I’ve only once experienced a proper social media pile-on. It was during the 2017 council elections, when I was a candidate. Kezia Dugdale, then Scottish Labour Leader, came out campaigning with us in Partick. We got a photo of the two of us, with a bike from the Glasgow bike share scheme – she tweeted it and tagged me in, and I went off to do something else. A couple of hours later, when I next opened Twitter, my mentions were a bin fire – screeds of abuse, from people of all political stripes. I remember telling someone about it that evening, laughing it off, and yet feeling a lump in my throat as I tried not to cry with the weight of the unpleasantness of it all. And all of this was in response to a picture of two women with bicycles, saying what a good day they were having campaigning.
I think about this whenever I see another female politician drop out of frontline politics to do something else or when I see anonymous accounts sending creepy replies to young women who are simply out campaigning. Politics is brutal and politicians and those around them are human beings after all. There is much talk about the disproportionate level of abuse that women in politics receive, although sadly much less in the way of suggestions for what should be done about it.
We know that women in politics face significant levels of abuse and harassment. Abuse on social media is a daily occurrence for women in politics, and for women of colour, the level of abuse is significantly higher. In Westminster, there is a culture of bullying and harassment at all levels, particularly of women, that has become normalised and accommodated by the institution. Similarly in our councils, women are often facing sexism that would not look out of place in the 1970s. If women do speak up about abuse or harassment, they are often told to become more resilient and accept this as part of the “rough and tumble” of politics, or – even worse – to keep quiet so as not to harm the party’s reputation. And it’s not just the abuse. Day by day, women’s voices are given less weight than men’s across our political chambers – interrupted, talked over, ignored. There is a Punch cartoon from the 1980s which shows one woman at a table of men, with the caption “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs, perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” It is, of course, only funny because it is true, still, nearly forty years on.
Between the relentless abuse, and the drip drip drip of everyday sexism, there is a lot of emotional weightlifting that goes on in being a woman in politics, with extra weightsadded if you are a woman of colour, LGBT or disabled. We don’t need more talking about the problem, we need more action.
So what action do we need? There are some practical things that should be done as soon as possible. Centenary Action Group have been calling on Parliament to enact 106 – that is, s106 of the Equality Act, which would require parties to publish information on the diversity of candidates for Westminster, Holyrood, and the Senedd (and would ideally be extended to council candidates also). Getting a political class that truly represents the diversity of our communities is not sufficient, but is a necessary step towards shifting the culture in politics. This should be a manifesto pledge of the next Labour Government.
In Scottish Labour, we have systems that aim for 50:50 candidates in elections. But that only works if we have enough women putting themselves forward to stand, and the work towards that begins years out from elections. If we want women to make up at least half of our councils after the next election, the party should be proactively working with women now to encourage them to explore their political ambitions, and to equip them to stand.
We also need to look at the structures in our institutions and our political parties, to identify and address the barriers to women’s engagement at all levels. The Scottish Parliament has recently published a report on their gender sensitive audit, which, while acknowledging the progress that has been made towards equal representation in the parliament, recognised that it is not yet embedded, nor is it guaranteed going forward, and highlights action points to progress this. This type of audit should be completed by all elected institutions, as well as political parties, with clear implementation plans being written and reported on.
When women experience abuse or harassment, we need to get to a place where zero tolerance really does mean zero tolerance. While we are waiting for social media companies to clean up their own act – and parliament must keep up the pressure for change – we need everyone involved in politics to actively call out abuse online, which includes the so-called “banter”. The quality of debate in our council and parliament chambers should be a model of good engagement rather than, as it all too often is, a model of bad behaviour. This sort of culture change comes from the top, and we need party and group leaders to be both modelling this and encouraging it in their own groups.
We are beginning to see an improvement in the complaints procedure in Parliament, with the introduction of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. Likewise in the Labour Party we are seeing the introduction of a new independent complaints process, for complaints involving protected characteristics, although the latter process has been criticised by Labour Women’s Network for falling short of the fully independent process they have been advocating for years. Time will tell how far these new schemes go towards rooting out sexist abuse and harassment, and we need good – and independent – reviews of these schemes, to assess and improve them over time.
The culture change that we need will be years in the making, but we need to see action now, to make it happen.