The general election represented a welcome stride forward for the Labour party on women’s representation – but the job is far from done, argues former NEC youth rep Bex Bailey
Labour now has more women MPs than at any point in its history. We must seize on this progress and not stop until we have achieved equal representation, ended sexism and sexual harassment in our party and put these fantastic women MPs on the government front benches.
Following the general election this month, there are 119 Labour women MPs. These politicians constantly prove the need for strong women’s representation. In the last parliament, Paula Sherriff took the government to task on the tampon tax and won. Tulip Siddiq petitioned for mothers’ names to be included on marriage certificates. Marie Rimmer fought for domestic abuse survivors to be able to register to vote without declaring their addresses. These fantastic MPs show us day in and day out the difference women make.
The women elected on 8 June bring a fantastic range of experience to parliament and are just as promising. Ruth George has been a fierce campaigner for women on shop floors who face low pay, insecure contracts and workplace discrimination. Preet Gill, the first Sikh woman in parliament, has led the way for women in local government and worked to tackle sexual harassment in schools. Rosie Duffield, who has been doing the Jo Cox women in leadership training, has been an excellent champion of women in the Labour party.
Like those before them, these fantastic women MPs will be essential in furthering women’s equality legislation. Sadly, they will also have to play an important role in preventing the Tories and the Democratic Unionist party turning back the clock on hard-fought women’s rights, like abortion. To extend, not just defend, women’s rights and have maximum impact, we need to get these great women – and those who missed out at the election – into government.
Importantly, that means we need more women to join them. We cannot let our recent progress allow us think it is job done on women’s representation. Improving the gender balance in parliament will go hand-in-hand with creating a culture in our party that welcomes women.
It is no wonder reaching 50 per cent representation is such a hard slog when women face sexism and sexual harassment at every level of politics. If women do make it to the top they say they feel unsupported and often do not restand for election.
Women parliamentary candidates with children face questions about their ability to do the role. Those without children face questions about their ability to empathise. Men, apparently, are able to work hard and empathise with or without children. Online, women who speak out face abuse. Offline, they face sexual harassment. Sexism thrives in politics – and in our party – and it is shutting women out.
Labour should champion an honest and open culture, where sexism, harassment and intimidation is called out and dealt with fairly – no matter how powerful the person in question is. Thorough codes of conduct should be enforced, online and offline. Training should be given for staff members and elected officials in local, regional and national parties to better prevent abuses before they arise and deal with them fairly when they do. Labour should have independent complaints reporting, so people can have confidence in the system and not fear political consequences of raising concerns. Getting serious about representation means getting serious about the culture in the Labour party that tolerates sexism, sexual harassment and the abuse of women.
It is fantastic that we have more women MPs than ever before. Rather than sit back and celebrate, I hope the Labour party will use this opportunity to get tough on sexism and sexual harassment and make further progress on women’s representation.
Labour women in parliament make a huge difference. Labour women in government will be unstoppable.
Bex Bailey is former youth rep on Labour’s National Executive Committee. She tweets at @bexbailey
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