Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Engage, empower and employ

If we are to see more women in our party, and elected as representatives of it, we need to engage, empower and employ.

My granny passed away recently and we said our final goodbye to her this week. She was a lovely lady who did a stint as the tea lady at Killoch Pit in the mid-1940s where she met a strapping young French-Polish lad who had just finished up with the Polish Army and was starting, what turned out to be, 43 years of hard graft down the mines. So when I was asked to write this article I couldn’t help but think about her and her politics.

My granny always voted Labour. She did so because she saw first-hand how hard life could be – the pit, the strike, the poverty and the war all took their toll – and knew that ours was the only party committed to championing the cause of, and providing security for, those who had least. I don’t think she ever became a member and she certainly never contemplated standing as an elected representative. Those weren’t things that appeared to her to be in the reach of women like her. But I know that she sat at home watching the telly with Papa and cried when she saw me make my first speech to party conference in 1997 – it wasn’t just the speech but the fact it was at Labour conference.

I don’t want to live in a society where any woman who shares our values thinks there isn’t a place for them in our party or that somehow elected office is out of their reach. Whether they choose to stand is a different matter and personal choice but I wouldn’t want any woman to think that it wasn’t an option they had. If we are to deliver that we need as a party to be proactively engaging with women at every level, empowering them within our party and making sure we lead by example in our employment practices.

We need to be visible, welcoming and have a policy platform that women will want to vote for if we are to recruit more women into our party. Getting out on the Labour doorstep is a great way of engaging with the electorate but it’s only one tool in our armoury and we will only ever be able to speak to a snapshot of voters this way. So as well as wearing down our shoe leather we also need to be engaged in our own communities, present at local fairs and fetes, leafleting the local transport networks and meeting parents at the school gates – talking about the issues that matter to them and listening to their concerns. None of this is rocket science – it just takes organisation and concerted effort – and many CLPs already do all of these things, but we need to embed these practices in the culture of our party so that proactivity becomes the norm.

We, unfortunately, know that, however far we’ve come, on the whole women still bear the highest burden in relation to child and other caring responsibilities. As a party we need not only to acknowledge that in our policies but also in how we operate as a party. If our women members are going to get involved they, like all others, need to feel welcome and able to participate. But given the additional childcare burdens faced by women this also means that we need to be flexible in how we do things – doorstep sessions need to be scheduled at varied times to give working mums an opportunity to schedule it in alongside school runs and swimming lessons in their pressured diaries; we need to ensure that doorstep activity is not seen as the only measure of campaign activity and that the effort members put into other party activity and elected roles is recognised.

My efforts to engage members of our party have taken me to 99 constituency Labour parties across the country so far and it’s fascinating to see how different local parties operate. One thing that struck me is the huge number of CLPs who have a male CLP chair and a female CLP secretary. As little as 10 per cent of the CLPs I’ve visited had a female CLP chair. I don’t believe this demonstrates a lack of ambition by women in our party but I don’t think it is fair either. CLP secretaries take on one of the most resource-intensive roles any of our volunteers do and get little reward for doing so. Sure, the role is flexible – when you’re juggling a million and one things at once sometimes the wee small hours are the best times to knock out the CLP minutes or draft the next member mailing – but I can’t help thinking that they’re getting the rough end of the deal and that the, very often, collegiate approach of a female chair could help change the tone of some meetings.

I don’t know how many other CLPs are in this position but, given this 99 represent almost a sixth of all CLPs, it’s a difficult number to ignore. At any rate the equality statistics relating to our elected representatives is something that our party should be monitoring so that we can see exactly how many women members are active in their constituencies and in which roles. That would allow us to target our resources where they are needed most in terms of developing women within the party.

I have no doubt that some will argue developing women within their local parties is not a priority, that party structures are dead and the only thing we should concentrate on is getting more women elected. I disagree. I obviously want to see more women elected but I absolutely believe that involvement within our party structures is a good grounding for standing for elected office – the campaigning you do, the friendships you build up, the personalities and the politics that you have to navigate and the policy debates that you have all stand you in good stead for the rigours of elected office and I was proud to campaign for the reintroduction of CLP women’s officer positions at last years conference.

We need to support local campaign forums in reaching out to and training woman members to encourage them to stand in local selections and we need to share good practice where that has occurred. Our national training and Future Candidate programmes are excellent both in content and delivery but we need to do more to encourage women to take up those opportunities. Targeted mailings and all-women training sessions will help but they don’t, I suspect, compensate for the fear of an uneven playing field when it comes to parliamentary selection battles – nothing else can explain the increasing propensity for women members to hold back from standing in open contests and instead wait for all-women shortlists to come up. I was pleased to support the recent reform of our parliamentary selection procedure that shortened the selection timetable and put a cap on the number of pieces of literature that could be distributed but in truth more needs to be done. Any procedure which expects women to effectively give over two months of their life to a process (the procedure obviously doesn’t say that but increasingly it appears to be the unwritten expectation), invest vast sums of money on high spec literature, web presence and door-to-door canvassing of members for votes obviously favours those with money and flexibility rather than those juggling full-time work and family life. That has to change.

Alongside that we need to lead by example in demonstrating that women can get to the top in our organisation. Of our party’s seven executive directors only one of those positions currently is held by a woman and of our 11 regional/national directors only one of those positions is currently held by a woman. So there is more progress to be made and I want to see our party reaching out to and encouraging  women candidates when future positions are advertised.

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Johanna Baxter is a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee. She tweets @Johanna_Baxter and is speaking at next week’s opening plenary session at the Winning With Women conference. Sign up for your ticket here.

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Johanna Baxter

is a member of Labour's National Executive Committee

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