The morale imperative

In terms of member morale and our reputation the news Lib Dem Peers in the House of Lords had voted for Chris Rennard to the Liberal Democrat’s Federal Executive caused the single most damaging day for the Lib Dems since the General Election.


The fact that this was a self-inflicted wound and one that was entirely avoidable made it even harder to stomach.

The attempts to shrug this decision off by party establishment figures as an internal matter shows they’ve learned nothing from Helena Morrissey’s report. You may think I’m overstating things, but:

Yesterday another one of my friends and longstanding activists Katherine Bavage resigned live on Channel Four News.

This morning I received a text from a longstanding member out of the blue:

‘I have just sent  a protest re: the ridiculous appointment of Chris Rennard…via the Freepost donation envelope that landed on my mat the same day as the news broke. NOT impressed.’

My friend, a former parliamentary candidate and member of Federal Executive, Kav Kaushik put together an online questionnaire that has attracted over 200 responses in less than 24 hours.

A petition organised by other members to call a Special Conference to change the party’s rules has already met the threshold needed to happen.

And a large number of new members in our Newbies Facebook Group, some of the most enthusiastic people in our party, expressed concerns.

A Twitter Poll I ran asking people if they thought Tim Farron should speak out against the appointment came out 84% in favour.

These reactions are just the tip of an iceberg and reflect a widely held opinion within the party. It looks even worse for women outside our party, looking in.

That peers would think there would be no external scrutiny of their action in electing Rennard to the Federal Executive beggars belief.

It’s probably the case that Tim Farron can’t change their decision but he can speak out strongly against it and lay down the direction he wants to lead the party in. It was good to see Sal Brinton respond and express disappointment but for many of us this was far too late to frame the developing media agenda.

A senior campaigner commented on my Facebook posts yesterday that Chris Rennard was the party’s most successful campaigner, almost as though that excuses everything.

Ignoring that there is precious little evidence to show his methods have adapted to the new methods of campaigning, I’m sorry one man, however successful, is not worth the resignations and the rapid demoralisation of hundreds more women and men in our party.


Without them, their energy, their commitment #Libdemfightback cannot happen.

They joined a party they thought would be liberal and democratic.

Transforming the Lib Dems, making us a female-friendly party is about more, much more, than our leader appointing women in reasonable numbers to his shadow team.

It means all of us, from the most senior to the newest member (particularly those Lib Dems that seek to represent others) living by the values we espouse.

Days ago I addressed an audience full of politically active women, many of whom voted Lib Dem at least once and have now joined the Greens, Labour and the Women’s Equality Party.

If you don’t think the Rennard affair affected their perception of our party? Maybe try to talking to one of them. Attempts to squash this debate internally are futile, if we allow those outside the party to draw their own conclusions that in the Lib Dems certain men are more equal than others.

When I woke up this morning I wondered if I could be bothered to go to Oldham on a Saturday in November to spend  7 hours on a train and £65 on the ticket, and then I thought no actually why should we punish the only woman on the ballot paper – our candidate – and all those other volunteers.

If we are going to change the culture in this party we are going to have to stick around and show that we are not going to take no for an answer but that doesn’t mean that we have to be silenced.
I am working hard to get elected as an MP in 2020, to kick the door down and keep it open for others to follow. My priority 2020-2030 will be to get more women elected at all levels and to ensure our next leadership election has women in it.

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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?

My article for #IndyVoices

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.

Labour may not be ready for Liz yet, but women in politics are a step closer to real power

My interest in the Labour leadership contest has ebbed and flowed.

From my perspective, the most interesting candidates for both leader and deputy leader roles have been the women. Yeah, I’m biased.

I was gutted there were no women to vote for in the Lib Dem leadership contest.I’m not expecting any of Labour’s female leadership or deputy candidates to win necessarily but by standing for these offices they have helped further the cause of women in politics not just in Labour, but beyond.

