#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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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.