For the first time in Islington’s history, over 50 per cent of our councillors are women. This landmark achievement was the result of long-term measures and commitment to increasing diversity. This included significantly increasing the number of candidates selected by all-women shortlists (AWS), as well as a lot of hard work by our local campaign forum (LCF) and CLP women’s forums to identify, train and support talented people interested in local government.
Somewhat predictably, when we celebrated this achievement online we received a barrage of negative comments suggesting this was sexist to men, that identity politics is stupid and what really matters is selecting/electing the best person for the job.
A strong commitment to AWS is something that unites every Labour NEC member. Nevertheless I have often heard a section of the wider party membership criticise the shortlists, with AWS opponents often suggesting that the practice poses a threat to merit. This prompts an interesting question – what makes someone the best person for the job of being a local councillor?
Do you want the person who is the hardest working Labour activist who is always out campaigning and knocks on the most doors? Or the person with the most directly relevant experience? How about the person with the politics that most closely mirrors your own? Is the best person the articulate, confident public speaker who makes the best speech at the selection meeting? Or the community activist who brings a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the experiences of their community? Is the best person someone with the strongest understanding of how a council works and how to get things done? What about the person with the strongest local connection, who is deeply rooted in their community?
If you are selecting a group of people, you probably want men and women who bring together all of these attributes and more. The point of striving for diversity is to elect a group that accurate reflects the community they represent, a group with shared Labour values that will be in touch with the needs and views of local people.
A strong Labour group is made up of people from all ages and backgrounds. This is also why it is so important that we continue the work to select and elect more women, BAME, disabled, LGBT and working class councillors. The strongest teams are made up of people who bring different skills, perspectives and experiences.
As the votes were being counted last week, I chatted with the three Labour councillors of my neighbouring ward. They are three different individuals in terms of their personalities, their backgrounds and their professions (a teacher, a social worker and a prison officer). It is their values and dedication that unites them. They work brilliantly together as a team, delivering for the voters who put their trust in them. Each one of these very different people is the best person for the job.
Ideally we want to get to a place where all-women shortlists are not necessary and our selection processes naturally deliver gender balanced, diverse candidates. In the meantime, AWS – used alongside other measures to support and encourage talented people to stand for election – are extremely effective. The party is also currently exploring the idea of introducing all-BAME shortlists and other positive action that can be taken to increase diversity of political representation.
Labour is making progress in increasing diversity at local and national levels. It is right for us to celebrate success, and also recognise that there is still a lot more to do.
Alice Perry is an Islington councillor and NEC member.