Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Is it cos I am a woman?

Do other Labour women bloggers think that Jacqui Smith is being unfairly picked out because of her sex? I mean, there are just as many male MPs who have taken advantage of the fees office. I'm not defending the current expenses system, mind you, I think MPs should be paid a proper wage, and forget the John Lewis list. The public think it's madness, and so do I.

But what I'm talking about is the way that Jacqui Smith has been singled out (and if you read the front page of the Independent, it's Hazel and Jacqui who are the culprits, not the the male Tory MPs who spent more than them). I wonder whether it's because lobby journos think that men are meant to be venal, but women, no - they are supposed to scrimp and save and let the men be the ones who do wrong thing. Why are women always the ones who are judged more?

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Is global warming all my fault?

Her eyes narrowed, and their gaze held mine for a few seconds. The contempt was all to obvious. Then her look shifted slowly from me to the people behind, and as it did so the looked changed from hatred to a demand for agreement. I saw the people behind edge slightly away, fearing they would be associated with me, and their eyes remained fixed firmly on the ground, afraid they would be drawn into the argument. 
'Did you bring your own bags?' she said.
Stupid question. Why would I ask for bags if I had some already? 
'No. I forgot.' Of course I forgot. I had spent the day ferrying children around, sorting out the house, and shopping was an afterthought. 
'We're encouraging people to use their own bags.'
Yes I know that. I have a supply of the reusable ones at home. I just forgot. In the list of great crimes, where does that feature? Obviously quite high on the list.
'Could I have some bags please?'
A sigh. Not a quiet sigh, but one audible even to the people at the end of the queue. Be ready people. I noticed a man at the back discretely slide his trolley to an alternate queue. I wished I could join him.
Two pieces of orange plastic were thrown in my general direction, and the shopping started to move along the belt. The quantity of the latter did not seem to correlate to the former. And in her haste to dismiss my meek request the handle of one of the bags had remained in the stack of orange under her seat, meaning that I was now expected to fit several days supply of food into one small orange bag. Which was rapidly filled by two boxes of cereal.
'Could I have a few more bags?' A simple request. Said politely, no hint of sarcasm or suppressed rage. 
'We're trying to encourage people to use their own bags'. Yes, of this I am aware. But its a bit late now. I am here, my bags are at home. Ergo, I need some of theirs.
'It's to help the planet. You know, stop global warming.'
I held her gaze and stopped packing shopping. Though the packing stopped because I no longer had anything to pack into. She saw the pile of produce at my end growing larger, and realised that I wasn't going to load it all into my trolley and go away shamefaced. She needed to dish the plastic once more.
Usually they pass you bags singly. Sometimes they even open them slightly to make it easier to start getting your purchases inside the bags and out of the shop. 
A pile of orange plastic was flung to the end of the checkout. The bags were not opened. They weren't even separated. They were still firmly attached to each other, in the same condition in which they had left the orange plastic bag factory. 
I had my revenge. I took each bag off the pile as I needed it. I packed slowly and carefully. And I didn't hand my card over until the packing was complete and everything in my trolley. 
'Which is worse,' I asked, as I entered my pin number, 'to use your carrier bags instead of my own, or to drive all the way home and back again because I remember my bags are still in the kitchen?'
Her jaw dropped slightly. Her eyes flicked from me to the others in the queue. A smile flashed across someone's face, just for an instant. 
'We're just trying to do our bit. Every little helps.'
'Wrong shop.' She really should learn her jingles better. 
But the question hung there. No one answered. So which is worse for the planet? And in the grand scheme of things, how important are six plastic bags? And do they completely wipe out the good I did three times in the past two weeks when I have walked there instead of driving? Is my poor memory the sole cause of global warming? Have I brought about the downfall of civilisation because I am too busy to remember to stuff my car with thick plastic bags and instead rely on the thin plastic bags in the shop? And are bags that last for ten visits to the shop before disintegrating really any better for the environment than thin plastic bags that get reused for holding muddy football boots, transporting small amounts of goods between home and office, or visiting the butchers? Both are plastic, are both bad?
And if shops are rationing bags to do their bit for the environment, why do they use so much packaging on their products? Why are carrots in a plastic bag? Why are garlic baguette slices on a plastic tray inside a plastic bag? 
'Well at least we're trying.'
It was over. I had lost. I had to admit my guilt and leave. I had forgotten my plastic bags, and the world will pay a terrible price. As I left, hailstones began to fall. It was all my fault. The world will end, and Mr Sainsbury will carry no shame, he has done his part. It is I that failed, it is I that wasted the planet's resources, and now the weather is exacting its revenge. 
Mea culpa. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Choice and voice in public services

Another day, another article analysing 12 years of labour government and what went wrong. While agreeing with much of the new labour perspective on public service reforms: state regulation rather than control; what matters is good service, not who provides it etc. I feel there is something missing from the analysis. Perhaps it comes down to the obsession with choice and voice. The principle is simple. State provision stagnates, fails to innovate, and crucially fails to provide what the public want, if there is no ability to go to an alternative provider (choice). The solution is either competition or strong mechanisms for voice and customer responsiveness. Fine if you are a policy wonk and are happy to do nothing better than spend hours on end debating the finer points of the failings of a particular service or weighing up a variety of choices. But most people want life to be simple. In all honesty how many of us, even writers and readers of a political blog, have decided not to complain about bad service (whether publicly or privately provided) because the time and effort involved did not seem worth it. Too often such calculations, which we make instinctively, are not considered in public policy making. I’d like to see a debate about choice-and-voice-lite. Policy makers decide where the state needs to intervene, and in what way, and there is a default option for service. If members of the public are dissatisfied with that they can then exercise either choice or voice. But neither should be seen as hoops we have to jump through – consider three hospitals etc. – before we are allowed access to the service.

Since this is my first post on LabourWomen, it also seems appropriate to point out that much of this choice is exercised by women in their role as primary carers of children (school choice) or the sick (hospital choice). Too often, for too many, it can be just another burden.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Middle East - my first impressions as a westerner

Before I came here, I had only ever travelled to Europe and the East Coast of the US. My first few weeks in the Middle East have been fantastic and I have many stories to tell of what it is like to live and work in the Middle East as a single Western woman. Hopefully, I will be able to find the time somewhere between the desert, the shopping malls and corporate law to share my stories on this blog as the weeks pass and as I begin to understand my role here.
The heat was shock enough - 35 degrees and it's only March. Checking into my hotel, the receptionist was looking confused and asked me if I was "Mr..." and I confirmed, with a grin, that I was not. He then asked me whether my husband was accompanying me and, having already been warned by the Resident's Guide never to admit to not actually having a husband, I confirmed that he was not. I wake up the next day at 5am and am completely disorientated and the call to prayer only confuses things further. Luckily, that was the only morning (so far) where the call to prayer has woken me up.
I soon venture outside wearing fairly modest clothes: skirt over the knee and a top covering my shoulders. The staring begins. Apart from being a weird to have men staring at you and your legs, it's emotionally draining. I walk to and from work and have to keep my eyes focused on a spot in the distance so as not to make eye contact with anyone, just in case it provokes them to start talking to me. Last week I was walking home from the gym with a male friend and every man that walked past me would watch me as they approached and then turn their heads towards me as they walked past. This makes it rather difficult to have any kind of normal conversation! As you can imagine, this has been the main theme of my first few weeks here and I fully expect it to continue for the next 5 months. It has start to make me wonder: is this how we stare at Muslim women in Britain?
It is illegal to cohabit here, it is illegal to have children before marriage (I know of one women who had to marry her long-term partner and father of her children just so she could move here) and it is apparently even illegal to hold hands with your partner in public if you are not married. I applied for my resident's visa yesterday which is a long process involving an eye exam, blood test and X-ray - I was asked whether I was married 4 times by 3 different people. The visa application form includes a box for details of your wife but there is no box for the details of your husband because if you are a woman you would be on your husband's form - you certainly wouldn't be travelling alone.
The working week is Sunday -Thursday which is rubbish when I turn up to work on a Sunday morning envious of those lazy afternoons on Hampstead Heath, but absolutely magic when I'm lying on the beach on a Friday afternoon sending photos of my toes in the sand to folks back home. I have joined a hotel beach club which is mainly full of expats and is almost a "safe haven" where women can wear bikinis and you can drink cocktails by the pool. You need an alcohol license to buy alcohol in shops, but women are only allocated half the amount that men are allowed!

