This year, in effect, International Womens' Day marks two anniversaries. International Womens' Day itself, and the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act of 6 February 1918. The piece of legislation heralded as the dawn of the female franchise. But in fact, this gave more working men the vote than women. Parliament passed an act granting the vote to women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities. Many working-class women did not answer these qualifications, and it wasn't until the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 2 July 1928 that women gained voting rights on equal terms with men, without the financial and property qualifications.
My own Grandmother could not vote until she was 40. A highly political woman, who actively campaigned against racism and the rise of the Blackshirts and the British Union of Fascists in the East End, she understood the importance of a women's place in politics. She told me about the struggles of women since the 1830s, and how women's' exclusion from the franchise had effectively kept women from playing an active part in the making of legislation, or even preventing legislation being made which harmed them and their families. How, until the Married Womens' Property Act of 1882, women had no right over their own property or children once married, with disastrous consequences. The struggles of the Suffragists and the Suffragettes, the obedient and the disobedient, and the women's' war work which finally earned them the vote. This made it into recent, living, history for me. The fact that my own grandmother had been through this, and proudly voted in every election after finally gaining her vote.
She was the person who explained to me the importance of voting, how and why to use my vote, and the feminist history and heritage behind it all. She also told me how the country wouldn't really change until there were more women in Parliament (though I am pleased to say that she thoroughly disapproved of Margaret Thatcher). She was also the person who inspired me to get politically involved, no matter what your background, because the only way to change things is to be involved in the decision making processes behind them. I can truthfully say that I would never have believed I could stand in Local Government and beyond, without her.
She also told me that the other piece of important legislation, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed on 21 November 1918, and that in many ways this was even more important than the female vote, because it allowed women to represent the views of women in Westminster and play an active role in the legislative process.
So although I can say I am inspired by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and other feminist icons, the woman that inspired me was basically an ordinary working-class woman.
We need more women in politics, and we need more ordinary women in politics in general. So why aren't they there, and how can we change this in the future to make sure that the demographics of those that make the decisions matches the demographics of those they decide about, so their views and issues are more accurately reflected in the political scene?
Why aren't there more working-class women in politics? Why aren't there more mothers in politics? Women with disabilities? Why, in order to succeed in politics, is either childlessness or affluence necessary? Not to mention the absence of LGBT and transgender/gender fluid women on the front benches?
As a Councillor, I can truthfully say that Council is not planned around either the needs of parents, or those who have full-time jobs. Meetings can be during the day or the evening, and finding a childminder who will work evenings is a near-impossibility. I rang every single childminder on the LCC approved list, and not one of them would work around it. Things are also often called at short notice. I can have one week with non-stop meetings, and another with none at all. Try finding any childminder who will work around that. Childcare allowance is only available for scheduled meetings, and you have to jump through hoops to receive it, and it is not payable for ward work or casework, let alone surgeries.
The stipend is supposed to be for the additional expenses incurred by working as a Councillor, but HMRC count it as earned income, so it effectively cannot be used for the purposes for which it was intended.
Difficult enough if you have a job, and it can seriously curtail the committees that you can be involved with. But as a 'stipendiary occupation', the role of Councillor poses even more problems if you are not blessed with a full-time income. It basically doesn't count as a job, so if you are unemployed, you still have to look for work around your commitments. The income is counted as part-time earnings, but you are not eligible for Working Tax Credit or the Childcare Element of this.
There is also a large assumption that all jobs are 9-5, without demanding hours, or on restrictive or zero hours contracts, where missing work means missing pay, and employers are not large enough or not willing to give you time off for official duties.
If you are in receipt of disability benefits, since the inception of PIP, if you are seen doing too much canvassing, casework, or campaigning, you have to be careful not to lose your benefits altogether, despite the fact that your disability may well prevent you finding an employer who will actually employ you. This can put many women with a disability off of applying to stand in any capacity.
Add to this your commitment to the Labour Party individually, at Branch level, and at CLP level, and its' meetings, canvassing and community engagement requirements, and you can see the issue for anyone with family commitments, whether it is caring for children, elderly parents, or a partner or family member with a disability.
Not to mention the financial commitment of being a member of the Labour Party, and member of a union, which is a difficult choice when you are on a low income. Factor in things like paying for any newsletters or leaflets, extra campaigning material and transport to events, and women on low incomes may be precluded from this, however much they might wish to be part of this. When it's a choice between eating and campaigning, it's not an easy one.
