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.

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. 

Who wants War?

So we’re dropping bombs in Syria now, which you’ve probably heard about unless you don’t read the news or use social media, in which case you wouldn’t be reading this anyway. Now I’m no IR expert, I changed my degree because I’m really not, but I do want to make some reflections on the responses to the ‘politics’ of this as such.

Now, I sat on and off for the vast majority of Thursday watching the House of Commons debate. And it depressed me, for several reasons.

On a personal level, I will not shy away from the fact that, yes, it does depress me that we are bombing Syria. I don’t believe that bombing Syria is the answer, but not because I’m necessarily ‘anti interventionist’, but because I don’t believe we should be nonchalantly doing things by halves. We should have considered all of our options, including a full scale ground war, which will not happen in my opinion, because of lack of political motivation to do so. I don’t want people to lose their lives when they could have been saved by a better solution. However, and this is the crucial point, neither do politicians who voted for air strikes yesterday.

Yvette Cooper, Stella Creasy, Tom Watson, Hilary Benn and the 393 others who voted “aye” yesterday are not monsters. They are not blood thirsty murderers and they are not war mongerers. They are people, who made a decision that they believed was right for the people of Britain and the people of Syria. I don’t believe anybody in that chamber wanted to bomb anyone, but they made a difficult decision, and they made it in the belief that that was what was best. If I had not watched that debate, or attended talks, or researched it, I would be staunchly anti intervention. But when presented with the arguments from both sides, it becomes a difficult decision and no one can deny that. It’s complex. It’s nuanced. Inaction does not mean no one dies here; that dichotomy must be destroyed on the radical left. 

Just because maybe you, or I, disagree with those decisions does not give people the right to attack MPs over twitter, or protestors the right to go outside Stella Creasy’s home. There is a distinct difference between disagreeing with the decision to drop bombs on Syria and abusing MPs. Anger, sadness, frustration, infuriation; all of these are natural feelings for someone who was against the decision yesterday, believe me, I felt all of them. But there is no excuse to abuse MPs who were democratically elected and believed they were doing their best. At the end of the day, yes they are elected to represent the people, but they are often the experts.

People were dying before we were dropping bombs and they will continue to die after. My heart was breaking for Syrians before the vote, and it continues to break now. I believe that to be the case for many MPs too. And just because some MPs voted for intervention doesn’t mean they necessarily care about Syrians any less. In a perfect world, we would stop the arms trade and there would be no weapons or wars. We would all sit round a table and resolve our differences. But this isn’t WWII. We aren’t going to create the UN 2.0 out of this. This is a threat like no other and unfortunately, something has to be done. People are beheaded, raped, tortured and murdered by ISIS on a daily basis whilst the world sits back and uncomfortably turns it’s head. Yes, we can do our bit and help refugees, but there are many who don’t even have the means to leave. What do we do about them? Let them die?

To believe that this decision was easy, is naive. To believe that those MPs don’t think twice about dropping bombs, is unfair. To live in a world where terrorism exists and people die on a daily basis, is truly abhorrent. No, I don’t agree with dropping bombs on Syria, but it’s time to stop, and think, that maybe people, with the same aims, might just come up with different solutions.

An Open Letter to Scottish Nationalism

***DISCLAIMER: When I talk about Nationalism, I talk about the political Nationalism that has emerged in Scotland regarding independence and devolution, not cultural Nationalism, because, you know, I love Scotland and all that***

I often hear that Scottish Nationalism has nothing to do with the ‘bloody English’. After all, if a country and its people choose to determine their own destiny, then what has that got to do with anyone else, right? Wrong. Politically charged Nationalism is harming the whole of the UK, not least of all, us ‘bloody English’.

The Barnett Formula has been in operation since the 1970s, and it is what determines how much money Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales get through devolution. It was not meant to last this long; it is out dated and even its creator has admitted so. Each country gets a block grant, with which it can choose how to spend it. This does not cover all areas of spending. For example, reserved areas such as defence and pensions, are not included. However, housing, health and education are all amongst areas where we see devolution alter patterns of spending. And what is so wrong with countries choosing what they spend their money on? I hear you ask. Well, nothing in theory, but in practice, a whole lot.

For the Barnett Formula is becoming increasingly unpopular as it favours certain countries, and disadvantages others. This is not a needs based system, but rather an out dated, politicised one. Evidence demonstrates that whilst Scotland gets funding that exceeds its needs as a country, Wales gets less than it needs. England’s spending, which has no devolution (as of yet), does not meet the needs of its people either. With Sturgeon promising another referendum, coupled with the fact that Scotland could, in theory, economically support itself, Scotland is a political threat to the union. Upsetting Scotland is just not in Westminster’s interests. Wales on the other hand, does not have full legislative powers and could not sustain their level of provision of services if they chose to go independent. To disadvantage Wales is not much of a problem to Westminster. It makes political sense to maintain a system which appeases the country which threatens the UK.

