I sent this to Indy Voices before Labour’s best qualified candidate for London Mayor (Tessa Jowell who just happens to be a woman) was passed over yesterday.
Andy Burnham’s comment on Radio Five Live about having a woman leader of the Labour party “when the time is right” perhaps gave away more than he intended. The lack of a career path and successful role models are perhaps the two biggest hindrances to ensuring that talented women wish to enter politics. It is a time-consuming and expensive business and it is no surprise a lot of women find that they have better things to do.
When only 1% of the total electorate is an active member of a political party – down from a high water mark of 3.8% in 1983, it is fair to say that party politics is still officially a minority interest sport and with the preferred career path being straight from university to special advisor or via patronage is it no wonder that women are finding it difficult to get the all-important political experience to work at the top level?
If we want to increase the number of female representatives in Parliament we need to look at the ground floor – local councils, where many women, like me, cut their political teeth. Yet at last count, just 30% of all councillors were women and most of them are over fifty.
I was first elected in my twenties as a councillor I had a 9 to 5 job and a 3 hour daily commute. I was in most ways typical of many of my constituents and especially of young working women. Yet I was made to feel uncomfortable for asking council officers to hold policy briefings after work.
I was attacked in the local press by Labour councillors, ironically many of them trade union officials, and retired Tory councillors for being a part-timer when they could offer ‘full-time’ representation. If there was any way of ensuring it continued to be “jobs for the boys”, that was it.
Even a rare evening off from a council meeting to go to a Radiohead concert made the local press. It’s almost as though they didn’t want real people on the council and especially not young women.
There are still very few role-models for women in British politics. Nicola Sturgeon, speaking to Vogue magazine, had to look abroad to Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel for hers. In my party I have looked to Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson as mine, yet in the last Parliament, neither was promoted to Cabinet level despite being as good or better than some of their male counterparts; and I know from speaking to other activists in my party how demoralising that message was for women at all levels.
One female Prime Minister does not mean we have equality, in the same way that having a black President hasn’t rolled back years of racial inequality in the United States.
We need all types of women to get involved in politics to open up politics to all women.
It looks like Labour, the main opposition party will not elect a woman on Saturday, despite the advent of all-women shortlists.
By standing for leadership positions in their party Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Stella Creasy have helped raised the expectations of young women across the political spectrum, but with the usual sexism about children or lack of, at times it seems, sadly, the debate has not moved on from Andy Burnham’s put down. As one Labour supporting political commentator said, if you want a woman leader, you have to vote for one.
Laura Bates author of‘Everyday Sexism’ last year talked about going into schools and asking kids to draw pictures of MPs – they all drew pictures of men. When my nieces are old enough to vote I want them to see politics as women’s business.
I sat through a debate last year where frustrated women complained that no-one listened to them and a few days later the Women’s Equality Party was formed. Women should not have to set up their own party to be represented. If we want women to succeed in politics we need to promote them, vote for them and elect them as our leaders in our parties too.