Networking is difficult without the possibility of attending national and regional events. But these too are expensive, both the events themselves and the travel and accommodation when they are far afield. The Labour Womens' Network events are amazing, but when you have factored in a weekend course costs and transport plus a weekend's childminding, they begin to spiral out of the reach of many ordinary people, yet if you are intending to stand they are often the only guidance made available. Attending the Labour Party Conference this year in Brighton was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, but had I not attended as a delegate, wildly beyond my reach.
This, combined with the low levels of the Council Stipend, means that the only people who are freely available for Councillor posts are historically either retired, students, or those with an independent income.
But the women being most affected by the savage cuts of 'Austerity' are the ones who need a voice. The ones who should be standing up in the Council Chamber and Westminster explaining exactly what the consequences are for ordinary people. The ones who are excluded by this financial apartheid.
So how can we change this? The Labour Party is traditionally the party of the poor and the dispossessed, so how can we ensure that we are not further excluding the very people whose voices need to be heard? By being aware of these issues, and changing our internal rules and practices to reflect this. By fighting to change external processes and constitutions to reflect the changing world we live in. People can feel excluded enough by society, but The Labour Party, by changing proactively with the times, can make sure they are not excluded either from the Party or from the democratic processes of this country. We can make them feel part of things rather than constantly on the margins of life.
Simple things, like having our meetings at a variety of times, in accessible locations, accessible not only by car but by public transport. By offering lifts to members unable to access transport for either reasons of inaccessibility or finance. Running free training and skill sharing for members who cannot access or afford the more expensive national training, so everyone feels that they are expanding their political skills.
We can offer child-friendly events too. Why not have an afternoon 'Political Tea Party', rather than a meeting in the pub? This also includes women from BAME communities who may not feel able to access meetings in licenced premises. When we are running a canvassing session, why not use some of the members who are unable to doorknock to run a crèche during the session, to enable parents with caring responsibilities to attend? This has a social element both for those on the canvassing session and those in the crèche who will feel they are contributing positively to a Labour win.
For members with disabilities, rather than suggesting that they run phone canvassing and leaflet folding at home alone, have a pizza-party folding session and phone bank, so they can meet other members and feel involved? Involve members who can't necessarily leave home in running intelligent and targeted social media campaigns from home. Many of these members have the necessary skills and just feel wasted and disincluded, and disengage from the Labour Party as a result. Whereas we could be mirroring National's successful use of online media, with a local slant.
Labour is beginning to change its policies in regard to LGBTQA women and the Transgender/Gender Fluid community nationally, but this also needs to be reflected at a local level.
We can make our fundraising events cheaper and more accessible too. We could also have a 'bring a friend' event to encourage involvement. For those who simply cannot afford to join, we could have a local 'associate member' status for £5 a year, where people could campaign and attend events, and feel a part of the Labour Party.
Many members are also involved in their communities in community involvement activities, which gives them a high profile, but also uses their time. The Labour Party needs to recognise locally and nationally that being a part of the community which you intend to serve is equally valuable. As there are only so many hours in the day, allow them to exchange some of that community time against campaigning time, as it is making them as, if not more visible in the community.
Within local government, constitutions and rules need to be addressed, from the times of the meetings to the stipendiary rules. Nationally, Parliament needs to be a more family friendly institution. If major institutions begin to address this from the inside, society will begin to address this as a whole, but whilst the legislative bodies have more punitive rules than the worst employer, real change will never happen. The Labour Party can be the proactive force behind the change.
Some of it may also be about the National Labour Party recognising that people from poorer backgrounds need more financial support to be able to access political forums. It could be as simple as including a question on the application forms about extenuating personal and financial circumstances which may prevent you from applying for office. Therefore the Party could provide additional finance and support for candidates facing these disadvantages, and create a truly level playing field, including extra financial support in the constituencies where these candidates run.
If a woman's place is in politics, this means opening it to all women. If we are the party of the many, not the few, we need to reflect the diversity of society at all levels of Government. Whilst quotas and all-women selections go some way to addressing this inequality, the elephant in the room is equal financial access to the political process. If we can address this, the future of the Labour Party is indeed working-class women.
As Dennis Skinner recently said, the future of the Labour Party is those working-class women, “we need more people who know what it's like to work for a living”, if we are to avoid the potential disconnect between the so-called 'metropolitan elite' and ordinary, traditional, Labour voters. He believes that female working-class MPs have an integral part to play in the reshaping of the Labour Party. But the Labour Party regionally and locally must also put this into practice, and lower the barriers to all women by recognising and addressing them to make this a reality. Then, and only then, might the next leader of the Labour Party be female.
If a woman's place truly is in politics, let's make this a reality. For all women.