Much of Scottish Nationalism angers me (surprise, surprise). It presumes that you cross a border and the people of Scotland face infinitely bigger struggles than those faced in England, and so they must have more money to solve said issues. The reality is, that Scottish people are gaining the most out of anyone in the Union from the Barnett Formula and the current state of devolution. People in the North of England’s needs have been proven to be higher, yet they receive much less. Devolution, contrary to popular belief, is far from a needs based system.

Much of Scottish Nationalism presumes that disillusionment is determined by the number of miles away from Westminster you are, whereas in reality, people who live a few miles away from the Houses of Parliament in London are just as disillusioned with the government; it is absurd to presume otherwise. I still hate David Cameron just as much living in Edinburgh as I did when I lived in Warrington. I don’t gain a little more respect for tax credit cuts when I get on a train 200 miles closer to London.

Hating English people because you think they are taking money from you is a fallacy hidden behind a facade of Nationalism. In reality, the people of England, especially in the North, have needs greater than much of Scotland. Insulting us on the basis that “English people are all privileged” is again, wrong. And I’d urge you to think carefully about your free University Education compared to my £50,000 of debt. Your free prescriptions compared to the £8.20 I have to spend on every item I need at a pharmacy. This is not a competition. I am not saying that England has it worse than Scotland, but rather that the facade created mainly by the SNP of “English privilege” must be lifted with a bit of perspective.

Scottish Nationalism is my issue, as much as it is anyone else’s in the UK, and I refuse to be told otherwise.

Pride and Party Politics

kez jez

It was 5am, May 8th, and I was on the phone to my Mum. I was angry, upset, devastated. The thought of five more years of a Conservative government scared me. And so I did something about it, and joined the Labour Party.

I have always been a leftie. With a mother who swears mainly about David Cameron and a father who calls himself a Marxist, how couldn’t I be? As a Politics student, of course I am interested in the UK government. I study politics in order to hopefully one day be part of the change I want to see in the world. However, back in May I just didn’t know which Party I wanted to cast my vote for.

I considered the Greens, SNP and Labour. Green policies appealed to me; they were so radically left, but quite frankly far too idealistic and many not so well thought out. What is more, Natalie Bennett really did lack any of the qualities of a Prime Minister, not least to convey her passion and be inspiring, which through failed interviews and stuttered answers, did not come across.

The SNP was a party I seriously considered for a while, but I think even then I was sceptical of whether the left wing rhetoric they espoused would translate into left wing policy.

It was Labour that got my vote in the end, but it saddens me to say that this was not because I truly believed in their policies or found Ed Miliband inspiring. Rather, the goal with my vote was to keep Britain free from harsh Tory policy making, and the Labour Party were realistically the only viable option to potentially hold office. Still, I could not help feeling like I had cast a vote for the lesser of two evils.

This article could very easily be about Jeremy Corbyn, but it is not. I’m a far left social justice warrior feminist, of course Corbyn definitely gives me hope for a future I want. In many ways, it was Corbyn who inspired me to become more active in the Labour Party, because he represented so much of what I truly believe in. However, I can’t often help but feel distant from him as a leader. He is someone who is set in their views and often unwilling to compromise or put much effort in to uniting the party in the way it so desperately needs to be.

If I am really honest, his Shadow Cabinet appointments were alienating. Goals of socialism, such as equality, liberation, justice and fairness, are goals we simply cannot achieve without the input of oppressed groups in society. To see no women in positions of power is something you would expect from a right wing government, not the socialist paradise that Corbyn’s leadership is supposed to be. The Conservatives are putting more women in positions of real power than Labour, which is terribly disconcerting.

What really inspired me to take action beyond my vote and my Labour Party member card, was the Scottish Labour Party. I came away from the Scottish Labour Conference at the weekend feeling something I had never felt before for a political party: an immense feeling of pride and solidarity. This was a party I believed in. This was a party I wanted to see in government. This was a party who could deliver real change. Together, Ian Murray MP and Kezia Dugdale MSP carry the Scottish Labour Party with a vision that simply did not exist at Westminster on May 7th with Miliband. It is their commitment to true Social Democratic values and confidence in the abilities of the Labour Party that makes the party one I feel proud of.

Kez’s speech at Conference gave me chills. I had never felt so impassioned by a political speech before then, and I came away awestruck. This was a woman I could trust to do everything in her power to deliver Labour seats in Scottish Parliament next year. Unlike Jeremy, whose passion can sometimes err on the side of aggression, Kez was personable. She is someone I can identify with.

