The Labour Party has a reputation for getting women into parliament. We are the party of all women shortlists after all. But when we talk about representation we think about councillors and MPs. We do not think about our staffers: the people behind the scenes constructing press releases, creating manifestos, offering advice to MPs and writing policy briefs.
On Tuesday night, Women 50:50 hosted a panel on ‘Backroom Boys’, chaired by Kezia Dugdale who kicked off the event by acknowledging the problem of hiring an almost all male top team on the Scottish Labour staff this summer. In the Scottish Parliament, just 22% of special advisors have been women. Across UK Labour, women are vastly underrepresented in important staffing roles, particularly in policy, press and as special advisors.
Why is this? Firstly, women lack confidence in applying for top positions. Research shows that whilst men will apply for jobs they meet 60% of the criteria of, women feel they must tick every single box.
There are also cultural issues. This summer, Jeremy Corbyn received backlash for suggesting we should ban after work drinks as they ‘benefitted men … and discriminated against women who will want to, obviously, look after the children they have”. A poorly communicated message, but hidden within, an important point that should not have been written off by Labour moderates. After work drinks can serve to alienate women. A group of men sat round a table, pint in hand, all in suits, can be just as off-putting as a panelled chamber filled with jeering, loud egos. Of course, here is where much of the networking is done. Here is where John gets to know Robert and suggests to David that he might be good for that new position that’s about to find itself vacant but won’t be advertised on w4mpjobs.org. Labour also needs to develop its staff better. At National Labour Conference this September, the announcement of a programme to train more women for leadership roles within the party was welcomed and initiatives like this should be built upon. In addition, these jobs are highly demanding and as women are often forced to take career breaks after giving birth, largely due to regressive childcare policies, men climb up the ladder before them– more on that later.
But women’s representation amongst Labour staff isn’t just important because we are the party of equality, social justice and the like. It is a crucial change that leads us closer to winning back power. If you don’t get women in the room where the manifesto is written or the policy is made, you’re missing out on the representation of 50% of the population, and the reality is, your policies might not be very good as a result.
When Corbyn noted that “women will want to, obviously, look after the children they have”, he failed women. Labour should be coming up with new radical policies on caring responsibilities. Instead, by saying this, Corbyn perpetuated a narrative of women solely as carers and men as breadwinners – a notion no less than archaic. It’s further evidence that we need women in the room making strategic decisions. Labour should be considering policies such as the ‘Daddy quota’ as in Sweden where men can either ‘use or lose’ a period of leave; policies that will mean that men are not always presumed to be the worker who brings home the pay check (after he’s had a pint down the pub with John, Robert and David).
Taking into account that many of these high powered jobs in press and policy are demanding on time and emotional resources, we come face to face with a chicken and egg situation. Women are often kept out of these roles right at the time in their life their career could take off because their caring responsibilities prevent them from climbing up the ladder, but they never get in the room to change policies. This, compounded with a highly masculine culture and additional structural barriers create a cycle of keeping women out of the backrooms of politics. It’s a cycle the Labour movement has not only a duty, but a need to break. We’ve got plenty of women into the House of Commons, now let’s get them into the boardrooms.