Time for more working-class women in Parliament
Transcript of the speech by Bernadette Horton at Class Conference 2014:
Imagine a working-class woman, educated at the local comprehensive, bright enough to go on to A-levels but then marriage and a family come along; not University. One of the children is autistic so any hope of a decent job is plucked away as a full-time carer’s role is the only option. Then picture a car accident that leaves this working-class woman disabled with a mobility problem, but nonetheless a burning desire to climb into the political arena and change the narrative. But being outside the ‘political bubble’ it is like being led to a pitch black, dark alleyway with closed doors leading off and told to navigate down it with various hazards on route. Whichever way she turns, she can’t work out the trick to make the doors open because they are controlled by the political elite, politicians and the right wing media who can unlock the doors as they have the correct contacts, the passwords and the secret handshakes.
Then enter Unite the Union and Len McCluskey. With the birth of the new concept of Unite Community that opens up union membership at 50p pw to people who don’t work in the traditional unionised workplaces like carers, the disabled, students, the self employed and retired, the working class woman is opened up to a world of new education: public speaking courses, community activism, setting up a community branch, and access to Unite tutors to help her navigate the political representation route. Unite help out with all the travel costs that previously held this woman back from participation and education. Unite give the woman self-belief and self-confidence that she will be able to change the political narrative and enter the arena, as the courses provide a toolbox of skills she can use.
That woman is hungry to change the austerity story. That woman is me.
In 1979 in Westminster 40% of elected Labour MPs were from a manual or clerical working class background. In 2010 this had dramatically decreased to 9%. Where I live in Wales, well over two thirds of the 30 assembly members come from a middle-class background of law, PR and heads of public bodies. It is time for change.
While the Labour Party recognises the under-representation of women in Westminster, by using All-women Shortlists, it certainly does not recognise the woeful under-representation of working class people and disabled people. Watching from the sidelines while people applaud All-women Shortlists is frustrating. Most of the women selected are from middle-class backgrounds. This may even be acceptable if some of the women had working-class values. But there is nothing worse than seeing these women and indeed shadow female ministers, lamenting the opportunities and the way in which austerity is effecting the working class, then driving home in their Chelsea tractor to the nanny who has put the kids to bed as she relaxes with a nice glass of claret and looks forward to dinner parties at the weekend!
Walk a mile in our shoes. Have your day interrupted by school who want you to turn up ASAP as your child is having a meltdown. It’s the third time in as many weeks and your employer is more than annoyed. Fear of losing your job is a daily worry. My husband and I are self-employed and low-paid. I have a regular features column in the Morning Star covering topics on working-class austerity and political representation. We have 4 sons and we are on working tax credits as a top up to our low pay. Income fluctuates a lot. Now walk round the supermarket with £40 to feed the family for a week. You get innovative, but there is no room for treats or fripperies.
There are working-class people living lives the Westminster elite can’t begin to guess at. Not for a month or 6 months but day-in and day-out all year round on a Tory enforced austerity that affects us the most, the people at the bottom. The Tories have been successful at pitting people against each other; old v young, working poor v poor, able bodied v disabled, men v women. The politics of a selfish, ‘every man for himself’ society. And women are bearing the brunt of austerity the most. But we hate being represented by people who only seem to empathise but have no idea at all what it is like to live our lives.
With the help of Unite I am able to lift my personal barrier to political representation and unravel what is essentially an upper middle class jigsaw to becoming an MP or in Wales an AM. I have this week been accepted onto the list for an AM seat in 2016.
But there needs to be a wholesale cross-party change into how ordinary people can gain access to political representation; how candidates are selected and indeed financial barriers removed entirely as this is what makes it so near impossible to enter politics for working class people of both sexes.
There has been much said in my paper The Morning Star about opportunities for women in politics to job-share on a part time basis. Caroline Murphy the leading businesswoman in construction on the left and campaigner is a huge advocate of the part time job share MP. Cameron and his party are just about to dismantle the Access to Political Office fund in May 2015 for disabled people wishing to enter politics. What was damned hard will be near impossible if this rung of the ladder is taken from us.
My union mentor me and are always there at the end of the phone or by email should I need specific advice. Personally I have made connections via Twitter and at the events I attend with many of the trade union group of MPs like Ian Lavery and Grahame Morris who are always happy to offer advice. But that help is not available for women outside of a union environment. There are no courses or mentoring or explanations of the almost impossible political navigation process by the Labour Party. Whilst our selection is undertaken as democratically as possible by CLPS, is this always the right way? For example many disabled candidates are being overlooked the minute they come through the selection door as many of the panel see their health as an issue and a barrier to selection. CLPS are selecting some working class candidates but not enough. However there are more 1st generation university people who still hold dear working class values of solidarity and the strong helping the weak.
For the private school educated Eton boys it’s a smooth stroll to that safe seat in Parliament. For this woman there is Everest to climb. I will do it with the help of my union behind me all the way. Working-class people in working class communities deserve to be represented by one of their own. The House of Commons does not look or even think like the electorate. It’s a democratic deficit to be addressed and resolved. Now it’s time to stop talking and time to start acting for the Labour Party. Let Labour MPS reflect the people who built the party; the bricklayer, the miner, the nurse, the shop worker, the carer. Political reward waits if the party acts; political wilderness if it refuses to listen.