#BackroomBoys – Rethinking representation

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.

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Complacent and complicit: the tale of Labour and its women

No flowing, roundabout introduction to see here. It’s time to be blunt.

It’s time to wake up and start taking action on the Labour Party’s sexism problem.

It’s time we stopped just calling it out and thinking that’s enough anymore. Something desperately needs to be done. 

Our women MPs are fearing for their safety and for their children’s safety. Jess Phillips just had a locksmith around for six hours making her home safe, for god’s sake. Just two weeks ago she submitted 96 pages of abuse to a Labour investigation. Women in our party now have to question what they post, pause for a moment before they tweet or post a status, and question whether it’s worth the torrent of abuse they anticipate. 

When I wrote this blog post back in May, oh boy, I hadn’t seen the half of our sexism problem.

Anecdote: on my last day of work, I had orchestrated an entire polling day, pretty much single handedly. I offered people cups of tea late in the day, at pretty much the first opportunity I had to “relax” and without thinking looked at the kettle and went “oh I haven’t even used this today, I don’t even know how to switch it on”. To which the man I had kindly offered to make tea for goes “A woman who can’t use a kettle…you don’t get many of those” I looked at him with disdain. ”Oh don’t spit in my tea, love…I’m old Labour me”

YES. We have people in our party who are that backward. We have men in our party who seek to undermine the achievements and intelligence of women on the basis of their tea making abilities apparently.

On an even more sinister note, on several occasions I had to ask a male colleague to come to some of my campaign sessions with me because I was that creeped out by a volunteer. It’s not ok. It’s so very not ok.

This isn’t a time for any sort of token gesture. We can’t afford to be complacent anymore. For now it’s threats, but whose to say those threats are empty, who is to say that one of these women won’t be raped or murdered? Would it really take that to happen for us to start taking action on this? We must take many lessons from the murder of Jo Cox, and one of those is that our MPs are actually a lot less safe than we previously presumed them to be. The party needs to get drastic about this. This isn’t me being hysterical. Serious action needs to be taken and fast.

A brief comment about Jo Cox, because I don’t want to in any way use her death simply to prove my own points, but equally I believe it’s something we need to learn from. I really thought Jo’s death would be a turning point in the Labour Party’s culture. A woman of our party was murdered, a woman who in life, sought to remind us that we have more in common than that which divides us. Yet members of our party continue to unleash sexist, misogynistic, divisive abuse at women. If the death of one of our most dedicated, caring and passionate MPs doesn’t cause some of our membership to stop and think about how we have more in common before they post that tweet or Facebook comment, what on earth will?

Some ideas on where to go from here:

1. We need structures in place in every region of the country that make reporting and dealing with sexism and misogyny easier. We need to make sure that women are aware of what structures are in place, so that as soon as they do experience any sexism or misogyny, they know where to go. 

2. We need to start creating a culture of reporting rather than tolerating sexism in the party. We shouldn’t let women tell their tales of sexism and simply go “oh that’s awful”. We need to start changing our response to “That’s awful. Report it to compliance/(some other structure we might create).”

3. We need to encourage a culture where men aren’t allowed to justify their actions with “I’m old Labour me” (or similar, or just by being men) and it’s all brushed off with a laugh. Men who consistently make sexist remarks have no place in our party and as far as I’m concerned, they should face expulsion. 

4. We also need to come together and put pressure on social media sites like Twitter to take a serious stand against misogyny and sexism. Jess Phillips should not have to spend hours of her life blocking trolls. Make some algorithms. Tackle trolling. Or it’s only going to get worse.

We need to start ensuring women feel comfortable and valued in their own party. We need to do that because every woman deserves that, as a human being. But we also need to do that because until we resolve our own issues surrounding women, we cannot hope to be a credible opposition and one day, government if we cannot be champions for women. It’s all well and good calling yourself the party of social justice, but if your idea of social justice does not include women in our own party, what’s the point?

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.

GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN(damental changes to power structures)

Before I came to University, people would ask me if I wanted to go into politics. My responses would range from dismissive laughter to an assertive “oh God no”. Because party politics isn’t for people like me, right? It’s for people who are more intelligent, knowledgable and charismatic than me. Above all, it’s for privately educated white men. It was not for young women who went to state school and wouldn’t dream of applying to Oxbridge for fear of being plunged into a world they could never imagine fitting into. Sure, I could study politics, but my future would look a lot smaller than going into politics itself.

A year at University and nothing changed. Politics society events were dominated by rich straight white men, on the committee and in contributions to discussions. Even societies where women weren’t under represented, the wealthy well educated women seemed to be given a place where others without the eloquence and experience didn’t rise in the same way. Where I saw no place for me, I lacked ambition. Where I saw my voice as less worthy, I didn’t speak out.

Then I joined the Labour Party.

