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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Connecting Communities:where are women's voices?

Monday, October 3, 2005

At the Labour Party conference Meg made the following speech at a fringe meeting organised by jointly by the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) and the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE).

 

Moving in the circles we do, attending fringe meetings like this, it’s easy to assume that the argument for hearing women’s voices has been largely won. Reading about French politics on Saturday it was reported that Segolene Royal, a successful socialist woman politician, is putting herself forward as a possible candidate for the French presidency. Extra interesting because she is the partner of Francois Hollande, the parti socialiste’s leader and mother of his four children. A rival to be the party’s candidate, Laurent Fabius, decided not to go for a political attack but jeered “Who will take care of the children?”

 

Can anyone imagine that being said about Tony Blair or Gordon Brown? But what about Yvette Cooper or Ruth Kelly? 

 

If we listen carefully we don’t have to look far to find people who think that women’s voices are not important. People who think we don’t need to make any effort to help women take part in political and democratic processes.

 

The title for this session is ‘Connecting Communities’, and ‘communities’ is a word with many meanings. Communities can be harsh, frightening, racist, oppressive. They can be safe, supportive, happy places. I guess many have elements of all these. But there’s something about being part of a community that we feel is important to an individual. 

 

Most communities are based on location, and there men ‘went out into the world’, from the early hunter/gathers to getting the wage. Traditionally women stayed at home, grew the crops, looked after the kids and the home fires. But, as they say, times change. Women in the UK comprise 52% of the population and 48% of the labour force. For much of their lives - childbirth and childcare apart - they do much the same as men.

 

An interesting view is contained in a Fawcett Society briefing, actually about why less women than men stand for political office, but it applies generally. They explained women’s reticence as being due to the 4 C’s - culture, childcare, cash and confidence.

-         The culture of politics is confrontational, I win you lose. This can turn many women off getting involved in the political process. The way political discussions are held - taking up a position and arguing it rather than talking round a situation to develop a solution.

-         Childcare (and other caring roles) have always been ‘women’s work’. This inevitably means the carer is at home, not available for the meeting, not available to give their input.

-         Cash - it can be expensive to get around to meetings. It can be expensive to attend a meeting if it means missing your shift. Then there’s paying someone else to look after your kids. I fully accept this applies to many men as well.

-         Confidence - if you miss out on meetings where do you gain the experience to put your case in a way that people will listen to. In the vast majority of fringe meetings this week, most of the speakers have been men; most of the audience have been men.

 

On the positive side - we have examples of where women have made their voices heard despite the 4 C’s - the McCartney sisters in Northern Ireland have ensured that their brother’s brutal death wasn’t just another statistic. Or further afield the bravery of the mothers of the Plaza De Mayo in Argentina, whose non-threatening but on-going demonstration for news of their children ‘disappeared’ by the junta helped move a society.

 

On a range of issues, often local, women do manage to make themselves heard - street lighting, local schooling, child vaccinations. Take Michelle a young woman in my constituency who became active through the threatened closure of her children’s school. I’ll never forget the sight of her accosting David Blunkett in the middle of Sheffield, arguing her case, asking for 5 minutes of his time as he wanted 5 minutes of hers to go and vote for him (actually of course she was, I hope, voting for me). She lost the argument for the school but has gone on to run community groups, and is now a community worker in an organisation that organises activities for kids, advice and training for local people.

 

Michelle is an inspiration to other women who grew up on the same estate, went to the same school as her. But the crucial question for me is what next? I’ve no doubt that Michelle could make a contribution beyond her estate - whether in politics, the local council, or other organisations that provide services such as the Primary Care Trust.

 

So why doesn’t she? - I think there are two reasons - firstly she doesn’t think it’s for her - the confidence issue, and secondly we don’t have the systematic means to help her do so. By this I mean having systems that could help build her skills and confidence so that she would believe that she could do it. Having resources to support women to take part - money to meet expenses, loss of earnings coupled with sensitivity to times when women can take part. I’m not suggesting that is easy, there will always be times which are convenient for some but not others. But do organisations really make the effort?

 

When I moved to Barnsley I went along to the local Labour Party and was surprised to find, contrary to my previous 15 years experience, excellent chairing and running of meetings. At all levels in the party the intricacies of moving motions, handling amendments, how party structures related to each other were done with confidence and ease. I soon realised that this was the training, and dare I say mentoring, not a word they would have used but that’s what it was, that these men (and they were men) had received through their unions, mainly the NUM. A clear structured pathway that took them through first involvement to positions of responsibility, giving confidence they could take on the next role. For so many women, these pathways do not exist. So we fail, in the jargon, to “build their capacity”.

 

Organisations, the local council, parliament or the primary care trust, have to demonstrate that they are interested in the issues that are of importance to women. Our Government has done better at this in recent times, with focused resources going to children, additional child care places, legislation on domestic violence - and I argue that there is a clear connection between more women MPs and these issues being addressed.

 

Having demonstrated that the organisation is serious it then has to develop ways of listening to what matters to women. Women are not a homogenous group. What affects one group doesn’t affect another; they have different and contrary opinions. The Big Conversation process was one means by which the Party tried to do this. It was a truly refreshing experience for me to find people who had previous harangued me about the UN, the Iraq war, actually sitting down and calmly talking about these issues when invited to do so. The less confrontational approach to political issues that the Big Conversation project encouraged worked well in my experience in providing a space that many women, and a lot of men! felt more comfortable with.

 

But we don’t need to wait for initiatives from the ‘top’. There is no reason why local branches of the Party cannot organise their own listening events. Of course, MPs and councillors should be out and about finding opportunities to meet women and hear their concerns. And it is through that contact that we should be developing our policies and our priorities - changing what we do to demonstrate that issues that matter to women are our concern. A kind of virtuous circle.

 

Then we get to the really difficult part; stimulating the involvement of the women themselves. At every level in public life there are less women involved than men. We have to create both the desire to get involved and the belief that it is possible for them. Resources are needed to meet the practical problems of involvement, and crucially we have to develop ways of increasing confidence and skills to take on these roles. This means more formal and informal networks for networking and mentoring.

 

So how do we get the commitment to develop these processes and to provide the resources they need? It isn’t easy - we have to be determined and never let up.

 

-         Make the arguments as to why we are important - politically we made some progress with the arguments that women’s votes were more volatile than men’s and whoever won the women’s votes would win the general election.

-         Demonstrate that, contrary to the Michael Buerk view of the world, women are still subject to huge discrimination - only ever 291 women MPs, 8.3% of top judges, 40% pay gap for women in part time work.

-         Encourage women in positions of power at whatever level in society to support and mentor other women to develop.

 

Changing the way society works, how it values different people, different jobs is difficult and time-consuming. Sometimes, as in the example from France at the beginning of my contribution, it appears we haven’t made any progress at all. But we have and we need to take confidence from that to continue to move ahead.   


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