Building the sisterhood

The Jo Cox Women in Leadership course is helping women in the Labour party to combat misogyny and intimidation – and to support one another, writes Ashley Dalton

When Jo Cox was elected to parliament in 2015 she was one of 99 Labour women members of parliament and they made up 42 per cent of the parliamentary Labour party. After her brutal murder in June 2016, Labour teamed up with the Jo Cox Foundation and the Labour Women’s Network to create a bespoke and groundbreaking programme, in Cox’s name, to support women in leadership in the Labour party. The intention is to train 600 women drawn from across the party to develop as leaders and take up key roles in CLPs and in local and national political office. The first cohort of that course is about to graduate and a new group of women will be invited to apply in the coming months. Is it worth applying and can courses like this really make a difference or are we just trying to fix the women when what really needs fixing is the system itself?

In the June 2017 election the PLP reached 45 per cent women. Gender parity in the PLP is within sight but while we are celebrating the increased number of Labour women in parliament we are also watching as Kezia Dugdale steps down from leading Labour in Scotland. Whatever the reasons for Dugdale’s resignation Labour has lost its only female leader on a national platform. And what does it say about how the party values women as leaders when, so far at least, all the people cited as possible successors to Dugdale are men?

The Labour Women’s Network has been running aspiring candidates training for years and has some auspicious alumni, including Jo Cox herself. Programmes offer practical guidance and equip women with the skills and networks to forge a path through the political landscape. But as a member of the first cohort of the Jo Cox Women in Leadership course the most valuable thing I have learned is sisterhood. A network of women supporting and encouraging each other. We do this regardless of political faction or political ambition. Sisterhood disputes the notion that there are a limited few places for women in politics and asserts that when we do well we must blaze a trail rather than pull up the ladder.

At the same time politics has become a lonely and a scary place for women. Misogyny and rape threats against women in politics are common place. Harriet Harman champions a ‘one strike and you’re out’ approach. I agree. Anyone that thinks it is okay on Twitter to threaten to rape someone does not deserve the comradeship of our party. Women and men from across the political spectrum need to speak out on social media and reject the behaviour that leads to 10,000 tweets in 3 weeks attacking someone as a ‘slut’ or a ‘whore’.

Reports of misogyny and intimidation from across the party are why I value investment in programmes for women and building the sisterhood. I encourage any woman reading this and wondering how things can change for her in the Labour party to get involved and become a sister and a supporter to other women. Mahatma Ghandi said ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. We are too often prone to stand back and blame the party for its shortcomings but the party is not a separate entity to its members. It does not exist in isolation to us. In the 1970s when we were told to stay indoors after dark we responded with Reclaim the Night; when we were told to stay off Twitter we responded with Reclaim the Internet. With sorority, tenacity and determination we can reclaim the Labour party too.

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Ashley Dalton was Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Rochford and Southend East in the 2017 general election and is on the first cohort of the Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme. She is a committee member of LGBT Labour and chair of Rochford and Southend East CLP and Southend local campaign forum. She tweets at @PieDalton

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