The 2017 election saw women in parliament break the 200 seat barrier for the first time at 208 seats, beating the previous record of 196. A real change in the ‘boys club’ seems to be coming to British politics, if at a glacial pace.
All women shortlists, used to select senior Labour Party figures including Angela Rayner, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Jess Philips, are an openly praised building block in constructing a future for British politics that better reflects the realities of society. They are, however, a temporary solution to a long-term problem. So, where do we go from here?
When all women shortlists were debated at the 2016 Liberal Democrat Spring conference, a party which at this point was represented in parliament by eight white men, it’s then leader, Tim Farron, implored the members to support a motion to introduce all women shortlists, contending “the time for excuses has gone”.
In a parliament with more women MPs than ever, in a country that is electing more women to positions in local government than ever, the time for excuses has long gone. This is the reason we need to look beyond all women shortlists as a solution to the complex issues limiting talented women candidates in public life.
Providing wider access to political education in schools
Young people are increasingly engaged in politics. Today’s youth will be on the frontline in fights against climate change, terrorism, and the social and health care crisis facing Britain. The 2017 general election showed the power of mobilising the youth vote, with increased youth voter registration contributing to a better than expected result for Labour.
Having led political education and debate sessions, I can tell you it takes about an hour to get a class of 16-18 year olds to understand why they need to register to vote. Two hours would allow you to add a debating session and some simple public speaking training to that session. Add another hour and a half and you can run a local government simulator game, helping them understand the decision making processes behind the running of a small town, and how they can influence them.
That's three and a half hours that could arm young people with a pretty good understanding of their political reality. Most of the talented and brilliant women I have met on the road to standing for election got into local politics because of an issue that grabbed them. Providing political education could be the tipping point that encourages young women to find the issue that kickstarts their career.
The provision of childcare and the use of child friendly venues in British politics
Government has to work around the nine to five pace of modern life. Most councillors serve part-time, and the party machine is driven by volunteers, a vast array of talented people, many of whom with day jobs. This leaves a big childcare hole in the accessibility of politics.
The political social scene, a necessary step for prospective candidates to gain the support of their party and its membership, has an incredible propensity for occurring in various pubs. Pub nights, while a staple in the party political social calendar, are not ideal for the average parent.
More events in the political calendar need to be held in venues suitable for children, including cafes, church halls and parks, to allow more women with children to attend political events and get involved in local and national campaigning.
Beyond that, we also have to consider where we host hustings, and what facilities there are in parliament and local government buildings. How we can adapt these places to ensure they have childcare facilities? This will help us involve women and others with families in the political process and in being able to meet, and be, community representatives.
As a woman navigating the world of local government politics, and the less than glamorous aspects of the selection and election process, I have seen the barriers we face to electing talented women. Great work is happening in branches of political parties across the country to reduce the seemingly endless barriers facing women seeking election, but in a country with a parliament where only 32% of seats are occupied by women, and by councils where only 33% of councillors are women, we clearly still have a long way to go.