in Politics, Wandsworth

I don't like International Women's Day. Not really. And not because I'm misogynist, but because I just think we should have moved on by now. As a species you would have thought we'd have developed enough, educated ourselves enough, that such days were unnecessary.

Of course, we haven't. Inequality persists. And that perhaps gives me another reason to dislike it: a day just seems a bit of a feeble response.

The council meeting last night did, of course, mark International Women's Day. The Labour group put down a motion noting the role of women in local politics historically and today (pdf) but which also noted that woman and minorities are hardest hit by austerity.

Perhaps predictably the Tories responded with an amendment celebrating Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. I often think that's something of a fig-leaf used by the Conservatives. Highlighting only the number of female leaders totally neglects the underlying issues: that there are still disproportionately few women in politics1. I'd argue Labour, as a party, has done far more to address that by all-women shortlists and funded development than the Conservatives who are only slowly catching up on this.

However, that's not to belittle the huge achievement of women who have led parties. So Malcolm Grimston and I proposed and seconded a further amendment that recognised both Thatcher and May, but also all those other woman who have led political parties, including Margaret Beckett and Harriett Harman (who acted as Labour leaders), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Ruth Davison (Scottish Conservatives), Kezia Dugdale (Scottish Labour), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru), Arlene Foster (DUP) and Caroline Lucas (Green Party). I'm sure I've missed some.

While Labour immediately supported this and a few on the Conservative side did likewise (Kathy Tracey was notably early to support) I was shocked, and a little ashamed, at the opposition the motion provoked.

There were suggestions that procedurally the motion was improper. The council leader, Ravi Govindia, was one who felt this way and suggested—in an almost threatening way—that the Mayor "might want to reflect on that", even though it clearly was procedurally fine. There were several members grumpily muttering they would not support the motion and several minutes of confusion passed before a vote was actually taken, with the Conservative group initially keeping their hands down, before realising voting against was indefensible.

Even then, several were visibly repulsed at having to recognise the contribution of non-Conservative women. They'd happily vote to recognise Thatcher and (perhaps a little less happily) May, but it was a vote for their politics and not their gender.

It's debates like that which prove exactly why we do still need International Woman's Day. When a majority of a council (and both men and women among them) are so openly hostile to a simple motion, is it any wonder there isn't a gender balance in our political institutions?

I keep returning to a mantra of how a council should be setting a tone, it should be showing moral leadership. But when I watched it in action last night, needing it's arm twisted to vote for something as straightforward as gender equality, I think we can probably do without moral leadership from that particular crew.

  1. I think it's still Rwanda that has the record for the highest proportion of female legislators, around 60%, although for somewhat tragic reasons and there are some questions about how meaningful that is in a highly patriarchal society.

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