Our final W.A.I.T.S Policy Forum speaker was Nura Ally. Nura is currently the Community Development Officer for the Hodge Hill constituency and founder and director of the Allies Network; a community organisation set up by women for disadvantaged women from ethnic minority backgrounds and communities in the West Midlands. She had some interesting advice and feedback based on her own experiences of competing for candidate selection:
1) The ‘tick box’ approach to equality is not always helpful. Nura felt that during the selection process there was far too much emphasis placed on the external qualities gender, race, sexuality, and not enough on what an individual can truly offer. She believed that a stronger set of guidelines to go alongside the process, weighting the importance of these external qualities against the individual’s personality and experience would help make the system fairer for all.
2) Like Ally, Nura called for all of the assembled audience to get more involved. Her own experiences may not have been difficulty free but that does not change that fact that she believes that it is every woman’s (and man’s) civic duty to get involved in politics. She asked that every audience member join a political party of their choice and start participating as it’s only through participation that change is going to occur.
Our final speaker of the morning was Mr Speaker himself, the Rt. Hon. John Bercow MP. Mr Bercow attended the W.A.I.T.S Policy forum as part of a series of events he was participating in in Birmingham that day as part of the Parliamentary outreach programme, aiming to bring Parliament to the people and helping make national politics national, not just London centric. The main theme of his speech was what Parliament is already doing, and what still needs to be done, to help make it more accessible to women.
1) He discussed changes he had insisted on already such as the creation of a nursery within the Houses of Parliament to help female employees and MP’s with young children. He also referred to the creation of ParliAble (a Parliamentary Disability Equality Network) and ParliOut (a support group for LGBT individuals) before talking about the female ‘movers and shakers’ of Parliament.
2) He then referred to what he felt were still key barriers facing women wanting to get involved in politics. First the anti-social work hours (on Mondays and Thursdays, for instance, Parliament opens at 2:30pm and ends at 10:30pm) which he felt should be swiftly dealt with. Secondly the ‘ya-boo’ (heckling) atmosphere of the House of Commons itself and the masculine ‘boys club’ attitude it can portray, which he hopes will be changed by more women striving to become candidates and thus more women making it into Parliament.
After this we moved onto a brief question and answer session in which the assembled audience excelled, asking tough and poignant questions and suggesting improvements to the system Mr Bercow should take back with him to Parliament. There were too many to list here so here’s just a few:
1) Job share MP’s? One lady had an interesting suggestion: in order to make high profile political positions more attractive to women Parliament could look a job share scheme. She argued that many women, especially in the public sector, manage to juggle advancing their careers with looking after young children by opting in to a job share position, so how about applying the idea to MP’s, divvying up the role so that one individual does the local constituency work and the other the Westminster role/varying combinations of the two?
2) How can we guarantee that the hard work Mr Speaker has put in to improving equality and Parliament outreach will be continued by his successor? This highly apt question had a very simple answer from Mr Bercow: we can’t. But on the plus side he plans on sticking around for a good few more years.
3) The selection process for MP’s is ridiculously expensive, requires a large amount of travelling and favours candidates with public speaking training and experience (i.e. private school or Ox-Bridge), what about a hardship fund and how about making the selection process as much about the person’s other abilities as it is about public speaking? Mr Bercow agreed with this statement but discussed the difficulties of getting either Parliament (and the public) to agree to putting a portion of tax payer’s money aside to help candidates of any party in dire financial need, or individual parties to put a portion of their funds towards an in party scheme.
At this point Mr Bercow was whisked off to his next appointment, already a little on the late side, and myself and the assembled audience were left to reflect on what had been said and what still needs to be done.
or me, I was personally genuinely impressed with Mr Bercow’s down to earth, often amusing approach to his role as speaker and his dedication to going out in to the community to engage with harder to reach groups. However, despite the leaps being made forward, I was left feeling that the fight for more women in Parliament is still an uphill struggle.
Mr Speaker himself stated that just getting a nursery facility in place in Parliament came up against opposition and apathy, with many colleagues complaining ‘there’s nowhere we could put one’ (a statement proved glaringly untrue by the fact that there is now one in place).
Likewise, the W.A.I.T.S Policy Forum speakers all depicted an image of local party politics that really needs to make more of an effort to become more approachable for women in ways that really would not require too much effort on their half (coffee mornings, mentoring, family friendly event times, fairer selection process). 93 years on from when the first female MP took her seat the proportion of women in Parliament remains stubbornly at just 22%. Only 37 out of Birmingham’s 120 local councillors are female.
I’m very glad that someone is standing up for common sense policies to get more women involved in the political process but there’s a heck of a lot more work still to be done.
Fortunately the W.A.I.T.S Policy forum speakers seem more than willing to take on the challenge.