It’s 2017 - So Why Does Parliament Still Feel Like a Gentlemen’s Club?
Since becoming an MP a couple of months ago, it’s been hard to ignore the obvious: that Westminster still behaves like some sort of gentlemen’s club. It’s clear, too, that it is not welcoming or accessible for those of us who have arrived there via less privileged routes. The dress, the ceremony, the segregated bars, the archaic procedures and complex rules are all alienating for working class people. Working class people, of course are more than capable of learning very quickly how the system works, but you can just tell it has been designed and maintained by people who are used to private school pomp. As I’ve said in interviews, it’s the strangest office I’ve ever worked in.
It’s an interesting time for parliament and the Labour party. Many of the 2017 intake are from different, more diverse backgrounds. Some of us have been driven to make our protests and statements. My colleague Hugh Gaffney made his statement by coming in his Parcelforce work shirt - and was apparently directed to the post room - but went on to make a passionate maiden speech about the privatisation of the Royal Mail. Jared O’Mara has expressed disappointment that, 12 years after the Disability Discrimination Act was passed, he was forced to ask for adjustments to be made just so he could take part in debates in the chamber.
We have all heard the stories of MPs being asked that awkward question, in a variety of different ways: what are you doing here? I know of women MPs who have been mistaken for cleaners, and others being wrongly asked to leave the members-only spaces. I myself was assumed to be the wife of an MP in my first few weeks. I know mistakes can happen, but from other conversations I’ve had with working class women in parliament, I know this wasn’t an isolated incident: it’s part of a bigger, male dominated culture, reinforced by old traditions and the newer tradition of the media circus.
There's an appetite amongst the class of 2017 to start to challenge some of the more entrenched attitudes which make it more difficult than it should be for those who’ve traditionally been excluded from the political process. This rebelliousness has a history, of course. When, in 1991, Tony Benn (helped by Jeremy Corbyn and Helena Kennedy QC) put up a plaque in a Westminster broom cupboard to Morpeth suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who had hidden in the Crypt of Westminster Hall to get her name on the 1911 census entry for the House of Commons, he was attempting to highlight the exclusionary nature of parliament. Over a century on from that brave act, we’ve undoubtedly made progress. We do, however, still live with that culture of exclusion.
I'm not interested in criticising the way parliament functions, its opulence or opposition to elected members just for the sake of a cheap jibe to make myself feel better, or for a few extra followers on Twitter. But surely we have to question this extremely powerful institution, what it looks like to the outside world, what message this form of representation sends to constituents and if its systems stifle or empower change. I know there is an understandable attachment to traditions in this country. There’s nothing wrong with that. The Palace of Westminster is a beautiful, historic building. We have to recognise, however, that for many in this country it is also a symbol of corruption, power, dominance, greed and suffering.
We have to distinguish between those traditions which are simply respectful of our past and those which hinder our democratic progress. Our democratic spaces, be they in parliament, County Hall or within the Labour party, should be open and accessible to all and to make this happen we have to demand it and force that change.
I find it particularly noticeable that we have very few working class women in parliament, in part because the path to Westminster is really expensive and time consuming and can rarely be achieved without your trade union support. Making parliament function a bit more like a progressive modern workplace (which I know is scarce in wider society too) would help: more flexible working, the opportunity to job share and equality policies being foregrounded. This is clearly high on the priority list of the Labour party and trade unions, but it should be the concern of all parties, and our democratic institutions as well.
Of course, those raising these issues are often met with an accusation of naivety or envy, but that is missing the point. One of the reasons why the wider, voting public have become disillusioned with Westminster politics is exactly because of the lack of working class representation in parliament. A person’s politics rightfully trumps everything - a wealthy socialist’s vision and representation would do more for working class people than any working class Tory - but identity is important too. Underrepresentation in general, be it the lack of black and Asian people, disabled people, Gypsy, Roma or Traveller people or LGBT+ people in parliament has a knock on effect on the issues members of parliament are willing to elevate and esteem, and who and what they are prepared to fight for.
The amount of people who have said to me that it’s heartening to hear a North East accent in the House is a bit of an indictment of our system, really. This has added to the impression that Westminster is a bubble, divorced from the real lives of many of our constituents. When we fail to make the system clear, accessible, representative, understandable and welcoming of participation, disenfranchisement inevitably increases. We can only change that if we take radical steps to reform our systems and challenge the way we’ve always done things.