A network of empowering, liberating women teaching one another their worth, giving each other a voice in a world we saw as alien. One that seeks to be as intersectional as possible, not just for women like me, but for women with less privilege who fit into other liberation groups, where we see LGBT+, disabled and BAME women running and being elected into positions of power. I feel it is important to recognise my own privilege within this piece. I am not LGBT+ or BAME and so I can never understand those struggles and we sure as hell have a long way to go in order for women from these groups to be truly represented in politics. However, I do know women in these liberation groups who feel that Labour offers them a voice and will stand up for them and that is vitally important if we are to be a progressive movement.

At my first Labour students event, when I was spoken over by a man, the Chair of my Labour Club came over and said “Don’t let him talk so much”. I immediately knew that this was a place that would fight for women to have a voice, against the norm of the brutal world of politics, of angry men shouting louder.

I saw women in positions of power at a local and national level in Labour Students. And not just wealthy privately educated ones, women who went to state schools, women who didn’t go to Oxbridge, women who were not rich. I saw a world where you didn’t have to have a vocabulary to match Stephen Fry to have a voice, you just had to have passion, commitment and drive.

Our network of women back each other up. At my first conference, when I knew I had other young women, young women who had never even met me before, going out of their way to look out for me, I felt safe. I was not just going to be lost in this sea of men in suits. At an event, if I am spoken over or harassed, I know that the women I am with will do whatever is in their power to call it out. In a domain where time and time again women are silenced, it is so empowering to know that together, we will fight to be heard. That struggle is made easier when we are united.

From being ‘bossy’ throughout primary school to just being a ‘nerd’ in secondary school, I was taught to keep quiet. Ambition was for other people, I told myself. I had my goal: to get to a good University, but beyond that, I had never dared dream of holding any position of power, and not just in politics, in anything I thought of doing. That sort of ambition, to me, was for other people, from schools with an impressive alumni page.

It was women who encouraged me to speak up and it was women who encouraged me to stand up. Women in Labour Students told me I was good enough to stand in elections and to run for committees, and I endeavour to do the same for other women who have that same glimmer of a thought I did: that maybe I should get involved in party politics. Without them, party politics would probably have remained just another thing I felt disillusioned by. 

And so to the people who believe that supporting women is patronising, unfair or just unnecessary, I ask you not to disregard the impact of discouragement for women and the importance of encouraging them.

Never underestimate the power of a “You can do this” or “That comment was great” because they matter. For every ten of those comments, you might encourage a woman to speak regularly in meetings. For every fifty, you might encourage her to stand for a committee. For every hundred, you might encourage her to have the confidence to call out others. For every thousand, you might make her an MP.

Vote Catriona Headley #1 on Lothians List

The Scottish Labour Party’s list voting is closing very soon and so I would like to take the opportunity to say that I am backing Cat Headley for the #1 position, and here’s why you should too…

It is no secret that the Scottish Labour Party took a real hit last year in May. It’s something we have to address as a Party and take radical steps to fight and win back Scotland.

Cat is relatively new to the world of politics; a fresh voice that our Party so desperately needs in order to rejuvenate it. Perhaps even more significantly though, she has a vision for the Party in the long term and recognises the challenge we face in gaining back the trust of Scottish voters.

Cat got involved in Better Together and quickly became heavily involved in the campaign before joining Scottish Labour and going on to be selected as a Parliamentary candidate. It is so refreshing to have a candidate who was drawn to politics by principle not by power.

She is passionate about the values of justice, compassion and fairness. The dedication she has to her campaign in Edinburgh Western and for the Lothians list alongside her work as a solicitor protecting vulnerable people illustrates this passion as she works tirelessly to try and implement her vision of a better Scotland.

As a young woman interested in politics myself, to see other women in the Party is inspiring. Scottish Labour’s commitment to gender equality on their lists is something I am really proud of, but it is no secret that the world of politics can still be seen as a “man’s world”. Young female role models with the energy and drive that Cat has are so important for other young women like me who can so easily become alienated by the old boy’s club.

Her focus on better mental health awareness and services is an issue I care deeply about, and as 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health issue in our lifetime, it is one which in one way or another affects all of us. It is still an issue which carries a lot of stigma with it and Cat’s commitment to bring it to the fore of Party politics is the kind of brave attitude and important move I want to see in an MSP.

On meeting Cat, it is evident that she is an intelligent, bold and compassionate woman with real drive and commitment to Scottish Labour and our core principles. These are exactly the traits and values I believe we need in an MSP in Holyrood in 2016. It’s why I’m backing Cat Headley #1 for Lothians List, and I hope you do too. 

2016 is the year I talk about Mental Health

A lot of people call me brave for speaking out about the things I am passionate about: feminism, politics, my hate for David Cameron and my love for good left wing social policy. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that though. I have faced rape threats, abuse and arguments I really would rather not have over Facebook, but I have never faced stigma. I think stigma is the hardest thing to conquer when you want to talk about something for a lot of people, including me.

See, I’m surrounded by people who think feminism rocks and the Tories suck, so it makes it a lot easier. However, I don’t know who carries round mental health stigma. And I might go so far as to say that, unfortunately, we all do, at least a little bit. Each and every one of us probably has at least a little thought about people with depression and anxiety which is a tad prejudiced. It’s difficult to eradicate because sometimes, those things are true, but more than often they are not. And when those things are true, they are often presented in a skewed, distorted light.

