Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
The Ipswich Conservative Association’s annual summer party celebrated the opportunities for getting more women into politics, with a speaker who told us about her own career: as a banker, mother and recruiter.
Days later, after a male-dominated contest for the keys to No.10, the Conservative’s second female Prime Minister left, favouring a day at Lord’s, whilst the incoming PM, Boris Johnson, sacked the UK’s first female Defence Secretary (a Brexiteer) after just weeks in the role. Winning respect within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for her passion and determination, Penny Mordaunt has ten years’ experience in the Royal Naval Reserve, first as a rating, then Sub-Lieutenant; only weeks before her sacking, she was awarded honorary Commander status by the Queen, conferred on just 30 people.
Now the Conservatives have also lost the inspirational Ruth Davidson as Scottish Leader. The pressures of the job meant spending less time with her baby son and family; although she remains an MSP, hopes that she would eventually take on a national role at Westminster have diminished. A sad day for all of us, but further evidence that politics is a massive commitment, especially at times of crisis and division.
But what message does the loss of these three high profile women, not to mention the summary sacking of a young female Treasury advisor, send to potential female recruits to politics, especially when – immediately prior to the changeover in Downing Street – the Liberal Democrats chose a woman, also a mother, as their leader? Labour is the only party not to have had a woman leader, except as an ‘interim’.
Women account for 51 per cent of the population, yet their presence at the top of business and in politics falls short of that number. Whilst the new Cabinet does have women in key roles, and – critically – both men and women from varied ethnic backgrounds, it is essential that talented individuals from across the spectrum are encouraged to aspire to government – both local and national.
Under normal circumstances, having a lot of money can alleviate some pressures, especially after selection when candidates, including local council candidates, are expected to use their own cash in campaigning. Are those lacking sufficient funds to contribute deterred, although passionate about helping people: listening to them and developing strategies to help the majority, not the minority? Swiftly dropped, the social care policies for the elderly and disabled would never have got into the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto if top politicians had listened to those working ‘at the coalface’ – councillors who have, themselves, experienced personal struggles and are in daily contact with those in need.
This disconnect is further amplified by the Centre for Social Justice’s recent proposal that the retirement age should be increased to 75; whilst some people choose to work beyond current retirement age, perhaps part time in retail, or as journalists, authors, gardeners or continuing in the professions, it should be their choice. Supplementing income, to sustain mental capacity, keep fit and prevent loneliness are key reasons, but not everyone is sufficiently fit to continue, especially in manual occupations. Thousands of retirees are also volunteers, as coastguards, in hospitals, libraries and museums, helping maintain public parks, etc. Without them, charities and communities would collapse, and families left without childcare when parents are working, or the love and devotion lavished on the frail and elderly by unpaid carers – usually women.
It’s easy to forget that, during its last administration, Labour took billions out of the UK private pensions sector – the best in Europe at the time. Women, in low paid or part time jobs, were especially disadvantaged as employers wound up their schemes; many people now have to rely on the State pension and, despite efforts to support and encourage today’s workers to contribute to a private pension, the benefits for average earners are unlikely to match those which were lost.
For the lucky few, whose private or public sector pensions are protected and sufficiently generous, allowing early retirement in middle-age without major responsibilities, and opportunities for another career – local politics is an option. However, this can lead to an imbalance with many councils dominated by older, often retired and affluent (male) members.
So, more effort should be made to attract younger people, both men and women, from ethnic and diverse backgrounds, bringing a vast range of practical knowledge and understanding; balancing family, financial, and career pressures, they have a very different outlook on life and their contributions are invaluable. They bring a fresh commonsense approach to decisions impacting ‘ordinary’ people’s daily lives, including housing, children’s services, or cancelling bus services, which contributes to isolation.
They must be encouraged to become engaged, and listened to, if we are to enable them to realise their ambitions, adapting policies to meet changing demand, and environmental issues. Younger people are also more computer-literate, which means that they understand how technology could improve services. Consequently, their guidance would be invaluable in joining up provision.
However, whilst MPs complain of abuse from sectors of the electorate, councillors – especially women – are also victims, often targeted by opposition parties. There is no excuse for such behaviour, but it wears people down, and puts others off entering politics, as will current threats to deselect successful MPs, whose local Associations continue to support them; this is nothing short of bullying. We are not robots, and should value debating different views, whether or not we are in agreement.
None of this is helping to bring more women into politics. They can already lack the confidence to put themselves forward, despite many being involved with local schools and helping their communities. To overcome such reluctance, Conservative Associations could hold special social events, hosted by female mentors, to attract and encourage potential candidates – allowing freedom of speech.