On the subject of women being entitled to half of what a man is, you may have been pleased to read the recent change to Iranian law which allows women to recover the same amount as men from insurance companies (in cases of death or injury). This means that up until the law was changed, Iranian insurance law literally valued a woman's life as being half of a man's!
I'll finish this post off with my favourite story so far. I was in a taxi and got chatting to the driver who was telling me how many times he had visited London and what he thought of it. He began to praise the public transport system and how amazing it was that you could "buy one ticket and use it for unlimited travel" and then suddenly he exclaimed "WOMEN even drive the double-decker buses!!" Indeed they do...they also run the country!

Monday, 23 March 2009

All Women Shortlists Revisited

The male dominated blogosphere in Scotland is awash with posts about All Women Shortlists and the current selection process for Airdrie and Shotts.

Thought I'd take this opportunity to share with you my take on events as a politically active woman in Scottish politics with a few broader views on the health of party politics thrown in as well.

Grateful to hear your views.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Jade Goody

As tributes pour in for the late Jade Goody I stop for a moment to ponder on how this young woman's brave fight against cervical cancer has touched us all. Told four years ago that her symptoms were caused by stress she went about her daily life unaware she would be ravaged by this deadly cancer. As girls become sexually active before they reach their teens there is an urgent need for the Government to review the age at which cervical screening starts. To leave the first screening until 25 as at present is taking too big a chance. Jade has died at 27 leaving her 2 young sons and her husband and her family grieving. She need not have died so young.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Our membership in the EU still matters!

I’ve noticed that lately, the Guardian has strengthened the virtual voice of some Eurosceptics by allowing them to blog on their comment is free website. This week alone, two of the contributors were an MEP from the UK Independence Party (whose role is an oxymoron in itself) and a senior figure from the Europhobe think tank Open Europe. That is, of course, the Guardian’s prerogative. But it reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a couple of days ago. In between a couple of pints she laid out the question: If we left the EU now, would it really matter?

After two years in this country, I really get the island mentality. As much as I would like to change it, it seems that a lot of even my most pro-European friends simply still think of “Europe” when they talk about the continent. And after 60 years of peace and 36 years of membership of the European Union, I can also understand why the benefits of this membership are sometimes taken for granted. So what would change if the UK left the EU (as Cameron’s Conservatives still sometimes threaten to do?)

The 1.6 million British citizens who currently live in another EU country would lose their right to do so. The 7,000 British students who take part in the ERASMUS exchange every year would no longer be entitled to participate in it. The rules of the single market, which is Britain’s best hope to find a way out of the current recession, would no longer be co-decided by a British Government. The 50 million visits made by the British to the continent every year would become difficult and more expensive.

Not only the rest of Europe, but also the US would probably look at the UK with some bewilderment. The role of being the bridge between Europe and the US would no longer suit a country that quite frankly would have affronted and rejected its neighbours by leaving the Union. And while the times of the British Empire are simply over and will not be won back by a trip into isolation, this isolation would certainly weaken the UK’s role in the world.

Britain does not only play an important part in Europe, it also is an important part of it. Europe is not about living next to each other, it’s about living together. As long as this idea is alive, membership in the European Union still matters. We should remember that for the upcoming European Elections on 4th June.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


Inspired by Jessica’s post about what to wear as a Labour woman, I wanted to write something about the broader context we are operating in.

For me the most extreme symptom of the anti feminism backlash is the sexualisation of popular culture. Almost any product is sold using an image of a woman, and Playboy logos are used on stationary that is marketed at children. This is something that women have contended with for some time, and now the “beauty” industry is trying to extend its reaches into men’s wallets as well, via their insecurities. Still, it remains the case that women’s bodies are used to sell all sorts of products to us, mostly women have eating disorders, most of those actually selling sex as prostitutes or other parts of the sex industry are women, and almost all of those buying sex are men.

One of the most depressing discourses around sex object culture is that of empowerment. Research done by the Poppy Project demonstrates that most of the women in prostitution were sexually abused in childhood, and many have been trafficked. Drugs are the other factor that get woman into the sex industry, or keep them there. There is nothing empowering about that. Individual women may enjoy selling sex or appearing in porn, but they are not making a contribution to freedom for the rest of us.

This sex object culture has an impact on us all. We all, including women, look at women and judge them and ourselves according to a platonic ideal of attractiveness that is informed by the images of thin, young usually white women with big breasts that are everywhere we look.

In this context, it’s difficult to think about how to present ourselves. We are the product of the world we live in, but if we feel like we have to wear high heels to be taken seriously, even when they hurt our feet so we can hardly stand without crying, who are we dressing for? Are we perpetuating a culture that does us no favours?

Every woman has to make her own decisions, how to win friends, maybe win votes, whilst being clear about what we are doing and why.

There are good campaigns on these issues, http://www.object.org.uk/

http://www.eaves4women.co.uk/POPPY_Project/POPPY_Project.php has facts and figures on which I base my argument

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catharine_MacKinnon is someone I don't agree with on everything, but is the innovator behind many of these arguments, along with Andrea Dworkin and others.

Is it always trivial to talk about clothes in politics?

James Crabtree at Prospect just drew my attention to this blog by Katharine Quarmby explaining why the hijab creates havoc for her hair. She acknowledges that this is obviously trivial compared to the real issues women face in Iran, but still I liked the fact that she blogged about it because I think women should be allowed to talk about clothes in politics.

Which got me back to thinking about a training session Progress held for aspiring Labour women considering whether they should go for selection and the advice given there about what women should wear. "It's easy for men", said the convener, "they just get to wear a suit, but it's a minefield for women" as Barbara Follett found out pre-97 when she tried to improve the fashion image of Labour women in a practice which became known as 'Folletting'.

The dilemma is often how to look smart without going over the top, and my particular bugbear is how I put a few inches on my diminutive five ft half an inch while ensuring my feet don't get mashed up by a few hours campaigning. I've tried out lots of campaigning shoes over the years, and you can't get away from the fact that flat is best, but it doesn't always look like you've made the effort if you're a short person.

Similarly, in politics you're often expected to go to receptions and the like, and I am always deeply impressed with women like Hazel Blears who manage to wear high heels at a party without fainting. In heels, I tend to spend the evening preoccupied with finding the nearest seat. At Labour Party Conference I can often be spotted giving up on the heels entirely at the end of the evening and walking barefoot back to my hotel.

And have any of you gone out campaigning in make-up, only for it to bucket it down and for you to end up looking like you've spent the afternoon watching Truly, Madly, Deeply? Talk about losing votes on the doorstep.

Finally, don't get me started on the issue of cleavage. Poor Jacqui Smith found out that women are never very far from the sexism which we thought we'd left behind when Labour first got into government. Last year I got a deeply sad/hilarious letter from a chap who had been looking rather too closely at my upper half rather than listening to the arguments I was trying to put forward on the Daily Politics. What I'd like to know is whether men in politics ever get letters slamming them for wearing trousers that are too tight?

Monday, 16 March 2009

Labour needs women during the recession - and vice versa

On Saturday I went to a meeting of Manchester Labour Women's Forum. This is quite a new group and so far fairly small, but it's a great environment for discussion and has some good ideas about encouraging more women into politics, so I'd definitely recommend coming along if you're a Manchester Labour Woman. Julie Reid is the City Party Women's Officer, you can get in touch with her on julie.reid7@ntlworld.com.

Ahead of the proper meeting on Saturday we had a 'listening panel' with Hazel Blears, Arlene McCarthy MEP (who is one of only three female Chairs of legislative committees in the European Parliament), Lucy Powell PPC (who will be the first female Labour MP in a Manchester constituency if she is successful in Manchester Withington at the next election) and Cllr Val Stevens, the Deputy Leader of Manchester City Council, on 'Supporting women during the recession'.

This was part of a series of consultations being held across the country and online at the moment to collect information on women's experiences of the recession, which will be fed back to Harriet Harman, Mary Honeyball MEP and other Labour figures and will form part of their discussions at the G20.

Opinion polls have found that women are more concerned about the impact of the recession than men; moreover it seems certain that with the number of women now working in the service sector, as well as in part-time and agency work, this recession will impact on women far more heavily than the last one did.Figures released by the TUC this January showed the number of women being made redundant increased by 2.3 per cent in comparison to previous years, compared to 1.2 per cent for men.

As if we didn't have enough to worry about, there are also fears that equality will slip off the agenda altogether during the recession: particularly given these comments by the EHRC regarding pay audits.