By hiding my experiences with mental health, I have come to realise that I am only contributing to the stigma I so desperately want to end, for the sake of every single one of us who has ever suffered at the hands of mental health issues. This is by no means intended to belittle anyone who is not open about mental health, especially considering it’s taken me half a decade.

I was 14 when I first threw up before leaving the house. I was 15 when I first thought about suicide and when I begged my parents to let me not go into school. I was 16 when I stopped attending school regularly. I was 17 when I first took a razor to my legs. I was 18 when I started skipping lectures and tutorials for more than just a hangover. I’m 19 now.

I’m 19 and it has taken me five years to realise just how much I have internalised mental health stigma. And I’d like to take the time to say to every friend who made me feel ashamed, every person I loved who made me feel broken, every teacher who made me feel humiliated, every person close to me who got angry at me; I forgive you. I forgive you without your apologies because I know that you, like me, are just another victim of mental health stigma.

But as much as those are things I forgive, they have had a significant impact on the way I think about myself in relation to my own mental health. Believing that friends will think of me differently if I ‘out’ myself at a Labour event. Believing that people will label me because of things I have struggled with and things I have done. Believing that people will not want to be friends, let alone have romantic involvement with someone who could sometimes function a bit better as a human being. These are all things I have been taught to believe about myself by a society that tells us it’s not ok to not be ok.

I don’t often feel brave, but if this makes it past a word document on my laptop, even if it’s filtered to only certain people on my social media, then I think I will feel that. I really do believe that speaking about your own experience holds more power than you think. Imagine if one in four people you met told you they had had a panic attack or struggled to get out of bed or had compulsions that weren’t just habits. We would be normalising something a lot of people currently see as a little bit terrifying, confusing or even embarrassing. I think it is really important that people in positions of power do this as well, so that mental health issues are seen to be things people often carry around with them, without the knowledge of others, and that people with mental health issues can succeed just as much as able bodied people.

I am no more or less capable of forming a human relationship with you and I am worth no more or less than you.

My journey has been long and laborious to say the least, but I am finally at a stage in my life where I think I can say my mental health is OK.

I hope that maybe this post will break down just one tiny wall of stigma for one person at the least.

Finally, I’m ready to start trying not to be part of the stigma anymore.

Does Yes always mean Yes?

**CW: rape, sexual harassment, non-consent****

So, yesterday was the last day of the 16 days of Action against Violence Against Women, and so I wanted to chat about consent.

Heterosexual relationships in a patriarchal society can be very gendered. I speak as a woman in this post, and my ideas of consent cannot be separated from my gender identity. Men are raped. Men must also consent. The things I state apply to them also, but just bear in mind that this is a woman’s perspective.

I doubt you will meet many women at University who have never felt pressured, coerced or obligated to have sex in a situation when they didn’t particularly want to. In fact, studies definitely seem to back this sad fact up as well.

There is a lot of great basic education on consent: making sure the person you’re with seems like they are enjoying what they are doing, getting verbal consent, checking for non-verbal cues. However, there is less education in the more subtle ways consent can be differentiated from non-consent. And so, paradoxically, to answer the question: What is Consent? I want to go through some of the things that are not consent.

1. Only a Yes

If you pressure someone into saying yes, this is not consent. A yes must be given freely, of a person’s own accord, and should not be something they seem a bit unsure or sceptical about giving.

2. Lying to get someone into a vulnerable position

This is especially true for casual hook ups. Telling someone you just want to kiss/cuddle and then trying to get them to have sex with you, when it was clearly not what they were after, again is not consent.

3. Making someone feel guilty for not having sex with you

Telling someone you’re “too turned on to stop” or that it’s “too tempting” not to have sex, or anything similar, does not result in consensual sex. If someone is having sex with you because they feel like they should or feel guilty about not doing so, this is not consent.

4. Carrying on when someone is reluctant, but you arouse them to a point they stop refusing

If someone is reluctant when you start foreplay with them, and consistently says/gives non-verbal cues that they don’t want to be engaging in it, but then you get to a point where they are very aroused and not resistant anymore, that is not consent. Also, sexual arousal does NOT equal consent.

5. Wearing someone down

If you’ve asked someone if they want to have sex with you/go home with you/do x, y, z with you and they say no several times, before giving a yes, probably because they’re exhausted of putting up a fight and just feel it’s easier to give in, that is not real consent.

DO: COMMUNICATE! Verbal communication is just about the best thing you can do to ensure consent, especially with a new partner where you have no idea about their non-verbal cues.

Consent is complicated, but it’s the most basic requirement for sex. It doesn’t help that we don’t have compulsory consent education in schools.And for something which really isn’t up for debate, that’s a blatant omission by curriculum organisers. I for one was not told that for someone to have sex with me, then I had to say “Yes, you can do that”. And to me, that might have seemed basic, but how can we go on presuming that everyone understands consent? I’m a feminist, and I have still had questions into my University years about consent. It’s time we start educating. Consent isn’t sexy. Consent is required.