As a member of a political party which puts equality at the forefront of its mission, I found the latest Fabian Society report on women’s diversity in the Labour Party depressing, if not entirely shocking.
The Fabian’s discussion paper – one of a series on party reform – shines a piercing light on the rhetoric of our commitment to equality versus the reality of it for many women in the Party today. The reaction to the lack of gender parity in Jeremy Corbyn’s choices for senior positions in the shadow cabinet was dismissed by many as ideological positioning, but the leadership should now have the guts to acknowledge the very real inequality that women face in every step they take in the modern Labour Party.
Let’s start with the fact that only 44% of Labour members are women. Women opt out of politics before they’ve even experienced the delights of procedural motions at their local meetings. Clearly this isn’t the sole responsibility of the Labour Party to fix, but it’s at least worth talking about. According to the Fabian survey, once a woman has joined Labour, she’s less likely than a man to be able to afford the transport and childcare costs associated with being involved, less likely to enjoy meetings (and the timing of meetings) and more likely to think people are treated unfairly. With barriers like these, it’s no surprise more men turn up.
Complaining about boring meetings is akin to posting a Snoopy picture about hating Monday mornings on your Facebook timeline – que sera sera. But the truth of it is, when women still do the majority of the housework, the childcare, the elder care, and the emotional labour (yes this is a thing), meetings which are unnecessarily dull become a waste of useful energy. People in the Labour Party are ever so keen on presenteeism as a guide to whether you’re committed enough, rather than whether you might have the right skills or talents to fulfil a particular role. As Oscar Wilde said, the trouble with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings – for women, the sacrifices they have to make often simply aren’t worth it.
If a woman has managed to get through the meetings and is willing to stand as a candidate, she’s likely to find herself at further disadvantage. One in five women said they faced questions that directly related to their gender, such as whether or not they might have children or scrutiny of their appearance, and one in three found their private life questioned. I remember being asked during informal meetings whether I would still remain committed to winning the seat if I wanted a family, and if the electorate would be able to relate to me as a ‘singleton’, as I was at the time. Women are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
We focus understandably on parliamentary selections, but by far the greatest number of positions are in local government, where only 32% of Labour Councillors are women. Even fewer make it to be a Council leader, just 16%. I know many areas don’t just have a problem with finding women to fill winnable Council seats – they have a problem with finding anyone. I’ve witnessed that despair, as people wrack their brains for someone in the Party to ask to stand. That’s why the Fabians’ suggestion to authorise positive action is an excellent one. By empowering a local party to seek out female talent, you override the worry that someone is trying to impose a favoured daughter, rather than simply finding a great person to represent Labour.
Finally, for a party which seeks to eradicate the financial barriers which thwart equality of opportunity, the Fabian report should be a wake-up call. Nearly 50% of women who have stood in a selection for parliament, Europe or a devolved assembly said they couldn’t afford what they needed for their campaign, in contrast to 27% of men. We know the figures on the gender pay gap, on poverty pay for women, on women’s pensions, and yet we fail to truly understand how it is duplicated in our own party.
As a parliamentary candidate I and others tried to lobby the party to reduce the cost of our annual conference pass (which started at the same rate as an MP on a £75K wage), and at over £100 was more than double the cost of an ordinary member pass. In gathering evidence of how many candidates were struggling with the costs of their campaign I was angry at how many of them were women. There is no fund to help you take time off work and the targets the party sets can’t be reached without doing so. There’s no fund to help you cover your petrol costs despite the fact you end up feeling like a taxi driver, and there’s no money to cover the raffle prizes you buy or the drinks for amazing Labour Students. Of course it’s a privilege to be selected as a Labour candidate, but you shouldn’t have to pay for it in our party of so-called equality.
If party reform is on the cards, let’s focus on making ourselves less hypocritical and put women’s representation at the forefront.
Read the Fabian Society’s Practising What We Preach report on women and the Labour Party here.
Jessica Asato was Labour’s Candidate in Norwich North in the 2015 General Election and is a former Chair of the Fabian Society