All very depressing - but I wasn't feeling it on Saturday, because it's very difficult to feel pessimistic in the presence of Hazel Blears. I've never been an especial fan of hers (or of anyone who's ever been near the Home Office, let's face it) but her enthusiasm is infectious. Her speech to the panel was mostly of course a reminder of everything the government is doing to provide Real Help Now, and dammit if it didn't honestly make me feel there might be some hope for the British workforce after all. She's like some kind of ministerial Jimmy Stewart.

On the question of whether it's acceptable to sideline women's rights during the recession, Hazel's answer was one surely even the least feminist member of the Labour Party can get behind: the government's policies on equal rights - on maternity rights, on the minimum wage from which so many women benefit - are popular. Women's votes have been important to Labour in the last three elections and we will need them if we are to win a fourth term. We will lose key votes unless we are able to reassure women, particularly women over 55, who are apparently the demographic most concerned about the recession, that we are doing everything we can for them during this time of economic difficulty, and pursuing equal pay is surely a vital part of that.

For that reason we have to ensure that Labour doesn't espouse any of the same short-sightedness evidenced in the EHRC's comment about 'being realistic in the economic climate' when it comes to equal pay. The big fear about the Tories being allowed to deal with the recession their way is that they will inflict their own brand of 'realism' on us. George Osborne has already started blaming the British people for the recession, and intends to punish us thoroughly with cuts to vital public services if he gets his hands on the Treasury.

To get us through this recession we need Real Help Now - we need Labour - but if we're going to keep the Labour government, we need something more than this to say on the doorstep. Everyone's tired of Tory-bashing (well, not us, but you know what I mean). Real Help Now is reassuring, but it's not visionary.

Hazel is not called the most optimistic member of the Cabinet for nothing. She said she'd found that voters are still very receptive to Labour, and she insists that there is no evidence of the sort of complete emotional shift away from the government seen in 1979 or 1997. She said that the two most important things Labour needs in order to secure a fourth term are:

1. a united Party
2. a vision for the future.

We need to be able to paint the voters a picture of a post-recession economy. No-one wants a return to business as usual - Gordon Brown is in the Guardian today describing how the economic crisis will change global financial systems, and there are other opportunities too: Hazel touched on the example of 'green' jobs. And as for equal pay, Jess McCabe at The F-Word said it better than I could:

"...the recession is a potential pressure point, at which we can demand change in the way the economy functions. What kind of economy do we want to emerge from this crisis? A replication of what’s gone before? Isn’t this arguably a good time for company’s to reassess their pay structures, to make them fairer?"

British workers - male and female - deserve a Labour vision of the future at the other side of this recession: and we deserve equality to be a part of that vision. Join the Fawcett Society's campaign for equal pay here.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

FGM Female Genital Mutilation

FGM Female Genital Mutilation or Female Circumcision is a horrifying practice and it is still happening even in England. I want to raise awareness of this and it must be stopped. I have a cause on Facebook Stop Female Genital Mutilation and if you can write to your MPs it will help
I first learned about FGM in an article by the writer Ruth Rendell and I then wrote to her in the House of Lords. Please join me in raising awareness of FGM and help campaign to get it stopped.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Well, it is Comic Relief Day...

...I can't think of a way to make money out of this but it's comical nonetheless. Blackburn Labour have discovered a Tory logo-maker which, inexplicably, hasn't been taken down or restricted to Tories yet. The blogosphere has been having fun with it all day. I quite like this one:

C'mon, have a go, it's Friday...

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Women on the Web

Without a shadow of a doubt, the internet has become a hugely powerful part of everyday life. We use it to access information, to shop, to socialise, to plan our lives, to campaign for change to be a part of distant online communities and now thanks to this great initiative to start getting women’s voices heard – in our own words, on our own issues.

Whilst it has annoyed me greatly that the political blogosphere has fast become a “bloke –o –sphere”, it came as no great surprise really. Politics after all is still not a place where women are in their rightful number. But just because there is a shortage of women in political positions, there certainly isn’t a shortage of women’s energy, ideas and passion to do politics – to improve the lives and opportunities of people and communities. And women on the web is one way, I think, to get more women “doing” politics.

Which makes me think about the women’s organisation within the Labour Party as its chief objective is to do exactly that: to help more women into politics. And I pause for thought and consider how we use new media to encourage, develop and support Labour women. Looking at the list of what the women’s organisation of the Labour Party seeks to do,

· Ensure equal representation
· Support and enable women to play a full and equal role in the mainstream of the Party
· Campaign on issues that affect women’s lives
· Bring women together

· Encourage women to become members of the Labour Party

it is made perfectly clear that there is definitely space for new technology and the online world to play a role.

Take just one point: campaigning with women voters – traditional school gates and supermarket campaigning does work and by no means am I suggesting that we should stop reaching out to women in this way. But we should also appreciate that there is a new generation of women, who perhaps aren’t the ones dropping their kids off at school or perhaps don’t have kids to drop off, aren’t doing the weekly family ‘big shop’ at the supermarket but all still should have them Labour Party engaging with them. Letting them know that thanks to Labour, their chances of being discriminated at work are less, they have more opportunities to continue in education or training and that Labour is committed to ending violence against women. But more importantly, also asking them about what else needs to be done to make better their life chances.

But, I feel a need to note a word of caution. We should remember that whilst the internet is growing at a phenomenal speed, we can only make it a part of what we do. Not least because there’s no better way of keeping in touch with people than actually meeting face – to – face. Personal contact goes a long way. But also because not everyone has access to the internet or have not learned to use it. This may very well include the old and the ill, the least educated and the generally vulnerable. They are often the very people who we, as Labour, want to be engaging with.

So, all in all I applaud the much needed space this new blog has given women’s voices. But still do believe in the power of offline campaigning, organising and support. I'd be really to hear other people’s thoughts on how best to use new media and new technology to add value to Labour’s women’s organisation. So happy posting sisters!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Would having more women in Parliament really make a difference? Well, take women’s pensions...

It’s a sign of a slow day when you start to worry about your pension.  I’ve worked out that  there’s no way I’ll have paid enough contributions to qualify for a state pension (39 years) when/if I retire.  What with all the usual interruptions  I probably have around ten years of contributions and I need a minimum of 30 years to qualify.  And for the record, I haven’t got any other sort of pension.  But at least I won’t be alone. Round about a third of women over 60 don’t get the full £90.70 (£95.25 from April) a week because their unpaid work bringing up children or looking after elderly and disabled relatives left them with insufficient NI contributions.  But even if we qualify, the state pension at around £4500 a year is still far below what the Government considers the poverty line for other citizens of about £12,500 a year (or 60 per cent of median average earnings) – so it's not a picnic.


On March 9th three years ago Baroness Patricia Hollis, gave a lecture on Women’s Pensions. The then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at DWP looked back at the creation of the modern welfare state post-war in which becuase women were expected to be financially provided for by husbands, women were disadvantaged in pension policy.  This “last bit of unreconstructed Beveridge” , as Baroness Hollis called it, has continued to keep millions of women in poverty in their old age.


Thanks to Baroness Hollis’ powerful campaigning voice in Parliament over several years, in October 2008 a change was introduced to help more women achieve the 30-year contributions record by purchasing extra years. (No such thing as a free lunch.) The hitch is the scheme probably doesn’t apply to me and a million or so other women because only people who already have 20 years of NI contributions will be able to buy back the extra years. Sisters - we’ll just have to keep working – if the EU lets us.


Of course I want to do more about women’s pensions - but would anything at all have been done to start to address this gender gap in pensioner poverty if it hadn’t been for women like Baroness Hollis in government? When people say would having more women in Parliament really make a difference, tell them what we’ve already done for women’s pensions (and what more there still is to do.)


Protecting our mental health

Statistics say one in four of us will experience mental illness at some time. I've been one of the four and know how much stigma there is attached to mental illness. It's a difficult subject for many to talk about or even acknowledge.

Mental breakdown can happen at any time of the day or night. That's why we need bigger budgets for mental health, we need mental health support in the evenings and at weekends too. We need more cognitive behavioural therapists, more community psychiatric nurses, more mental health social workers. One Saturday last year I called out the community mental health team to help a relative who was psychotic. I phoned at 7 a.m. and it was 4.30 pm before anyone arrived. There was only one mental health social worker on duty that day in the whole of Kent. There were no beds available locally. There is no mental health unit for people under 60 and the nearest one is 20 miles away. Yes we must raise awareness of mental illness and take the stigma out of it but we also have to protect the next generation. This means talking to young children at school and helping them to look after their mental health by good diet and exercise and a healthy lifestyle. We need more people to read Dr Alex Richardson's ground breaking book They Are What You Feed Them we need more people to log on to http:///www.fabresearch.org a site looking at the links between food and behaviour.
Also we need more people to log on at http://www.time-to-change.org.uk It's in our hands to look after our own mental health, we are facing an epidemic of mental illness, we must act before it is too late.

