Whilst I was out at the weekend campaigning in Hampstead & Kilburn to get the brilliant Tulip Sadiq elected Austin Mitchell picked up his poised pen and with one article brought shame to our PLP. Not only were his comments ageist and sexist – in the extreme – he also demonstrated complete contempt for both our party and his constituents. In doing so confirmed every disengaged voter’s fear about the politicians – that they’re only in it for themselves – and showed us exactly why we need All Women Shortlists and why politics needs to change.
To suggest that having more women in the PL P would mean the party was more concerned with “social, educational and family issues” and “pre-occupied with the local rather than the international and small problems rather than big ideas” insults the intelligence of every woman MP and PPC out there and the party members who selected them. (As Kev Peel points out elsewhere he obviously hasn’t ever met PCCs like Sophy Garnder, selected last year as Labour’s candidate for Gloucester following a distinguished career in the Royal Air Force including deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.) It is also insulting to families everywhere to suggest that our party shouldn’t be speaking out about the issues which are affecting so many of them.
Apparently “Women MPs are more amenable and leadable and less objectionable” – I’d like to see him try to tell that to Harriet Haman with a straight face and see her response.But it seems to be young women in particular that Austin has a problem with “oldies being replaced by amenable youngsters”. What makes them so ‘amenable’ and “less prepared for all-night shenanigans of the parliamentary kind” is a mystery… how very dare they ever agree with our leader and seek to bring Parliament into the 21st century!
For someone who has sat on the Labour benches for some 37 years Austin has a surprising lack of knowledge about our own policy and how our party works. Apparently “most selections are no AWS” – untrue. Party policy is to try to achieve a balance of AWS and non-AWS selections across the country. Apparently “not all of the 30 or so who are standing down wanted to go” – untrue. Every sitting MP was given the opportunity to state, very early on in the process, whether they wished to seek re-selection or not. Those choosing to step down are choosing to do so and at any rate the people who decide whether they serve another parliamentary term is not the Labour Party but the voters in their constituency.
But his contempt for those of us within his own party doesn’t stop there – apparently “the faceless functionaries on the Organisational Subcommittee of Labour’s National Executive, which makes the decision without knowing anything about local circumstances, are told they will accept one…It is duly imposed”. What utter tosh!
As a member of the NEC I have always considered it my responsibility to get to know what our members are thinking, what their hopes and concerns are so that I can accurately represent them at committee. And as an independent member of the NEC no one controls my vote at the NEC but the members I’m there to represent. That’s why I’ve used up my own annual leave from work and spent my own money (NEC reps don’t get any expenses for any of this work) to travel to over 119 CLPs across the country. I’ve been to speak to Great Grimsby CLP (Austin wasn’t able to make it the day I was there) –so I know something of the local circumstances and the activists and have a huge amount of respect for them.
Discussions on the application of AWS at the NEC Organisational Sub-committee look at the balance of AWSs across the region and the country, the electoral prospects of the seat, the history of selecting women in the past and, yes, the local circumstances. Many of us are lobbied prior to these meetings by CLPs with strong views and as a representative of those members I could not, and do not, ignore those representations. Our decisions are difficult – often impacting many groups of members who have different objectives and I know we cannot please everyone all the time – but we try to take a fair and balanced approach and deliberate at length. I’ve argued before that we do need to take a more strategic and transparent approach to deciding which seats are allocated AWS so we can tackle the, false, accusation that an AWS = a ‘fixed’ seat and will continue to do so.
When Austin said that “Neither the PLP not the Commons are good places for oldies with any ambition” I hoped he was going to argue for other ways to contribute but his statement that “oldies don’t get parliamentary trips, interesting assignments or media appearances, so what’s the point of staying on” demonstrates the ‘ambition’ he talks about is for himself, not his constituents. What a sad way to end a 37 year career and what a slap in the face to the electorate. The people of Great Grimsby need a representative who is ambitious for them, who cares enough to fight the good fight and ensure their voice is heard in parliament.
In amongst his bucket of bile Austin did have two valid points; there are not enough women coming forward for selection (women still only make up 13% of all applicants in Open selections) and members should always be given a choice in selections. A view that says seats are “all sewn up” is both untrue and a deeply damaging self-fulfilling prophecy.
We do need fairer selection processes that provide a level playing field for candidates of different backgrounds and resources – I have been arguing for that in my role on the Collins Implementation committee and support spending caps in selections. But it’s also about providing pathways of development through the party – of the CLPs I’ve visited I’ve been struck by the fact that there are only about 10% of those that have a woman Chair. In the vast majority of cases the CLP Chair is a man and the CLP Secretary is a woman. I’ve asked the party to provide the demographic breakdown of CLP Office bearers across the country to see how much of an issue this is and to start a dialogue about how we develop more of our under-represented groups in the party and I have previously asked that we draw up procedures to ensure that Org Sub is informed and can take action to ensure that all selections are competitive. Until these things happen and we achieve a PLP that is truly representative of the people AWSs are absolutely necessary.
But then what would I know, I am just a “faceless functionary”, apparently…
Johanna Baxter is a member of Labour’s NEC