Ensuring that women can rise to the top—including within the Labour Partyby / July 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
There are many splinter groups in Westminster. The Conservative “awkward squad” Remainers compete against the hard Brexiteers. The Labour Party seems to have so many different groups it’s hard to keep track of which Whatsapp group to respond to. The Socialist Campaign Group, Blue Labour, new labour, new newLabour (I made this one up before you get over-excited about the prospect of the party splitting.) All these groups are aggravating for change, seeking to use their collective voices to amplify their messages.
The Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, of which I am the chair, is different. It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, grouping. Comprising 119 female MPs and 64 female peers, if Labour women sing together it’s difficult to turn a deaf ear. Decades after Harriet Harman set up the group (which she was told off for at the time) these women are working together to change things.
This is crucial since it’s not just the government which is in need of a nudge on gender equality, the Labour Party is too, and the Women’s PLP will continue to strive for better female representation in local constituency parties right up to the national leadership.
I know the Labour Party has never elected a woman leader where most other parties have, and if I’m honest I think that sucks. But Labour voters did elect more women to parliament in 2017 than any other party ever. Labour women do take up a whacking great space on those green benches.
Just as with all the other groups that exist in parliament, members of the women’s PLP use their collective mettle to push their agenda. And we are a positive caucus—not a division within the ranks. For all that is written about the Labour Party’s family feud, at the fortnightly meetings of our collective you will see Shami Chakrabarti and I happily drawing up priorities together, while Diane Abbott and Luciana Berger talk about how to improve safety and security for women MPs. All are welcome, all are heard. This is not to say that disagreements don’t arise, they do, but they stay in that room.
The fact that nearly 50 per cent of Labour MPs are women is because of the pressure applied by this group to change the party rules, to demand positive action.
Policies on national childcare, domestic violence and social security which the country now takes for granted came from Labour women fighting their corner—on behalf of women everywhere. In the Labour Party it is never about the individual, always about the collective.
The Women’s Equality Party (WEP) tells us, and themselves, that they are here to make politics more feminist. This is admirable but frankly the Women’s PLP has been doing that for pretty much my entire life. I try not to wince at WEP’s insistence that they are the ones changing things. After all, they mean well and have some good people.
So what now for the women’s PLP, bigger than ever before? This hung parliament could spell a period of complete inaction from the government, but change is being pushed through from elsewhere. In the last few weeks, Stella Creasy has made the most of the government’s weakness, leading a group of MPs to change a ridiculous rule which forced Northern Irish Women to pay the NHS if they wanted an abortion. The following week Diana Johnson finally sealed the deal in getting a public enquiry into the contaminated blood scandal.
The government cannot afford votes that it might lose, so it has to listen and essentially give in to demands. This presents the Women’s PLP with a real opportunity.
Together the women’s PLP has drawn up a list of priorities that we will work together on. These are; ensuring that the new domestic violence bill is the best it can be, not just a legislative framework but a lever for actual action in people’s lives. We want to see government and Labour Party policy reflect what it is like for women in receipt of social security. There is so much government policy which could really set back the poorest women. The impending rollout of universal credit, paid to only one person in a household (it doesn’t take a genius to work out who that might be), the government’s two child policy, not to mention the rape clause.
We want to be ambitious for carers and care workers, and make sure that public policy and industrial strategies don’t forget that at all stages in their life women still take on the bulk of caring. Moreover, the care industry is almost entirely staffed by women. But progress in this area is not just good for women: it will be good for families, the economy and the treasury.
Labour has more female MPs than most UK political parties could even dream of. I’d wager that the prime minister wishes she had even half that number of MPs she could rely on for deep-seated loyalty at the moment.
Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham, Yardley, and Chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party. Her book Everywoman is published by Hutchinson