Thanks to all our new bloggers!

This site has really exceeded my expectations and it's all down to you. We've had almost 30 posts in the last three days and they have all made me proud to be a Labour woman. We have shown that Labour women are not afraid of putting their thoughts into cyberspace, and that we are a diverse bunch with a great deal to say! (As if we didn't know that already). So my plea is that we keep on posting over the next days, and weeks - do send me your thoughts for advice which you might find useful. A number of you have asked for blogging tips, so I am going to try and get an experienced blogger to give you their top ten or so.

These are mine for starters: keep it short if possible, don't try and put too many thoughts in one post - save them for separate ones, avoid jargon and too much indepth detail - use links to other articles/pamphlets if you want people to read further, it's fine to be light-hearted and have fun!

I've also posted a piece on LabourList today if you are interested. Right, off to bed now. Look forward to reading more posts tomorrow!

Monday, 9 March 2009

Women's contributions recognised at no. 10

What a privilege to be in 10 Downing Street with a hundred women who have made an outstanding to their communities, along with Gordon and Sarah Brown.

My guest for the evening was Alison Shaffner. Alison's contribution to my own constituency, Leeds West, encapsulates the evening in Downing Street – amazing women who have used their own experiences to change the communities they live and work in. Alison has lived in West Leeds for 25 years and is a mother of two grown-up boys. After teaching for six years, Alison managed a Family Learning Centre for seven years. Now Alison is Area Manager for a social enterprise working with businesses to support regeneration.

Alison's commitment and enthusiasm are infectious. The Family Learning Centre provided education, skills and support to local high school pupils who were disaffected with the curriculum, workless adults and the elderly as a partnership hub between local public and voluntary sector providers, all of whom were committed to supporting those most disadvantaged.

Alison is not the sort of person who does things for people. In Leeds West Alison has worked with the community – families, the voluntary sector, council and businesses to achieve all she has achieved. Whether it's Charmaine who runs the community centre and cafe down the road; Dawn who runs Armley Helping Hands supporting the local elderly residents; Maureen from People Matters who supports adults with learning needs; Bernadette at West Leeds Healthy Living Network; Wendy in HR from a local distribution company who have recruited long term unemployed people and created a child friendly shift pattern so mums could work school hours only; or Caroline from Farnells, an electronics distribution company who led their Corporate Social Responsibility work, supporting inner city schools and voluntary groups.

It's not only women who make a difference to communities. But the experience of women – as mothers, as carers and as workers do give women a huge insight and stake in their communities. Alison was just one woman of a hundred women thanked this evening by the Prime Minister and Sarah Brown, and they are just one hundred of the thousands of women, up and down the country making a difference to the lives of millions. What a great way to celebrate International Women's Day.

First Steps

I’m a Labour woman, a member in Leeds with a national job in a charity, I’m also on the local panel and going through selection proceedings at the moment as local Leeds Labour branches choose their 2010 council candidates. It’s especially important in Leeds to pick candidates that can deliver a good campaign, work hard and win as we’re a few seats short of controlling the city. Labour councillors far outweigh any other party but as is the case in many places Leeds city council endures an anti-labour coalition with leadership split between the Libdems and Tories.

Newly on the panel it’s my chance to meet lots of people across the city and quickly tell them what I’m about and what I stand for, it’s a scary experience, but I sense people have a lot of respect for you for putting yourself out there. I guess it’s unusual in that I’m a young(ish) woman, so I have something about experience and ability to prove. I’ve already endured a few derisory comments designed to put me off, one man (before he knew anything about me) told me he didn’t think I was old enough to be a councillor, and described the other candidates as “Titans of the Labour Party” – both white men over 60 – but in the next breath offered me help with my next speech! Fair enough, he’s entitled to his view.

My view is that fair representation is just that, the fact is that women are underrepresented in the party and on the council, and I’ve been actively encouraged to stand by many good and experienced people. It’s also heartening to see that Labour are selecting a diverse group of candidates, with candidates selected on their own merits – at one selection meeting I attended, I was pleased to lose out to the excellent Kamila Maqsood who is set to become Leeds’ first Muslim woman councillor. The council requires balance, but all councillors should have sound judgement regardless of age or ethnicity. My job and career has set me up for that, if I can handle violent and aggressive clients experiencing psychosis alone in the middle of the night I can handle Leeds City Council!

Who I am and why I am here

I'm Judith Haire and it's a privilege to be here. I'm 53. Yes I am a Politics graduate. I was lucky enough to read Politics at Sheffield University and the department there is still as vibrant as it ever was.
The idea for this site is a brilliant one. There are too many men in politics and not enough women. I will start by talking about something I have direct experience of. I was in an abusive marriage and the trauma I suffered led to an acute psychotic episode which cost me my job in the civil service.
I recovered and have written about my experiences in my recently published book Don't Mind Me (Chipmunka). It is well documented that 25% of women who suffer rape go on to develop depression or other mental illness. I know, I was one of them.
Unless you have been in an abusive marriage you will be one of those who ask why, why did n't you walk away, why didn't you hit back, why did you put up with any of it. Those without the experience don't realise the total erosion of your confidence and esteem. You believe the lie that you caused the violence. Violence of any sort is wrong. The survey published today by Ipsos/MORI is very depressing. With one in five believing it is all right for a man to hit a woman, yes one in five, there is a huge mountain to climb, to challenge and change this pre historic attitude. Men and women are equal, Men get angry. We need to start in schools when children are very young and teach ways to manage emotions and protect our mental health, to boost our esteem whether boys or girls. Men do not necessarily know more than women do, we need more women in politics, we need other viewpoints, we need more thinking outside the box. Thank you again for inviting me to join this Blog, it's groundbreaking and I will be back.

You can’t be what you can’t see

I came to the UK from The White House Project (WHP), based in New York. Their work focuses on transforming culture and changing perceptions surrounding women’s leadership. Their goal is to create a world where women and men lead alongside one another in all sectors – a world of genuine equality, where we move away from any attempt to level the playing field being dismissed as “political correctness” or “neo-feminism”. A key strategy of their work in the realms of media, politics and business, is developing a pipeline of women leaders on all levels to support and pave the way for others. Marie Wilson, President of the WHP, and her team travel across the country to inspire, equip and inform women on the tools needed to lead a political life. One of the key messages she leaves with her audience is that “You can’t be what you can’t see.” For example, until someone like Hillary Clinton runs for President, other women cannot envision doing it themselves. It is for this reason that they have spearheaded effective campaigns, such as SheSource.org, a database of over 500 female experts for journalists, producers and bookers. They have even worked with the toy company Mattel, to develop a “President Barbie,” showing that no aspect of American culture should be ignored.

In the UK as well, we need to up the ante. Jane Merrick’s article “A whole generation of women is lost to politics” in the Independent yesterday sums up the current situation for young women considering a future in politics. A report out yesterday found that young women feel that they are “outside politics” and do not have adequate information and training to become engaged the sector. Organisations like Girlguiding UK play an important role in building a new generation of women leaders, by encouraging young girls to gain leadership skills through extracurricular activities and networks.

We need to raise the visibility of women leaders as we begin to transform politics, and other aspects of society. Many thanks to Jessica for starting this blogging community, as it is a great first step towards doing just that.

Additionally, and apologies for the quick plug, several women in the communications sector have started a group called WICI (Women in Communications Inc). WICI specifically focuses on shared experiences and what women can gain from each other. Their programmes include training seminars and workshops focused specifically on the challenges we face each day in our public lives. If you are interested in learning more about WICI, email rsvp@wicilondon.org.uk.

Enough Punch and Judy

First, I want to thank Jess Asato for setting up this blogging space: I hope it will provide a useful means for us to share ideas and debate topics which are both specific to women in politics and broader issues as well.

Let me kick off with Punch and Judy - puppets locked in endless wrangles and frequent bouts of pointless bashing that ultimately lead nowhere. Much was made by Cameron when he assumed the Tory leadership of his desire to move away from 'Punch and Judy' politics. He claimed to recognise that the inherently adversarial style of debate - often referred to by female commentators as Ya Boo Politics - led many to feel disengaged from the political process and was, in any event, a deeply unattractive spectacle.

Interestingly, Cameron stated that women in particular find the Punch and Judy-style politics off-putting, in that it is needlessly aggressive, counter-productive to informed debate and, frankly, intimidating.

