Who run the Labour Party? Blokes, sexism and fragile masculinity

Flashback to my first day in a new job, working for an organisation that I couldn’t have more passion for: the Labour Party. The Party of equality and fairness for all; one that seeks to tear down barriers that stand in the way of success, and to make policy so that people can get on in life regardless of gender, class, race, religion, sexuality or disability.

So you probably wouldn’t blame me for being shocked when I turned up and ended up shaking the hands of a team of men; the only young woman in a team of eleven, with only one other woman hired to mobilise the EU campaign on the ground in my region.

It was women who brought me into the Labour Party and it was women who kept me there. From an encouraging, inspiring club chair to the supportive, amazing women I met at my first conferences, and to the feminist MSPs who lead the way, the women in the Scottish Labour Party are one of the biggest assets of our entire movement (I know I’m biased). From the moment I got involved with party, I was surrounded by women who formed a network where we backed one another up, where we vowed not to be torn down by a world dominated by men.

The Labour Party has plenty of practices, policies and legislation in place to ensure that women are not discriminated against when it comes to employment within the party. However, discrimination in politics starts a lot sooner than applying for a job in it. There’s a lot that goes before, that has to happen, before you even consider applying.

For starters, you have to have an interest in politics, enough so to join a political party. You have to want to get involved. You have to have the confidence in your abilities to believe that you are able to take on a role. But why is it still that so many women don’t feel like politics is for them?

When we talk about getting women involved in politics, we often talk about increasing numbers of women in Parliament. Representation of women in this position of power is indeed important, but conversations about women in politics should be starting a lot earlier than this. These conversations need to include lack of representation of women in local government, in our councils, as party staff, as party members and as party activists.

I only have to look at my experiences working for the Party to understand just some of the reasons why women would be discouraged from entering what is still a highly masculine environment.

Some of the sexism I experienced was overt, others much more subtle. For the men around me who converse in tones of “alright man” and “okay dude”, it might seem like the most natural thing in the world, except they often have to consciously speak to me in a different way. Some men I encounter outright speak over me, whilst others consistently take up way too much of a conversation in a way that implies what I have to say is irrelevant or unimportant; they don’t do this with the other ‘guys’.

I have found myself immersed in a world where everywhere I go, I expect to be one of, or the only woman in a room. CLP meetings, campaign groups, door knocking sessions; all dominated by men, I am almost always the token woman in the photos. The token woman who was once put to the front of a photo because I was “much prettier” than a candidate. I stood by and watched two men exchange comments on my appearance as if I wasn’t even there. Later I learned that he had turned to a colleague and remarked “I’ll probably get a slap in a minute for being sexist”. Of course I said nothing, because that would be ‘unprofessional’, not that it mattered, because I wasn’t being treated like one anyway. One individual outright hit on me whilst I was working. It’s a constant battle to be taken seriously.

I sit through meetings where the tone men take with me often carries an implied under estimation of my abilities; smirks, laugher, out of place questions, speaking over me whilst I have the floor, bearing in mind these are people who have never met or encountered me in their life, so have no grounds to have expectations of my abilities in my job. I’ve been asked “Who’s in charge here then? Is it [this older man] or [this older man]?”. “That would be me” I say to surprised faces. One CLP role holder even tried set me a ‘task’ with no real purpose other than to test if I was capable of using basic Labour Party technology. 

Even casual conversation with colleagues can reveal underlying sexist attitudes. Arguments that we “can’t have a woman leader just for the sake of having a woman”; as if of the 99 women Labour MPs, not a single one would be capable of being leader, as if there hasn’t been a systematic underestimation of women’s leadership abilities throughout history. My exasperations about the lack of representation of women across the party undermined and brushed under the carpet with “yeah well the cabinet is the most gender balanced ever”, as if that makes under representation of women at other levels in the party ok.

As the champion of AWS, we call ourselves a women friendly party. We certainly have done a lot to better represent women, however we need to do more. But where do we even start?

It starts with changing the culture of party politics, admittedly easier said than done, because why would any woman want to sit in a room of blokes talking over her, to feel like she is constantly undermined and underestimated?

Perhaps starting with translating some of the education on liberation in the youth movement we have into wider party politics would be a start to challenging some of these outdated attitudes. Making sure that people understand the importance of positive discrimination, necessary only because of centuries of patriarchal oppression. We also need to be encouraging a culture of calling out sexism and misogyny, from both men and women in the party, instead of being bystanders because we are too scared about what will happen if we speak out.

We have put policies from tax credits to SureStart to our name. We should be proud that we have done great things for women; there is no denying that. But it’s not time to be complacent, as the Labour Party still has a way to go for women.

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