They have shown in their different campaigns, policies and leadership styles that there is more than one type of female politician, women are capable of leading a major political party and being ambitious to win elections is a strength and not a weakness.

This might seem obvious but looking around across the political spectrum there are still too few prominent female politicians. We are nowhere near 50% representation in Parliament.

Despite the higher profile of women in politics it is still no walk in the park succeeding as a woman Helen Lewis pointed out in her excellent expositon of the countless structural barriers women face a few weeks ago.

Turning to the Labour leadership contest, the lack of receptivity, actually, downright hostility towards having women in positions of power that still exists in large parts of the Labour party has been revealing to say the least.

So here are my thoughts on the contest.

Although Liz Kendall could not perhaps match the initial excitement of the early days of her campaign, she would still be my first choice.

7-Liz-Kendall-Get

In terms of her personal style, I loved Liz’s -bloody-mindedness. I love the fact that she announced her candidacy within days of Labour’s defeat and did not wait to be asked. In doing so she made  her male rivals look positively dozy.

When voices (and mainly male) within her own party was calling on Liz to pull out she didn’t. ‘I’m in the race to win!’ was a her response, which admittedly sounded more forlorn as the contest wore on, and she was left trailing further and further behind.

I meet a lot of people through my involvement with politics and too often I find they lose sight of the need to actually win elections in order to implement policy.

This realism is one of Tim Farron’s strongest suits and something he emphasised when he was elected a few weeks ago.

Liz has been attacked for being unprincipled but as Isabel Hardman has pointed out this is nonsense:

The fact that Liz’s focus on the need to beat the Tories in 2020 ended up with her being labelled a Tory by some Labour ‘supporters’ is pretty ironic

In terms of policies, the one Liz put forward which appealed to me the most was her focus on early years education.  Hardly surprising – it’s Lib Dem policy! In fact, most of Liz’s strongest and most attractive-sounding policies are already Lib Dem policy:

Three months ago, a few days after the general election I bumped into Nick Clegg at a #LibDemPint meetup organised by new Lib Dem members in London. ‘Liz Kendall is a Lib Dem!’ were his exact words at the time.

Other things I liked  about Liz was her willingness to speak up about sexism in politics in places like Grazia Magazine and online.

As someone who has experienced ageism when I was a councillor it is incredibly inspiring to see a young woman putting herself forward for a senior role in politics. Liz is part of a new confident generation of women in politics – unafraid of talking about her love of hip hop alongside her interest in policy. She is breaking down barriers for the rest of us to be ourselves.

This leads me on to my other fantasy selection in the leadership contest – Stella Creasy.
Creasy

I met Stella last year at the Women of the World Festival (below). Although I found the event as a whole itself quite frustrating (I blogged about it here) I found Stella inspiring and interest to listen to.

With Stella Creasy and Margot James at the WOW Festival in London, 2014.

With Stella Creasy and Margot James at the WOW Festival in London, 2014.

Stella approaches the issue of women in politics differently than I do but I think we’re on essentially the same mission. She spoke powerfully about being selected as an MP in an all-woman shortlist – she said all of  the women on the list could be described as the brightest and best. She blew a hole in the idea that AWSs means tokenism and not giving members the chance to picking the best candidates.

Well before she put herself forward to be deputy leader I’ve admired Stella from a distance. I have experienced her primarily through her tweets. It’s true, we like a lot of the same music but that’s not the only reason.

I like the way Stella, like Liz, doesn’t try to conform to lazy stereotypes about what politicians should be like or how women in public life should behave.

I like the way she calls out sexism wherever she finds it. This gives other women, including me confidence. Stella wrote a fantastic article in Grazia about women in politics:

‘My mother taught me to put my money where my mouth is and not to expect to do it alone. So, I’m standing for a leadership role myself, not because we need just one more woman, but many. It is not my ambition to speak for them, but to find new ways to get more women from a wider range of backgrounds into public life because we will all benefit from the contribution they will make. To do that, politics has to stop being about a machine that turns up at election time, and become a movement where everyone feels welcome and able to participate. That especially means those currently locked out. It’s time we stopped asking nicely for change, and refused to accept the status quo. If you feel the same, get in touch – because however we cut our hair, we are mad as hell about inequality and not going to take it any more.’