Yet within a few weeks, Cameron was punching with the 'best' of them and little, if anything, seems to have changed.

My question is, was Cameron right to draw a distinction between male and female attitudes to this style of political debate?

The superficial question is whether women crave (and feel more at ease with) measured discussion rather than point-scoring rhetoric. The deeper question is whether there is a discernable difference between the way that women and men in general perceive our political system.

Does our current Parliamentary style of debate turn women off formal politics?

And is a key barrier to women entering politics our perception of PMQs and other speaker events as pointless games which have little to do with real lives?

Or is there no discernable pattern as to how men and women react to the style of political interaction in Westminster?

Either way, what changes should be made (and recommended by the ongoing Speakers' Conference) to better encourage women to seek active roles in the Parliamentary process?

Answers / thoughts / views below, rather than on a postcard...

Changing the world, one estate at a time

I’m learning all the time about the history of the area that I now represent – there’s nothing I’m more grateful for than a resident who’s willing to tell me how their area has changed over time, for better or for worse, especially now, when all the estates in Mile End East have been or will be changed significantly, as they have all transferred to RSLs who are now undergoing regeneration work.

A woman I spoke to on Saturday told me that she gave up being interested in politics because under Thatcher it was clear that no one cared about what people like her thought. She went to school in the 1970’s, and at an all girls school women’s lib changed how she thought about things, she felt like you could do stuff. Thatcher crushed that. She and others were proud of their estate when they first moved on to it, but decades of underinvestment, and changes being made despite rather than with residents, has meant a loss of that pride, creating anger and frustration.

I have to change that. I was elected as a councillor in November. There are plenty of people ready to use this woman’s sense of isolation to make political capital for themselves. I have to get her and others on the estate to make the most of the chances they have to shape this phase of local development – take the risk that they might be able to make a difference against the certainty of fruitless protest.

There is still a lot of East End working class pride in Mile End. Thatcher didn’t manage to crush that completely. I am determined that control of change on their estate is going to be given back to the residents, who must then work together to make sure all voices are heard in the battle to improve their area. Wish me luck.

Women can and do win on open short lists

Last year, I was selected as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate in a seat that Labour has held for fifty out of the last fifty-five years. Despite the initial expectation that this seat would be an all women shortlist, just before the selection started the party decided against it. At this point, I was advised by several friends that I should consider other seats where there were all-women shortlists. I was told in no uncertain terms by these same friends that I didn’t stand a chance in an open shortlist.

Needless to say, I was furious. I was interested in the selection because I wanted to represent my hometown in Parliament regardless of the selection procedure. However, this reaction nearly shook my confidence. Politics is to a large degree about perception. If my friends didn’t think I would be considered as a serious contender, wouldn’t local party members be of the same opinion?

Anyone reading this who has been through the tough, gruelling and extremely personal experience of a parliamentary selection will understand the importance of retaining one’s self-confidence. Lose that and you are done for.

Fortunately, I had other supportive friends who encouraged me and gave me much better advice. I got my head down, worked hard, managed to turn my background and experience to my advantage – I have local roots as well as national experience of Government. After a lengthy process of many ups and downs psychologically, I won to the amazement of several onlookers but not to the surprise of the more perceptive and astute amongst them.

I don’t want to go into the arguments for and against all women shortlists. Although, I could quite happily write several pages on the subject.

The purpose of this posting is not only to recount my experience but to encourage women reading this to go for open selections. My fear is that open shortlists are being considered as the preserve of men. Even with all-women shortlists, women will still not make up fifty per cent of Labour MPs in Westminster. Achieving that parity in representation is our objective and we should not shy away from working single-mindedly towards it.


Why the arrest warrant against al-Bashir was the right step to take

Last Thursday, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan. He is being indicted with five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes. Apart from the fact that the Sudanese Government does not recognise the ICC and the ICC has no mechanism of its own to execute an arrest warrant, Mr al-Bashir is also the first sitting head of state ever indicted by the ICC. An easy surrender to The Hague was realistically not to be expected. But instead of keeping a low profile or consulting with lawyers, Mr al Bashir reacted with banning 13 international aid agencies and NGOs from Sudan.

The ICC was founded in 2002. The task of this permanent tribunal is to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. So far, it has issued arrest warrants for thirteen people, of whom seven remain free, two have died, and four are in custody. One of the seven free people is Ahmed Mohammed Haroun . Mr Haroun Haroun allegedly recruited, funded and armed the Janjaweed militia, and incited attacks against civilian populations. The ICC issued an arrest warrant against him in April 2007, but despite international pressure on the government of Sudan to surrender him to the ICC, he continues to serve as Sudan's Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs. In September 2007, he was appointed to lead an investigation into human rights violations in Darfur.

Assessing Omar al-Bashir’s reaction to his arrest warrant whilst considering the track record of the Sudanese Government’s cooperation not only with the ICC but generally with international institutions raises the question of whether issuing the warrant was a strategically wise idea.

Let me be precise: I am not among the critiques of the ICC and its work, and I do not doubt its importance. But Mr al-Bashir’s reaction could have been expected, and the people of Sudan are, in the first instance, not benefactors, but victims of this step. Around 6,500 aid workers from organisations such as Oxfam, M├ędecins sans Frontiers and Save the Children will have to leave Sudan, leaving thousands of people with no access to clean water or medical care.

So the question is: Is the issue of a warrant which in the near future has no realistic chance to be executed a natural consequence of the humanitarian obligations the International community stand for?
The answer is simple: Of course it is. After only 5 years of existence, it is hard to say how much power and influence the ICC will bear throughout history, but one of the strengths it already has is its symbolic powers. It raises awareness and it calls on the International community to live up to their global responsibilities.

But more importantly, we have to ask ourselves whether NOT issuing an arrest warrant against al-Bashir would be a modern version of appeasement. And again the answer is yes. Traditionally, Appeasement is seen as negotiating with a dictator to avoid an armed conflict. As a policy, it has become out of fashion, and of course I am not suggesting the invasion of Sudan. But ignoring Mr al-Bashir’s terrible record of crimes against humanity in order to not awaken his wrath would be an act of cowardice and would in the long term neither serve justice nor the interest of the Sudanese people. Will the arrest warrant against their President lead to any relief from their sufferings? No, probably not. But international cooperation should lead to an improvement in the poorest, most neglected parts of the world.

The International Community needs to show that it cares about the Human Rights situation in Sudan despite its rich oil reserves. What the British Government, together with the European Union and other international friends and partners need to do now is to try and encourage countries that could make a difference, such as China and Russia, do use their influence. The arrest warrant is a small, but important step. It is our global responsibility to not let it become an unarmed soldier.

A Living Wage

Glasgow City Council, Scotland’s largest Local Authority, announced over the weekend that, as of the 1st of April, all its workers will be paid a minimum of £7 an hour.

This is £1.27 above the current minimum wage of £5.73 and works out at an annual income of £13,340 for a full-time worker.

It is estimated that the move will cost Glasgow City Council up to £1.2 million a year with 681 employees immediately benefiting.

It may seem perverse, at a time when councils across Scotland are struggling to balance their books, in part due to cutbacks imposed by the SNP Government. The reality though, is that not only is this the right thing to do, it also makes financial sense. The poorest people are likely to spend this money on food and other basics, which will go straight back into the local economy, and similar moves in London and Oxford have seen an increase in morale and productivity amongst workers and decreased absenteeism.

The introduction of the minimum wage was a huge achievement at the time, one we can continue to be proud of, but now we need to move on to the next logical step, the introduction of a national living wage.

People – 350,000 of them in Scotland – are bringing home wages that, even working full-time, are not enough to enable them to buy the basics. This is a gender issue too, 64% of low-paid workers are women, with women nearly 3 times more likely to be in low-paid employment than men.

The step Glasgow has taken should be applauded, but it’s not enough, this needs to be a national programme. We all know the arguments that were used to try to stall the introduction of the minimum wage a decade ago – it’s too expensive, people will lose their jobs, it will put employers off hiring – it wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now.

If people are being asked to do a job, it should pay them enough to live on. It’s that simple.

