There are still too many barriers blocking women from standing for election

The Rochdale by-election campaign gave the public a taste of how nasty and negative the next general election could be. Elected representatives from across the country are facing increasing threats and intimidation. Two MPs have been murdered and many politicians are fearful of their safety and that of their families. Serious questions are being asked about whether the UK’s political culture is putting people off standing for election. 

When I was a co-Chair of the Local Government Association (LGA) Women’s Leadership Taskforce, women frequently shared stories about toxic cultures that deterred them for wanting to be councillors and MPs. Concerns ranged from the abuse that politicians face on social media and the expectation that this is just something that ‘goes with the territory’, to serious cases of real-life harassment and abuse. Women reported that this abuse has become increasingly normalised. They said they felt under pressure to ‘shrug off abuse’ and ‘not look soft’. 

Robust political debate is healthy. Scrutiny and accountability are important. However, there is a big difference between valid criticism and the sort of personal abuse that crosses over the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. 

The abuse and intimidation that elected representatives talk of has not only crossed the boundaries of what is acceptable political discourse, but it has also become criminal. Examples shared by MPs and councillors included stories of stalking, a councillor’s car being firebombed, bricks thrown through windows, people attacked at advice surgeries, offices being vandalised, and death and rape threats aimed at politicians, their families and so on. 

One councillor was out shopping in a supermarket, and someone threw a joint of gammon at him. It was so ridiculous that we all laughed as he shared the story, but the reality behind it is not funny. 

None of this is normal or acceptable. Many people choose not to speak publicly about this as it upsets and worries their families, and it gives power to the abusers. This culture undermines democracy, and it is crucial that we tackle it head-on so everyone can feel safe and welcome when participating in politics. 

This issue affects everyone, but is often even worse for women, black, Jewish, LGBT, or ethnic minority politicians. Sadly, the police do not have the resources to adequately deal with the issue and while there is rightly a lot of attention given to MP security, cash strapped councils struggle to support and protect their councillors and frontline staff. 

For the sake of British democracy, this toxic culture of abuse and intimidation needs urgent attention, but it is also worth reflecting on some of the other barriers that prevent women from standing or staying in elected office. 

We need political representatives that reflect the society they come from. Sadly, there seems to be a cultural reluctance to adapt our political system and make it more welcoming for women who choose to become parents. There is woefully inadequate maternity provision for MPs and many councillors. (The LGA Labour Group and Labour Women’s Network have written draft parental leave policies for councillors – please do speak to the LGA directly for more information about this). 

Our Parliament has customs and traditions that go back hundreds of years – hundreds of years in fact before women could vote or were part of the political system. Being a working parent is enough of a struggle in modern workplaces, so it is no surprise that many women are put off standing to be MPs, because they cannot see how they could make it work with family or childcare commitments. There are adjustments that could be made to make it easier for MPs to combine family life and duties as an MP (as happened during the COVID-19 pandemic). If Parliament is serious about attracting more female MPs, this is an area for further reflection.

A separate but related issue for all political parties is how to address the sex discrimination and/or sexual harassment that can occur in a culture where power dynamics make it hard to raise concerns or make complaints. Labour, and Labour Women’s Network in particular, have been working hard to improve the party’s internal processes. While lots of progress has been made, there is always more to do and certainly much more to do on a cross-party basis. The sheer number of MPs accused of serious sexual misconduct highlights this. 

To improve diversity in Parliament, we need to grow the pipeline of potential candidates and make a career in politics feel like it is for everyone. Addressing the UK’s toxic political culture is the bare minimum, but only the start.  

If you enjoyed this piece, see Alice’s previous blog Lessons for local parties from the Corbyn years.