Rt. Hon. John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons Visit to WAITS 25th May 2012

On Friday 25th May I (Henrietta) was fortunate enough to co-chair an event featuring the Rt. Hon. John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. For those who aren’t sure the Speaker of the House of Commons is that fellow who sits in the big chair in the House of Commons and tells MP’s off when they over step the mark (like when David Cameron called Ed Balls a ‘muttering idiot’ on PM’s question the other week). His role is to stay impartial and maintain order. As well as this he’s also doing some rather excellent work with the Parliamentary Outreach service to help improve public engagement in politics and improve equality and diversity in the House itself.

The event in question was a W.A.I.T.S (Women Acting in Today’s Society) Policy Forum on the opportunities for and barriers facing women wanting to get involved in politics (see my previous blog post http://henshouse1.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/whats-problem-women-in-politics.html for a brief overview of the situation). Aside from Mr Speaker being delayed in traffic and arriving half an hour late the event was a great success, with the Policy Forum speakers and Mr Speaker himself delivering engaging, informative and occasionally amusing speeches and deftly answering challenging questions.

Our first speaker was Sharon Thompson. Sharon is currently a magistrate and has a vast amount of first-hand experience of the issues women, and especially mothers, face with wanting to get involved in politics. The key points that I took away from her presentation were:

1) There are two kinds of women local parties need to consider: those that are already engaged in politics and those that would make a fantastic contribution to the political scene but feel that they lack the knowledge (‘I don’t watch the politics show!’), skills or ability to make it. To help engage these women we need more successful female politicians to act as mentors and ‘pass the baton on’ to the next aspiring generation and more family and female friendly events. Things like low key, welcoming coffee mornings where women can get together in a friendly environment and chat about what makes them tick and how they can get more involved in party politics.

2) Parties need to raise awareness of political positions beyond just councillors and MP’s. Sharon made the point that there are loads of local party positions (such as women’s officer) that can represent fantastic ways for women who are interested in politics to gain a bit more experience without being shoved in at the deep end of the  MP or Councillor candidate selection and campaigning process. But hardly anyone knows about them.

Our next speaker was Ally Sultana. Ally is the Coordinator for Saheli Women’s Group Empowerment Project which works to increase the understanding of politics and political structures amongst women in South Birmingham. She spoke passionately about the importance of politics and the difficult experiences of the women she had delivered training to on how to become a local councillor.

1) Ally began by talking about the experiences of the women she had worked with, saying that it’s not just the women who have to change but the parties themselves. After helping deliver training to South Birmingham women on how to become a local councillor, in line with parliamentary guidelines on the matter, many of the women were put off the political process by the in-fighting, pettiness and bickering that they had witnessed. If parties are serious about improving equality and diversity in their numbers, they need to be serious about changing their ways too.

2) Next Ally made the point that, if you’re going to run for candidacy you need to 1) know yourself and be confident that whatever the barrier you can get through, 2) build a vast support network around you. It’s a tough process and will involve a load of highs and lows, so you really can’t do it alone. Despite these difficulties and barriers, though, Ally concluded with an impassioned plea to the audience: get involved. Things won’t change until we make it happen so whatever you come up against, keep going and it’ll be worth it in the end.

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