Get ahead - get a skirt

Hazel Blears has red hair. This is one of the things that most people remember about her - not her cabinet post, but her hair. 
As a joke at a regional conference question time session I asked her whether she thought being a red head was a help or a hindrance. I have a vested interest in the answer - being a red head myself, though with the assistance of dye. She felt that being memorable was always an advantage for a politician. But the serious point behind this is that women politicians are still judged in part on their appearances. In fact, I would argue that appearance is even more important now than in the old days. (As an aside, it became even more important when I had my photo taken with her. Being about a foot taller than her I looked like an amazon, and not in a good way, so we did the photo with both of us sitting down to avoid looking stupid)
I went to a briefing session for women interested in standing for parliament (I know, I have no chance, but one can dream) and one of the most memorable things I brought away from that was the notion that how you dress, how you look, can be a decisive factor. That wasn't the party reinforcing outmoded notions of acceptable female behaviour, that was the voice of experience. What we were told was that to get selected you need to win over party members. Party members are more likely to be older. Older people have ideas about what is acceptable and what isn't as far as women are concerned. And the outcome is they expect women to wear skirts, not trousers. Of course it was slightly more complicated than that, but I won't bore you with excessive details. 
But the right to wear trousers is something I hold very dear. It was one of my very first campaigns - arguing that school uniform should have an option so that girls could wear trousers instead of skirts. They relented first with the sixth form, then when I got into the sixth form they caved totally and allowed us to wear jeans, which till then had been banned. And did this bring about the downfall of civilisation? It did not. Or maybe it did and I missed it. 
In fact if I was in charge of school uniforms, everyone would be in trousers and parents would have to make a special case for their daughters to wear a skirt. Or their sons, I'm all in favour of equality when it comes to frozen knees. Let's face it, you're hardly going to join in casual games of football, or whatever, if you're worrying about showing your knickers to the world. Trousers are so much more practical. Someone should do research into whether skirts are linked to the greater incidence of obesity in young women. 
Anyway, back to politics. 
Women are still judged by their appearance. Sad but true. If you want to get on in politics, it's a lesson that needs to be learnt. Men can come in all shapes and sizes, though to be fair the beer belly is falling out of favour. Women need to conform to the stereotype to get on. There will be the odd exception but they are increasingly rare. The idea of what a female politician should look like may have changed - the matron look a la Thatcher, Boothroyd, et al -  is out. Thinner and younger is in, with skirts needed to get you elected, avoiding frills and flounces, low cut blouses, and anything smacking of hippies and social worker chic, but keeping in feminine touches such as a scarf, brooch. And grey hair is for grannies, so keep up the carcinogens and hit the dye. 

The rise to the top

These are interesting times for those who take a global perspective to the role of women in politics.

On the one hand, in almost every region women’s low levels of literacy, pay, job security and political representation indicate that women still face a far more uncertain future than their male counterparts.

On the other hand, globally girls are catching up with boys in terms of primary school enrolment and at the same time, individual women seem to be playing much more prominent political roles. Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice set precedents for a female US Secretary of State, with Hillary Clinton already earning her stripes with trips to Asia and discussions in NATO. In the UK too, we should not overlook the significance of a female Home Secretary and a female Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, to mention only a few; in France, Spain and elsewhere, female politicians are increasingly rising to the top levels.

This is not just the preserve of more developed countries. In 2005, Liberia, a country emerging from a bloody and destabilising civil war, elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as President; in Rwanda, around 49% of its elected representatives are female; Mozambique, South Africa and Burundi have all had more than 30% of parliamentary seats held by women, compared to an average of 19% for contemporaries in Europe.

So, we know that women still lag far behind men according to most development indicators but there are rays of sunshine in terms of individual women achieving positions of strategic importance.

The big question now remains: how do the gains of the few get translated into measurable improvements by the many?

In part, Labour women have led the way. Vigorous campaigning once elected, on issues relevant to women whether maternity leave, childcare, pensions or domestic violence, have shown that Labour women remain committed to advancing issues which make a real difference to the average woman’s life.

But the real answer to the question may lie in something much less tangible. Ultimately, what women in politics need to secure is significant behaviour change on the behalf of political elites.

On a recent visit to Northern Uganda I saw this firsthand. Uganda introduced legislation in the mid-1990s to ensure that a third of all public offices were staffed by women, alongside quotas for women in Parliament. Some specific achievements have been secured but overall, these individual women have struggled challenge the political culture they are now a part of. Informal conversations revealed a common perception that elected women were aping the political behaviour of men; for example, using power to enhance their own status and wealth rather than any broader social agenda.

Ultimately, despite the gains of the few, political commitments to gender equality contained in agreements like the MDGs, and donor commitments to ‘gender mainstreaming’ in development, women in some of the poorest countries (and the richest) will not benefit until politics changes. This needs to occur on every level – local, national and even internationally in agencies like the UN and the World Bank.

Women like Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, and Hillary Clinton, Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith et al are leading the way, but many more may have to follow in their wake until real culture change is achieved.

What a great idea!

I am so pleased to see this new Labour Womens blog.

It's early days yet, but blogging is very male dominated, so it's great to have a forum for women to discuss the issues they care about.

And the culture of blogging can be so cynical and corrosive to politics. So I really hope this will be a space for more mature and purposeful debate.

There is so much potential for using the internet to reach out and engage people in the democratic process. From e-petitions to You-Tube campaign videos, or even just using Twitter to keep in touch. We must use every means we can to engage people in debate as we face the battle for a fourth term.

I think this blog has great potential to spark debate, share experience, and harness the passion and determination of Labour women to shape our politics and our world.

I look forward to sharing your thoughts and ideas!

The problem with politicial jokes

On International Women's Day I was proud to be out canvassing with our great Labour candidate for the mayoral election in Doncaster, Sandra Holland. That election falls on the same day as the European elections in which I am a candidate. Women will make up half of the Labour Euro candidates this year. Contrast that with the number of women Conservative MEPs: two after the 2004 election, down to one now, and she is standing down in June!

This weekend, events took place across Europe as part of the Party of European Socialists' day of action for gender equality. To coincide with International Women's Day it was a chance to highlight the common issues that we will be campaigning on in the run up to the European Elections on 4th June.

The Party of European Socialists manifesto http://www.pes.org/downloads/PES-Manifest_EN.pdf , highlights important issues like human trafficking and sexual exploitation that blight our society and can only be addressed at the European level. Only the PES manifesto, not those of the Conservative or Liberal groups, specifically addresses gender equality issues.

I am relishing this opportunity to contrast our agenda with the record of the UK Independence Party's Godfrey Bloom, one of Yorkshire's MEPs. On being nominated by his UKIP colleagues to sit on the Women’s Committee in the European Parliament, he said; "I just don't think they clean behind the fridge enough". He added; "I am here to represent Yorkshire women who always have dinner on the table when you get home. I am going to promote men's rights", and pointed out that “no self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would employ a lady of childbearing years.”

As they say, the problem with political jokes is that sometimes they get elected. But we cannot afford for the political needs of women to be treated as a joke.

David Cameron can't be allowed to position himself as the family-friendly party leader on the side of women. We cannot allow the Tories back into government to fulfil their pledge to withdraw Britain from the European Social Chapter, so undermining the legal framework which protects maternity and paternity rights, the status of part-time and fixed-term workers, and gender equality legislation. We must call them on it.

We will have no excuses if that “nice”, free market and eurosceptic Mr Cameron is allowed to sneak into Downing Street without women knowing what the Tory agenda would really mean for them. There are lots of women voters still to talk to. We have plenty of work to do.

West Wing rules of dating

My office is currently experiencing a West Wing obsession, and work regularly degenerates into a debate as to who in the office best fits which character. However, this character matching has a darker side...

If ever you go out with a fellow politico it’s fairly predictable that at some stage in the first few dates the West Wing will come up. In my experience, a frequent occurrence is for my date to tell me how “everyone” compares them to Josh Lyman and then, without even batting an eyelid, they tell me that I’m more of a Donna. Don’t get me wrong, Donna’s great, it’s just I don’t think much of a man telling me that in this role play he’s equal to one of the most powerful men in Government and I’m his secretary.

So, here’s a dating tip for any men who have ventured into this female blogosphere, the West Wing is full of fantastically strong women, Amy Gardner, Nancy McNally, and Joey Lucas to name a few, next time you get into the West Wing conversation, spread the net more widely...

London Young Labour Event

Congrats to Jessica for setting up this much needed blog! I started blogging a year ago when I ran in the Fortune Green by-election - a ward that has been controlled by the Lib Dems for over 25 years.

However, a friend convinced me to start blogging about my campaign just because he loved blogging himself. I was hesitant initially but I’m really glad I did because it spiralled from being just a blog about an unwinnable election to my thoughts on Labour Party policies; promoting fundraising and other events in my CLP; my comments on international affairs and more.

