I say this because once upon a time I was one of those women who went to debates but never put up my hand. One of those people who had something to say but never said it out loud. And it’s quite possible I may have stayed that way.
I agree with Jo Swinson who said on Monday night that the negative portrayal of politics and politicians relentlessly churned out by the media doesn’t help – in fact it’s part of the problem.
The recent BBC series Inside The Commons series is just one recent example which plays into the all-pervading narrative of most MPs being self-serving more interested in the sound of their own voices than helping their constituents.
It provides the easy get out clause for many people including many women to use disillusionment with our ‘broken political system’ as an excuse not to get involved.
As Jo Swinson also said, and she was the only panellist to say this, political activism can be hugely rewarding and this point is largely missed out by the media and political commentators.
In government as Business minister, Jo has delivered Shared Parental Leave. Something she described as her ‘proudest moment’.
It goes without saying she could have not done this without her involvement in politics and a political party.
This is doing the public and women in particular a massive disservice and it’s time the media and commentators took more responsibility for contributing to the current depressing state of affairs.
I can say that my time as a local councillor was easily the most rewarding, meaningful and worthwhile work I’ve done in my life so far – helping people in need with their housing problems, bringing empty homes back into use, working to ensure care could be provided and afforded for vulnerable elderly people.
And it’s the reason I plan to stand for Parliament again in the future.
To deny the positive aspects of politics is to fail to paint an accurate picture of what being involved in politics can offer the individual and denies thousands of women the chance to have fulfilling political careers.
It also means that as a country we are missing out on the contribution of women to improving our society and our country.
On my way out of the debate I ran into the amazing women who are campaigning for Parliament to be made up of 50% of female MPs. They need 100,000 signatures for a debate on the issue – a debate! With 32 million + women in Britain the least we should be able to do is to have a debate and how we get more women elected. You can sign it here.
I also ran into two young women who want to become councillors. I encouraged them as best I could!
In conclusion, he time for holding one-off events like these repeating the same old stats about women in politics is past.
Politicians and commentators need to stop talking down politics and emphasising disillusionment. Like Harriet Harman in this clip from yesterday…
There need to be fewer furrowed brows and more follow up from women in influential positions who can make a real difference to help more women into power.
We need to harness the interest that (plainly!) exists in politics and give women the tools they need to win.
This must mean an end to cynicism and the beginning of of positive encouragement.
And we need more frequent discussion in the media of the genuine opportunities being involved in politics can bring for all concerned.