In Manchester, with the Manchester Central by-election and Police and Crime Commissioner elections out of the way, we now have no elections expected until 2014. This doesn’t mean we’re taking it easy – I know members have been out on the doorstep locally over the weekend, as well as helping out in advance of this week’s by-elections, and we’re sending a minibus to Rotherham on Thursday. Nevertheless, it does give us a bit of a pause to reflect on our next steps – and when you’re in an area with as many talented and experienced party activists as Manchester, those next steps tend to include a selection process or several.
I should hastily add, before you all sit up at your keyboards, that I have no gossip, at all – this absolutely isn’t that kind of column. I’m just aware that between the rash of recent elections and the next ones coming over the horizon, and the smell of selections is in the air, and it’s got me thinking.
The other weekend, some of you may remember, I had the privilege of ‘covering’ Labour Women’s Network’s Political Day event for LabourList. (I say ‘covering’ like I’m Laurie Penny or something: all I had to do was sit there eating a falafel wrap and pressing ‘retweet’.) It was a fascinating and incredibly valuable day, and the first event of its kind. However, many Labour women will be familiar with LWN’s more regular selection training events.
And this event didn’t disappoint – after a full day of panel discussions on everything from Obama to Page 3, the final session was indeed about advice on selections and elections, from those who had been through one or both. It was…exhausting, frankly. I can put some of that down to it being the end of a very long day, and some down to the fact that the overwhelmingly energetic Suzy Stride was on the panel, but there’s no getting around the fact that the detail and depth of advice all the speakers gave was terrifying, demanding and very, very good.
One problem, however – and this isn’t at all a criticism of LWN, who do a fantastic job of widening access to Parliament and of supporting Labour women to do things they never thought they had in them, and have done for years – why are we so focused on getting people into Parliament?
It’s not only Westminster selections occupying the thoughts of Labour’s rising stars. The next time Manchester people go to the polls (touch wood) will be for the European elections in 2014. In the North West we have one excellent Labour woman MEP already in Arlene McCarthy, hopefully to be joined by Theresa Griffin, who was an excellent candidate in 1999, 2004 and 2009: but where are all the women putting themselves forward as new candidates? Where were all the women in the PCC elections? (Here’s another interesting fact I picked up at the LWN event: six out of the forty-two newly-elected police and crime commissioners are women. Six!) Where are the women elected mayors and the women council leaders? There are women in these positions, of course – great ones – but the level of representation is dismal. And yet as a party all of our focus, all of our agonising about the need for women candidates and BME candidates and local candidates and whether and how these lofty ambitions conflict – and, most importantly, all of our training and support – seems to fetishise Westminster.
We have active members and supporters – women and men – who are never going to see Parliament as a place for them (and there’s no shame in that: I’m reminded of the Nye Bevan quote Paul Richards repeated on LabourList as advice for the 2010 intake of MPs); but as Nick Cohen noted yesterday in the Observer, some of the best work Labour can do while we’re in opposition has to happen outside the House of Commons. Let’s work towards making Labour representative and accessible in all the places power resides. After all, a woman’s place is not only in the House.