I can also check my blog statistics so I know exactly how many people have viewed my blog posts or my photos – it’s very addictive I tell you. I can also view the search terms people have used to get to my blog and this has kept me entertained for hours on end – they range from ‘tibetan tulip’ (?) to ‘videos of tulip’ (I’m sure that particular visitor was searching for something else...)

Anyway, I’m also Women’s Officer for London Young Labour so I use my blog to raise awareness about the issues that are important to young women living in London. For International Women’s Day, I’m hosting an event in Parliament where we’re having two newly elected female councillors speaking. Louisa Thomson and Rohini Simbodyal will be speaking about their election experience from a female perspective as the process can often be very male dominated.

They will be giving us an overview of the whole process from getting selected; producing leaflets and direct mails; surviving a husting; dealing with the local media; canvassing; working with and motivating Labour Party members; polling day operations and finally the sweet taste of victory!

The event is taking place on Wednesday 11th March at 7pm in Room O, Portcullis House so please do contact me through my blog http://www.tulipsiddiq.com/ if you would like to attend.

Please note that although this event has been organised by London Young Labour, you do NOT have to be under 27 to attend!

Sunday, 8 March 2009

“The coven is meeting again, I see...”

An immortal line uttered by one of my lecturers, with a sparkle in his eye. He had just spied three of his colleagues from the feminist thought course hunched in earnest conversation over their morning coffee. I had to smile.

But the comment does betray something that we will have to grapple with on this site. That there are quite a lot of people – men and women alike – who are a bit turned off by the whole idea of feminism.

Whether it takes them back to the days of hippy hairstyles and fights they think have already been fought and won; or because the performance of girls is now better than that of boys from primary school to university; or because in today’s society being a career mum is still far more accepted than being a stay-at-home dad. They’re just not that into us.

I’ve just started reading a book called The Political Brain by Drew Westen. It talks about how most things in life carry with them a network of associations – thoughts that are triggered by things that politicians do and say. It is these associations, Westen argues, which determine how we vote. This made me contemplate what associations are bound up with the idea of feminism. I did a quick (and unscientific) straw poll.

Despite the mix in gender and age, and the fact that I would count everyone I asked as a feminist, the results were consistent. When prompted by the word “feminism” people first thought of burning bras, Germaine Greer and the 60s and 70s. From visions of militant lesbians to a resurrection of the mother in Mary Poppins, the associations were in the main not positive ones.

It is fair to say that there is a lot of ground to reclaim. And that is what I hope this website will be about. Making feminism relevant to how we all live our lives today and spreading the positive associations of equality and choice and dignity and partnership into the blogosphere.

So let’s get cracking.

Teen Pregnancy

Teenage pregnancies occur across the globe for various reasons. Britain is not gripped in an epidemic of teenage pregnancy as most of the population seems to think, but it is an issue that we need to tackle. I raise this as I come across it daily in my working life. With teenage pregnancy is attached social stigma and this often results in poor life outcomes for all involved.

The irony is that it is these same poor life outcomes that give rise to this situation in the first place. Poverty is the most obvious indicator for a teenage pregnancy. With poverty come low educational expectations. A girl is also more likely to become a teenage parent if her mother or older sister gave birth in her teens.
Women exposed to abuse and domestic violence in childhood are more likely to become pregnant as teenagers. Sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence in some teen relationships result in low self-esteem and unplanned pregnancies.

Fostered children are more likely than their peers to become pregnant as teenagers. Peer pressure, drug and alcohol abuse contribute to young people having sex when they are not ready.

Society still has a lot of myth-busting to do. How can we do this, when I hear a professional, someone who works with young teenage girls, say that they only do it to get a council house; what utter nonsense is that? There is little evidence to support the common belief that teenage mothers become pregnant to get benefits, welfare and council housing. Most know little about housing or financial aid before they get pregnant and what they think they know often turns out to be wrong.

Good sex and relationship education starting in primary school is the key to effectively reducing the number of teenage pregnancies. It is complete rubbish to say that this will encourage youngsters to have more sex. Teenagers are going to have sex, and society needs to ensure that it is safe and informed sex. Education and services need to be planned and delivered in a way that improves access. I still see clinics where a 30-something suited-and-booted woman is sitting alongside a 14-year-old along some corridor in a dark and dingy clinic. If, this 14-year-old returns to the clinic it will be a miracle. Sex education in schools is archaic; teenagers laugh their way through it just as they did when I was experiencing this awful embarrassment at school.

A lot of teens are already using contraception, but they may use condoms incorrectly or forget to take a pill. Long-term reversible methods of contraception such as the implant or the coil may help fight this but how many of us get offered the choice? We ask for the pill when we mean contraception. The GP gives us a script for that pill and we walk away as always. We need to promote more informed choice for all women regardless of age.

The Government is tackling this but I fear what might happen if there were to be a change of power. Labour is the only party that can solve the social inequalities that continue to exist for some of our youngest and most vulnerable women, even in 2009.

Politics and the Modern Woman...

As the launch of this site coincides with International Women’s Day I thought it might be an interesting place to start to dispel a malignant stereotype that has for far too long kept so many women off the political stage – the niggling thought that politics ‘just isn’t for them’.

The idea of politics being much more of a ‘man’s world’ is a misconception at the very heart of explaining why, quite frankly, there just haven’t been and still aren’t enough women involved in British politics.

My story isn’t perhaps the usual one. I was selected as the Labour PPC for Skipton and Ripon just a few months after my 19th birthday, in turn becoming the second youngest prospective parliamentary candidate in major party history. Since the change in legislation allowing anyone from the age of 18 to stand, there are now three of us running under 21. And guess what, we’re all young women.

The confrontational nature of the House of Commons has had many a man quaking in his breeches over the centuries and, in all honesty, it sometimes really isn’t the most appealing of places to work. You see the petty squabbling, name calling and point scoring undermining the important, perhaps life shaping issues in hand, and think that not only would you like to bang their child-like heads together, but that your time is better spent elsewhere.

But that’s just letting them win. If women, who have at times found it harder to break their way into traditionally male led domains, have learned anything over the years, it’s that change from inside really is the only way forward. And so we’ve got to get in there and do it ourselves. It was only after the 1997 general election saw droves of first time female Labour MPs sitting on the green benches that things finally began to change. With more practical debating and voting hours now in place and childcare provisions being improved, our Labour women have been fighting for us from within. And that’s just in Parliament itself.

These women have also fought for the minimum wage, increased maternity leave and the introduction of paternity leave, so that family responsibilities can be divided more fairly. And although we’ve still got a long way to go before we have truly equal pay in our society, leaps and bounds have been made in the right direction. Strong female leadership from those including Harriet Harman, Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith and Yvette Cooper, has been at the very heart of this. They’ve shown that our Labour women are fighting for all women, and, to borrow from Sorkin’s West Wing, how about we go and get their backs?

It still is, if we’re honest, largely women who have to make that tough decision about how to juggle a career and family, and if I’d been paid every time I’ve had the line ‘oh so you’re one of those modern women who want it all are you?’ thrown at my, apparently ridiculous, suggestion that I would quite like both a career and a family, then Sir Fred wouldn’t have a patch on me. But is that going to stop me trying? Not for one second.

Feeling uneasy about entering the political world because we don’t like the way some men talk either to or about us is, in fact, more of a reason to get stuck in than walk away. If we let certain people, including many a right wing blogger, carry on in this way then, actually, the buck stops with us too. So what if Jacqui Smith wants to wear a top that isn’t a plain turtleneck, or the wife of a cabinet minister, who has never herself courted public opinion, wears a coat with a flower on it? Too often the debate is reduced to pointless, insulting comments from those who have, clearly, just run out of valid arguments. And more fool them.

So let’s stick with it and carry on raising the standard of debate in our representative chamber. Because not only are we strong, but we also have a lot to give. And as it says on the back of every single one of our Labour membership cards, it is, in the end, through ‘‘the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone’’.

Politics is very much a woman’s place, if she chooses it to be. If not, then that’s fine, but we should never be held back for fear of misogyny, prejudice or because we think ‘it just isn’t for us’.

Hopefully we can use this blogsite as somewhere to discuss any issues like these that we, as progressive women, do sometimes come up against, and create a useful network of ideas and support for each other.

Here’s to International Women’s Day.

Winning the fight for Europe

I was pleasantly surprised this afternoon as I wandered along the Southbank trying to get unsuspecting members of the public to agree to be interviewed about their views on whether Britain should join the euro (don’t ask). Maybe it was my incessant need to read the British blogospheres’ views on Europe that had left me in despair but the people I met today (both those for and against membership of the single currency) were happy to engage in debate and open to new ideas.

