On this International Women’s Day, whilst we celebrate our proud achievements as a Labour movement, the fact that over 50% of our parliamentary party are women, we must also remain concentrated on areas where we still need to improve: local and devolved government. We do not get thriving, representative democracy by doing nothing. We get it by relentless focus, mentoring, seeking out those already leading, those horrified by the pervasive poverty and appalling conditions created by 13 years of Tory austerity and giving them the tools to easily connect with a journey to an elected position.
I had the honour of chairing the diverse and vibrant Fabian Women’s Network (FWN) from 2018-2022. FWN excel at accelerating women’s journeys from activism to elected office and since 2011, they have mentored 300 women over 11 cohorts with 77 of these mentees becoming councillors, and some council leaders (they are currently open for applications for cohort 12). FWN was seminal in my journey from community grassroots activism to political office: I was connected to a MP mentor, who helped me channel my rage at the structural injustice and inequality I saw working with women in prison, into a constructive, deeply political passion for change. A few years later, I was standing as a Labour Party candidate and am now a councillor and Chief Whip in Islington. I could not have done any of that without the solidarity of an army of sisters supporting me and spurring me on.
These experiences have given me an abiding passion for supporting other women into politics and elected office, for encouraging women who do not consider themselves political to get involved in the Labour movement. So, when there’s a resident who’s organised over 50 other parents to sign a petition and attend a meeting with her councillors, I tell her she’s a leader, ask her what her leadership aspirations are and then begin a conversation about being a councillor. When a woman who runs a community hub, fuelled by compassion and anger at the suffering of people all around her, asks my view on how we can truly change things, I listen to her and then move the conversation on to ask if she’s ever considered standing for election?
Because of the efforts of many, I sit on a council with a female leader, where over 50% of the Labour councillors are women. It is a diverse council, in large part due to the personal mentoring of Jennette Arnold (former London Assembly Member for Islington, Hackney and Waltham Forest). This alters how we manage our group internally: e.g. we have a parental leave policy, are cognisant of fast-breaking times during Ramadan, make reasonable adjustments for councillors who are pregnant or have experienced miscarriage. It also matters hugely for the way we make and implement external policy.
Given the prevalence of violence against women and girls (VAWG), there are likely to be councillors in every Labour group who are survivors, whether that is disclosed or not. They will be able to provide unique, essential perspectives as experts by experience on council services. VAWG encompasses a huge range of actions: stalking and harassment, coercive control, child sexual exploitation, so-called honour-based violence, sexual violence and more. Nationally, there is much for an incoming Labour government to fix: institutional racism and misogyny in the police force, the utterly shameful state of rape prosecutions and convictions, to name just two.
In Islington, in our 2020 council budget we announced additional funding of £2 million across three years for our VAWG services. This enabled us to replace the monthly multi-agency risk assessment conferences (MARACs) with a five day a week multi-agency safeguarding meeting. This led to increasing the actions that manage the behaviour of the perpetrator and created a seven fold increase in the number of requests for civil and legal protection orders. The aim is to intervene earlier to break cycles of violence, support survivors and families to stay safe, hold perpetrators to account and deliver a new community response to domestic abuse. Between January 2021 – December 2022 the daily safeguarding meeting heard 1339 cases. How long would it have taken to hear these cases if the meetings were still monthly? We know from the egregious delays in other parts of the system how important timely interventions are. Being able to support survivors when they reach out and not months, not years later, is the difference between life-changing routes out and understandably, dropping out, often never to return.
As we prepare for government, there is much to do and much to learn from our successes in local government. We must pursue these policies because they are the right policies for a healthy, thriving society – violence against women and girls damages us all and ending it is everyone’s business; not just because it’s politically astute (we know women are more likely to vote for Labour than men). Having more women in elected roles locally and regionally will help us continue to shape our policies to meet the needs of 21st century Britain, in all its diversity.
So, which women do you know who are leaders but not yet considering an elected position? Whoever you are, make it an act of allyship this IWD to either ask a sister to stand or send a message of encouragement to one who is still standing, after many years of sacrifice and service.
Working with survivors of domestic abuse, the charity Refuge estimate 1 in 4 women will be a survivor in her lifetime, with the police receiving a call about it every 30 seconds.
To read last year’s International Women’s Day blog, take a look at “Labour Women, Leading Locally”.