Equality, Diversity and the Speaker of the House of Commons

Originally posted 28th May 2012

On Friday 25th May I was fortunate enough to co-chair an event featuring the Rt. Hon. John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. For those who aren’t sure the Speaker of the House of Commons is that fellow who sits in the big chair in the House of Commons and tells MP’s off when they over step the mark (like when David Cameron called Ed Balls a ‘muttering idiot’ on PM’s question time last week). His role is to stay impartial and maintain order. As well as this he’s also doing some rather excellent work with the Parliamentary Outreach service to help improve public engagement in politics and improve equality and diversity in the House itself.

The event in question was a W.A.I.T.S (Women Acting in Today’s Society) Policy Forum on the opportunities for and barriers facing women wanting to get involved in politics (see my previous blog post http://henshouse1.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/whats-problem-women-in-politics.html for a brief overview of the situation). Aside from Mr Speaker being delayed in traffic and arriving half an hour late the event was a great success, with the Policy Forum speakers and Mr Speaker himself delivering engaging, informative and occasionally amusing speeches and deftly answering challenging questions.

Our first speaker was Sharon Thompson. Sharon is currently a magistrate and has a vast amount of first-hand experience of the issues women, and especially mothers, face with wanting to get involved in politics. The key points that I took away from her presentation were:
1) There are two kinds of women local parties need to consider: those that are already engaged in politics and those that would make a fantastic contribution to the political scene but feel that they lack the knowledge (‘I don’t watch the politics show!’), skills or ability to make it. To help engage these women we need more successful female politicians to act as mentors and ‘pass the baton on’ to the next aspiring generation and more family and female friendly events. Things like low key, welcoming coffee mornings where women can get together in a friendly environment and chat about what makes them tick and how they can get more involved in party politics.

2) Parties need to raise awareness of political positions beyond just councillors and MP’s. Sharon made the point that there are loads of local party positions (such as women’s officer) that can represent fantastic ways for women who are interested in politics to gain a bit more experience without being shoved in at the deep end of the  MP or Councillor candidate selection and campaigning process. But hardly anyone knows about them.

Our next speaker was Ally Sultana. Ally is the Coordinator for Saheli Women’s Group Empowerment Project which works to increase the understanding of politics and political structures amongst women in South Birmingham. She spoke passionately about the importance of politics and the difficult experiences of the women she had delivered training to on how to become a local councillor.
1) Ally began by talking about the experiences of the women she had worked with, saying that it’s not just the women who have to change but the parties themselves. After helping deliver training to South Birmingham women on how to become a local councillor, in line with parliamentary guidelines on the matter, many of the women were put off the political process by the in-fighting, pettiness and bickering that they had witnessed. If parties are serious about improving equality and diversity in their numbers, they need to be serious about changing their ways too.

2) Next Ally made the point that, if you’re going to run for candidacy you need to 1) know yourself and be confident that whatever the barrier you can get through, 2) build a vast support network around you. It’s a tough process and will involve a load of highs and lows, so you really can’t do it alone. Despite these difficulties and barriers, though, Ally concluded with an impassioned plea to the audience: get involved. Things won’t change until we make it happen so whatever you come up against, keep going and it’ll be worth it in the end.

Our final W.A.I.T.S Policy Forum speaker was Nura Ally. Nura is currently the Community Development Officer for the Hodge Hill constituency and founder and director of the Allies Network; a community organisation set up by women for disadvantaged women from ethnic minority backgrounds and communities in the West Midlands. She had some interesting advice and feedback based on her own experiences of competing for candidate selection:

1) The ‘tick box’ approach to equality is not always helpful. Nura felt that during the selection process there was far too much emphasis placed on the external qualities gender, race, sexuality, and not enough on what an individual can truly offer. She believed that a stronger set of guidelines to go alongside the process, weighting the importance of these external qualities against the individual’s personality and experience would help make the system fairer for all.

2) Like Ally, Nura called for all of the assembled audience to get more involved. Her own experiences may not have been difficulty free but that does not change that fact that she believes that it is every woman’s (and man’s) civic duty to get involved in politics. She asked that every audience member join a political party of their choice and start participating as it’s only through participation that change is going to occur.

