Speech – Where next for women in politics?

I was invited to be part of a panel debating solutions to the absence of women in Parliament in the UK at the Southbank Sex and Power: Where next for women in politics as part of the WOW festival.

Here is the speech I wrote for that event:

Life as a female activist in the Liberal Democrats is very frustrating as I find myself in a party where our female representation has declined since I first got involved in 2005.

This situation has clearly not been helped in recent years by claims of harassment and the failure to promote women to Cabinet positions.

As a result I know many excellent women members who have given up and I don’t blame them. So why not me?

It’s because I believe strongly my party should change, not the women in it. I spent pretty much the entire election period campaigning for our brilliant female candidates and yet not a single one won.

Whilst this can in part be put down to the national picture, it is a worrying trend that for a party that holds so much store in its support for equality that our female representation in the House of Commons has actually been in decline for the last 10 years to the point that it is now non-existent.

Ambitious women should not feel they have to leave the party to be elected and, let’s face it, no-one joins the Liberal Democrats for the easy way to power. But, there are still plenty of reasons women might want to join us:

We are the party that delivered shared parental leave, progress on women on boards, more transparency on the gender pay gap and fairer pensions.
These changes were all led, when they were given the chance, by women in government. Jo Swinson, Jenny Willott and Lynne Featherstone showed that women were just as capable and perhaps, given their lack of status, more than capable of leading the national policy agenda.

It doesn’t seem that it’s a lack of ability that’s the problem, it’s the lack of opportunity.

So how can we change this? For a start the talent pool needs expansion beyond the normal political types.

When I first became active in politics I had very little experience or no encouragement to stand, yet:

  • I stood for council in an unwinnable ward – and won!
  • I worked my way up from ward councillor, chaired scrutiny and then became a cabinet member and group leader.
  • I stood as a parliamentary candidate in 2010 and increased our vote share by 9%.

For someone starting out this can be daunting. I was able to do all this because I could call on more experienced politicians for mentoring.

The effect of this help should not be underestimated, especially when you have senior opposition members, mostly men, attempting to belittle your achievements and work.

As a result I tried to use my experiences to influence other women to get more involved.

  • I approached women who had never thought of politics, let alone being active, to stand as councillors.
  • I headhunted women to put themselves forward as parliamentary candidates.

This approach resulted in the election of several excellent councillors, women who would never have thought about putting themselves forward without positive encouragement.

It shouldn’t be down to individual women to do the heavy lifting. Politics is a team game and it is down to everyone to make a change rather than hope that thinking the right thoughts is enough.

In my party this took the form of congratulating ourselves with the fact that a number of women were selected in seats previously held by men but the support they were given was too little to make a difference.

We got better at selecting women but not electing them.

Our problems as a party go beyond the selection process:-

We have reached a tipping point where many members and not just women want to see direct action. I can see things changing.

  • Tim Farron has started strongly selecting a shadow cabinet with 12 women to ten men.
  • We have selected a female candidate Jane Brophy, in the first by-election this Parliament in Oldham West & Royton – the only major party to do so.

However, there is much more we need to do if we are going to elect women MPs in 2020 and myself and others will keep the pressure up for more action.

  • We need positive action, not discrimination, to select women in our target seats in 2020

I’ve spoken to Tim Farron about this and he has talked about ‘muscular intervention’ which compares with what one former MP called Nick Clegg’s failing strategy of ‘voluntary euthanasia’.

  • Local parties should be required to talent spot and put women forward to a national training programme to be councillors, council leaders and MPs
  • Mentoring from senior members should be offered to all women whether they are starting out or hoping to make that next step up.
  • There should be access to public funding for women wanting to run for office. Failing a political consensus, parties should take their own remedial action.

Politics shouldn’t be the province of men who have exploited the gender pay gap to get a leg up in financing their campaigns.

It is not enough for members to say that they believe in equality.

At all levels in the party from the newest member to the most senior, if they really believe in gender equality they must be able to say what personal action they have taken to encourage it.

If there’s a women you know who would make a great MP or a fantastic party leader isn’t it time you asked her?

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