Change the Culture, NOT the Candidates!
By Maura Reilly
Image source: Canva, Edited by Maura Reilly
With women making up a total of 1,124 of 3,322 candidates, a record number of women are running in the upcoming parliamentary election taking place on December 12, 2019. Women are now 34 percent of all candidates, and while this is not perfect parity, it is a huge improvement compared to the 29 percent who ran during the UK’s last general election in 2017. This success in women’s representation on the ballot comes on the heels of a record number of women Members of Parliament (MPs) standing down in the upcoming election citing abuse and the stress of politics on familial obligations.
A total of 72 MPs have stepped down in this cycle, 20 of whom are women. Although the number of men stepping down outnumber the women, the women standing down tend to be younger than their male counterparts, many of whom are retiring. Many of the women who are leaving Westminster cited an overwhelming uptick in abuse both online and in person, a lack of formal maternity leave policies, and a general work schedule difficult for parents and mothers in particular. Sam Smethers, the CEO of the Fawcett Society an organization campaigning for gender equality in the UK, commented on the number of women stepping down: “We have to confront the fact that our toxic politics is driving good women MPs away. In 2019, it [Parliament] is still a hostile environment.”
The levels of abuse toward MPs has increased with the heightened tensions of the Brexit debate and has resulted in Constable Garry Cannon, from the National Police Chiefs’ Council, issuing a warning to women candidates during this current campaign period. The warning suggested women candidates never campaign alone, inform someone where they will be at all times, bring a fully-charged phone and not canvas after dark, which happens around 4:30pm in the UK at this time of year. The suggestions put the onus on the individual candidates to change their campaigning habit rather than addressing the deeper issue of abuse.
The influence of Brexit on the abuse and threats women candidates face is impossible to ignore. Beginning in 2016 with the murder of former MP Jo Cox, a Conservative Party member who campaigned against Brexit in the run-up to the June 2016 Referendum, Cox faced several online threats and was eventually shot and stabbed by a man shouting “Britain first” who had links to neo-nazism. Since the murder of Jo Cox and the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, abuse and threats cuts across ideological positions and parties, with women in all parties and with both pro and anti-Brexit positions being targeted. MP Rachel Reeves, running for re-election with the Labour Party in Leeds, has along with other women MPs taken additional precautions in the election including not publicizing campaign visits or sharing pictures until after events, has said the atmosphere has drastically changed since she first began in politics in 2010, stating “people are a lot angier and there’s a lot more polarization, particularly around the Brexit issue.”
Candidates in Jo Cox’s former constituency, Batley and Spen, have signed a cross-party pledge to run campaigns free of abuse and intimidation. Additionally, the Jo Cox Foundation is working to create and implement a Joint Standard of Conduct with all UK parties for both election and non-election periods. Kim Leadbetter, Jo Cox’s sister and the current ambassador for the Foundation spoke to the New York Times, saying “it only takes one individual who cannot see the difference between violent, aggressive and abusive language and an act of violence that can change people’s lives forever.”
Unfortunately, the movement to create a less hostile and safer political environment is coming about slowly and narrowly. Women candidates are forced to alter how they campaign, limiting public engagements and time to canvas. Women continue to face an onslaught of harassment by campaigning online and through social media as well, further limiting safe spaces for women candidates. The threats and intimidation focused on women candidates, further silences women’s voices in the Brexit debate, both for and against, which has been a hallmark of Brexit since the referendum campaign.
The increasing number of women running in the election is great progress, albeit incremental, but it is not enough to just have more women in politics; politics and parliament need a culture that is supportive of women. We don’t just need more women to run, we need an environment that is safe for women to run, win, serve and lead; one in which a culture of intimidation is not the norm, but obsolete. In order to achieve a slower turnover rate of women MPs, more modern maternity and family leave policies are needed in Westminster and an overhaul of a political culture which not only allows but encourages bullish threats and attacks.
Maura is a RepresentWomen Fall 2019 Research Intern from the Washington, D.C. area. She graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland this past spring with an honors degree in Social Anthropology.