Our final speaker of the morning was Mr Speaker himself, the Rt. Hon. John Bercow MP. Mr Bercow attended the W.A.I.T.S Policy forum as part of a series of events he was participating in in Birmingham that day as part of the Parliamentary outreach programme, aiming to bring Parliament to the people and helping make national politics national, not just London centric. The main theme of his speech was what Parliament is already doing, and what still needs to be done, to help make it more accessible to women.

1) He discussed changes he had insisted on already such as the creation of a nursery within the Houses of Parliament to help female employees and MP’s with young children. He also referred to the creation of ParliAble (a Parliamentary Disability Equality Network) and ParliOut (a support group for LGBT individuals) before talking about the female ‘movers and shakers’ of Parliament.

2) He then referred to what he felt were still key barriers facing women wanting to get involved in politics. First the anti-social work hours (on Mondays and Thursdays, for instance, Parliament opens at 2:30pm and ends at 10:30pm) which he felt should be swiftly dealt with. Secondly the ‘ya-boo’ (heckling) atmosphere of the House of Commons itself and the masculine ‘boys club’ attitude it can portray, which he hopes will be changed by more women striving to become candidates and thus more women making it into Parliament.

After this we moved onto a brief question and answer session in which the assembled audience excelled, asking tough and poignant questions and suggesting improvements to the system Mr Bercow should take back with him to Parliament. There were too many to list here so here’s just a few:

1) Job share MP’s? One lady had an interesting suggestion: in order to make high profile political positions more attractive to women Parliament could look a job share scheme. She argued that many women, especially in the public sector, manage to juggle advancing their careers with looking after young children by opting in to a job share position, so how about applying the idea to MP’s, divvying up the role so that one individual does the local constituency work and the other the Westminster role/varying combinations of the two?

2) How can we guarantee that the hard work Mr Speaker has put in to improving equality and Parliament outreach will be continued by his successor? This highly apt question had a very simple answer from Mr Bercow: we can’t. But on the plus side he plans on sticking around for a good few more years.

3) The selection process for MP’s is ridiculously expensive, requires a large amount of travelling and favours candidates with public speaking training and experience (i.e. private school or Ox-Bridge), what about a hardship fund and how about making the selection process as much about the person’s other abilities as it is about public speaking? Mr Bercow agreed with this statement but discussed the difficulties of getting either Parliament (and the public) to agree to putting a portion of tax payer’s money aside to help candidates of any party in dire financial need, or individual parties to put a portion of their funds towards an in party scheme.

At this point Mr Bercow was whisked off to his next appointment, already a little on the late side, and myself and the assembled audience were left to reflect on what had been said and what still needs to be done.

For me, I was personally genuinely impressed with Mr Bercow’s down to earth, often amusing approach to his role as speaker and his dedication to going out in to the community to engage with harder to reach groups. However, despite the leaps being made forward, I was left feeling that the fight for more women in Parliament is still an uphill struggle. Mr Speaker himself stated that just getting a nursery facility in place in Parliament came up against opposition and apathy, with many colleagues complaining ‘there’s nowhere we could put one’ (a statement proved glaringly untrue by the fact that there is now one in place). Likewise, the W.A.I.T.S Policy Forum speakers all depicted an image of local party politics that really needs to make more of an effort to become more approachable for women in ways that really would not require too much effort on their half (coffee mornings, mentoring, family friendly event times, fairer selection process). 93 years on from when the first female MP took her seat the proportion of women in Parliament remains stubbornly at just 22%. Only 37 out of Birmingham’s 120 local councillors are female. I’m very glad that someone is standing up for common sense policies to get more women involved in the political process but there’s a heck of a lot more work still to be done.

Fortunately the W.A.I.T.S Policy forum speakers seem more than willing to take on the challenge. Sharon, Ally and Nura are all carrying on their fantastic work either by running for political roles themselves or helping many other women discover their potential and take on greater roles of responsibility. On top of this in the post event networking several of the audience members declared their intention to get more involved in local politics and even go for candidate selection before the next local election too. We need more dedicated and inspiring women like these to keep building up the momentum and pushing for positive change in the UK. Luckily for us, if this event is anything to go by, we’ve got them in abundance.

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