But maybe things are looking up in general. Gideon Rachman posted a great article in the Financial Times this week renouncing his euroscepticism. Ok ok, so the FT usually serves up a fairly balanced view of the EU, citing its successes and failures in equal measure. Yes, even I will admit it has its flaws but I won’t go into them here (well at least not in this post). In keeping with the occasion (Happy International Women’s Day) let’s look at why those elections in June are so important for Labour women.

As we gear up to the European elections in June, we have to remember just how much we have at stake here. Currently, only 31 percent of the 785 MEPs are female, but of that 25.6 percent of UK MEPs are female. Mirroring Westminster, it’s the Tories that let the side down. Whilst Labour may have an impressive 42 percent female representation and a female leader to boot, the Conservatives only manage one female MEP in their 27 strong delegation. Pitiful and that’s even before I get started on UKIP…

The equal representation of women in the European Parliament is not just a means to an end but a force for change in wider society. When we lead the way we can legitimately call for change. Glenis Willmott, newly elected Labour leader in Europe, has today called for more women to be considered for one of the three top posts in Europe which are up for grabs this year. We already reached a milestone last year with the appointment of Baroness Cathy Ashton as Trade Commissioner – Britain’s first ever female Commissioner and Europe’s first ever female Trade Commissioner.

Not only do we have to fight to ensure the threat of a BNP victory is kept at bay but also make a strong case in the battle for minds and hearts on Europe. A loss of Labour seats in June will not just be a loss for the Party as whole but a particularly damning blow for Labour women.

Beer – not exactly a typical topic for a women’s blog…

However I am the PPC for Burton, which is the best constituency in the country. It is the home of the British Brewing Industry and has a proud brewing tradition dating back over 1,000 years. Every part of the town has some historic link to Beer from the Marmite factory, using the yeast by-product from beer, to the village of Tutbury, where I live, and the castle where Mary Queen of Scots was caught as a traitor – sending messages to her followers via barrels of beer.

As the aspiring MP for Burton, I am also one of the few politicians in the country who can happily have her photo taken whilst drinking a pint and to be honest it would be somewhat disrespectful not to!!!

There are 2 major Brewers based in Burton-on-Trent – Coors & Marston’s. We are also lucky to have several micro-Brewers including the Burton Bridge Brewery and the Old Cottage. Each company produces distinctive beers which could only be made in Staffordshire, but all of them face increasing financial difficulties due to the current economic crisis and the tax and regulatory environment.

At the moment 39 community pubs are closing every week and most of them will never re-open. For those that are surviving they are watching and waiting for the next budget. This industry simply cannot afford to absorb another increase in the duty escalator and this year it could be as much as 10p on every pint. We need to be realistic. The duty escalator has not made a difference to binge drinking and if anything it has driven people to drink at home rather than the safe and regulated environment of their local.

I am incredibly proud of Burton-on-Trent’s brewing heritage which is why last week I launched a campaign to celebrate our town and our contribution to British culture. John Healey MP visited one of the niche breweries and enjoyed a pint of White Shield beer to help me launch the “Best of Burton” campaign, check it out at www.bestofburton.co.uk.

Beer is a bit of a political hot potato at the moment. But the debate is very much one-sided. Real Ale, Indian Pale Ale and Lager can and should be a normal part of our society and I for one am proud to stand up for the British Pint.

And for those you who want to come and help out in a marginal and make sure that we win the next election – all I can offer in exchange is a pint of my local product…

International Women's Day

Today on International Women's Day, we blazed a trail through history, celebrating the achievements of women through the ages.

We charted women's struggle for universal justice and simultaneously launched a brand-new CLP Women's Forum on its powerful maiden voyage, whilst outside the March vortex of wind and rain pelted the South Quay and the River Ouse in answering drama.

Interspersed with my stories of Beatrice Webb's plan to sweep away poverty, banish the Victorian Workhouse and build the Welfare State & tales of the Pankhursts, Emily Wilding Davison and the Suffragettes, the 1908 Rush on the House of Commons and the Monster Rally ....

... came contributions thick and fast from the floor about .... Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the Rights of Women, Olympe de Gouges and the Declaration of Women's Rights in the French Revolution and a simultaneous lively debate on ....

..... the Gender Pay Gap, the Care Gap, Toxic Debt and The Parcelling- Up and the Selling-On of Securitised Liabilities ( like, we said, so many out-of-date sausages), Fawcett's Reclaim the Night Campaign, Minimum and Maximum Wages, Gender and the Law, Financial Exclusion and Increasing Women's Representation....

We applauded Labour's Tax Credits, Family Friendly Working, the Minimum Wage ( which has helped over a million women) forthcoming changes for Women and Pensions, Surestart, the NHS, Maternity and Paternity Leave and Pay .... Wow ....

This was Politics at its best.


A critique of how far we've come and how much further we need ( and are going ) to go.

With Labour's landslide victory in 1997 putting 101 Women Labour MP's in Parliament for the first time, women reached the critical mass needed to put gender on the agenda.

Gone were the days in the House of Commons when male Tory MP's thought it was the norm to laugh at the Labour Woman MP's who raised the issue of violence against women.

Or when legislators routinely directed against women MP's behaviour which would have been illegal in any workplace (see Boni Sones OBE's book Women in Parliament, the New Suffragettes, for the shocking revelations).

But all gender achievements are so relatively recent in the grand span of recorded history. It is only 90 years since any women at all won the right to the Parliamentary vote, in 1918 - when Parliament had been around for as long as 650 years.

As late as the 1970's, as one woman recalled today, women could not obtain a mortgage or a bank account without a male guarantor.

Today, only 1 in 5 MP's is a woman, and there have only ever been 29 women in the cabinet.

For the future, Labour Women's destination continues to be Fairness ( which doesn't happen by chance) .

Fairness is good for the economy, good for society and good for women.

Research shows that businesses with women on the board have higher profits.

The staggering 44% gender pay gap in financial services hints that all is not well in that particular industry.

So today's message is this -:

Equality is non-negotiable. Never a disposable add-on. Particularly not in an economic downturn.

The key to engaging more and more women in the party is to keep pushing the boundaries. As Labour does.

The women who succeeded, who made an impact, were women who thought outside the box, who changed public opinion, who would not take no for an answer.

Watch this space.

Alexandra Kemp is a CLP Women's Officer

Public Services - what do women think about choice and control?

This blog site is a great idea - not least because it is looking to solve a problem most of us know exists, but which we find hard to articulate or support with "hard" evidence. The hypothesis that women don't get involved as much or speak up in political discourse because of the routes through which we force the conversation to take place was a real driver for me in setting up the Fabian Women's Network 4 years ago.

One of the reasons I did it was because I was I believed we could create new spaces in which women could come together to engage in political debate and influence policy, in forums that felt more appropriate and welcoming than our usual political spaces. It was never to replace what exists, but to actually start to reform it - as well as to offer an alternative.

I've recently been reading about work done to support women going into public life, or even move on in the private sector. I found the following excellent quote in "A Woman's Place is in teh Boardroom" by Peninah Thomson and Jacey Graham (p22), which illuminated a lot of what many women 'feel', with an explanation for why. I'm not sure I agree with all the analysis, but a lot of it rings true.

She is discussing different responses men and women make to stressful situations, and the different chemical phenomena that take place in men and women. She then goes on to argue that gender differences transcent cultures, and referencing You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" by D. Tannen and William Morrow (1990) she says: "We talk in different ways too, for different reasons. Male conversation is public, competitive, status seeking, factual and designed to demonstrate knowledge; female conversation is private, co-operative, reassuring, empathetic, egalitarian and meandering."

I remain convinced that we all adopt male and female "types" of conversation at different times, but that perhaps we have our preferred defaults. However in a male dominated environment, those with a preference for female conversation would need much more to adopt male conversation patterns to "fit in" or feel heard.

So perhaps we can feel empowered knowing there are differences, and its ok to be different, and ok to choose which mode we want to be in and when. What this blog can do, however, is hugely important in letting women talk, just in the way they want to.

However if we are to have more quantity of debate, as well as quality, women need to start talking about mainstream political issues in a far more confident way. I'm going to start today with an issue that will get coverage this week, as the Government unveils a new strategy - and that is Public Service Reform.

Women vote a lot on public service issues. So it must mean we all have views. The shift that Liam Byrne highlighted in a Sunday Times interview this weekend was moving the debate from choice to control. So I'm fascinated to kick off this conversation with Labour women. What does this mean to us and for us? I hope you'll find the time to put some thoughts down, and I'll do another blog in a week to come back on the issues raised!