As a woman in the world of politics, seeing a woman as the Leader of a Party is inspiring in itself. The line “We don’t just need women in positions of power, we need Feminists in positions of influence” was bold and resonated with me. Kez went where very few politicians dare to go, identifying with a word that is often seen as dirty and tarnished. She committed herself to gender equality and the liberation of women within the realm of politics; a difficult and commendable stance to take.

As some one from a state school, I have seen first hand our failing education system. It upsets me that in UK general elections, education is never really on the agenda. It is even ignored in discourse by Corbyn. Like Kez said, “if there is a silver bullet to slay the monsters of poverty, inequality and ignorance, then it is education”, yet we never seem to talk about it in politics. This is a woman who is putting the most important tool available to humanity back on the agenda. And not because it is politically sound, because it clearly is not ‘on trend’ in current affairs, but because she truly cares. That is the attitude of a woman I want to see leading not just the Scottish Labour Party, but the country.

In May, I voted to keep Tories out. The Scottish Labour conference inspired me to make the decision that, next year, I will be registering to vote up in Edinburgh for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections. When I voted for Miliband in the General Election in May, it was a vote in my mind for the lesser of two evils. When I use my two votes for Labour in Scotland next year, it will be a vote for values I am proud to believe in.

Apathetic? You Wish.

Youth apathy – it’s a stereotype favoured by the British media and politicians alike. A quick Google search of the term returns no less than 847,000 results, including headlines that read “Apathetic and Disaffected: The Generation Who May Never Vote”, while another asks “Has Our Generation Lost Faith?” Only 43% of people aged 18-24 voted in May’s election, the lowest turnout of any age group, but with young people increasingly at the forefront of social media and grassroots activism, are voting statistics really the fairest way to determine the enthusiasm of British youth?

Since the general election, anti-austerity marches have lined the streets of many cities up and down the country, from Leeds to Liverpool to London. Among the protestors were hundreds of students who will arguably be some of the hardest hit by new Conservative Party measures. Regardless of whether these people voted or not, their involvement in these events undoubtedly demonstrated their willingness to engage with politics, be it directly or indirectly.

One of the most frustrating and unfortunate things that young people have to deal with as they engage with the world of politics is the constant backlash from other voters telling them they’re too young to understand how politics works. It seems that young people just can’t win; first they’re stereotyped as apathetic, yet when they do engage in politics their views are rendered irrelevant.

In the lead up to the General Election, Abby Tomlinson came to prominence as the leader of the “Milifandom”, something she describes as a “movement against the distorted media portrayals of Ed Miliband”. At 17, she isn’t currently eligible to vote, but that hasn’t stopped her from writing about politics day in day out, whether it be on her Twitter (@twcuddleston), or for newspapers and websites such as the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. Having met Abby at one of the Labour hustings in July, it’s not hard to see that she’s someone who knows what she’s talking about. She’s had the opportunity to interview all of the Labour leadership and deputy leadership candidates, and she’s appeared on BBC and Sky News alongside the likes of political writer and war veteran Harry Leslie Smith. Yet she’s still experienced an ardent amount of online abuse, most of which uses her age as the main insulting factor. One tweet reads: “who cares what @twcuddleston says? She isn’t even 18 yet. Talk to her about One Direction and alcopops”, another: “since when did the political opinion of little girls matter enough to air on the news?”

What is conveniently forgotten amid such backlash is the numerous things that young people can legally do before they’re 18. At 16 years old, teenagers can legally have sex, join the army, leave home, and have a full-time job. For those who choose to exercise these new rights, they can be huge steps; steps that arguably put teenagers on the path towards adulthood. Yet in the world of politics, they’re still seen, and spoken to, as children who have no experience of the real world.

The aforementioned Conservative austerity measures won’t necessarily have the heaviest impact on those who currently sit in the 18-24 age bracket. Instead, measures such as the reform of maintenance grants, and cuts to housing benefits will have a drastic impact on those who weren’t even able to defend their voice in May’s General Election. There is no better case for reducing the voting age to 16 than knowing that young people will finally get to have a say on the matters that affect them the most.

The media, politicians, and what seems to be just about everyone on social media has got it wrong about young people. They do care. Some have no faith in a political system that speaks to them, not for them. Some are too young to be allowed to express their opinion. Some are simply too afraid to speak out in a world that constantly tells them that their opinions are irrelevant. But make no mistake about it, whether it be by campaigning on the streets or debating on social media, young people are going to stop at nothing to ensure that their voices will be heard.