I get a lot of young women approaching me online for advice about getting into politics. Without wishing to sound arrogant they look up to me. It gives them confidence to know that I got elected and that I rose to be a senior councillor. I’ve mentored a number of people and persuaded other women to become councillors and run for Parliment. If we are going to elect more women we need to have plenty of female role models – of all ages and from all backgrounds.

With Rebecca Rye on her election to Reading Borough Council in 2010.

With Rebecca Rye on her election to Reading Borough Council in 2010.

For me it’s the same looking at Liz and Stella. We need more female role models in politics. Throughout my career Lynne Featherstone has been a huge inspiration to me – seeing her out there doing politics at the highest level, following through her  own ideas has been really important for me.

Campaigning with Lynne Featherstone in Reading in 2007.

Campaigning with Lynne Featherstone in Reading in 2007.

Throughout this contest Stella and Liz have been attacked for being inexperienced. Women get this in politics all the time while men don’t to anything like the same extent. William Pitt The Younger was 24 when he became Prime Minister ffs!

It’s looking highly unlikely that either Liz or Stella will get elected but they have broken the mould and helped pave the way for other young women to get ahead in politics – thank you to them.

Finally, a word on Yvette Cooper.

Yvette Cooper

Instinctively, I am not a fan of Yvette. This stems primarily from the authoritarian, tabloid-friendly policies she was responsible for when she was Home Secretary. She never struck me as particularly likeable either but I’m starting to think that is more as a result of over-caution on her part. She got elected before the age of social media and has kept her personality largely under wraps.

However, have always admired Yvette for all she has achieved in her career. Reading this Guardian profile in July  you couldn’t fail to be impressed (again) by her CV:

‘Hers is a life and political career punctuated by firsts – a first in PPE at Oxford, the first female minister to take maternity leave, the first female treasury chief secretary, and now the ambition is to be the first female Labour leader and first Labour female prime minister.’

On paper, Yvette is the best qualified candidate by a mile. However, as Jenni Russell pointed out on Murnaghan on Sky News today she has spent so long trying not to say the wrong thing her campaign never caught fire and she came over as lacking ideas and passion.

I’m sure that Yvette is right about the deep sexism in the Labour party. I’ve seen it at local level. But unfortunately the way she tried to throw Andy Burnham under the bus just came over as a Brownite tatic not principle.

Over the past week Yvette has finally found her voice –  on the refugee crisis:

But it feels like this has been too little too late to stop Jeremy Corbyn. As others have observed Yvette needed to find this passion much earlier but it seems it was just too deeply buried all these years.

How ironic, that for ‘Blair’s Babe’s to be successful they had to stay silent.

This week marks Harriet Harman’s last week as acting Labour leader:

Let’s hope it’s not too many years before a women takes a helm of that party, if it survives this weekend’s results.

I’m not a Labour supporter, clearly. Whoever wins the Labour leadership and deputy leadership elections I’d like to see as many Labour members and MPs as possible leave their party and join the Lib Dems.

However, as young woman in politics who sees a future for herself in Parliament some day I’m grateful to Liz, Stella, Yvette and Caroline for standing in the Labour leadership elections and in doing so moving women collectively one step closer to equality.

I don’t see any of these women going quietly or fading into the background.

No matter what our politics, it’s up to us all to talk up women in politics and get more women into positions of power and influence within in political parties.

We should refuse to accept the status quo with women largely playing second fiddle to men in mainstream English political parties.

In the future, at least by the time my nieces are old enough to vote we should expect all party leadership contests to involve more women and for women party leaders to be the norm.

This won’t happen unless we who are active in party politics make it happen.

Female Labour leadership hopefuls, this one’s for you:-