Ahead of the centenary of women being able to stand for parliament in the UK, 11 female politicians share what they’ve learned about breaking into politics.
Almost a century since the first woman was elected to the House of Commons, women have made huge strides in politics – yet we’re still significantly underrepresented in parliament. Just 32% of MPs and 26% of the cabinet are women, despite our female prime minister, and Britain has had just 491 women MPs since 1918. That’s fewer than 50 more than the number of male MPs currently sitting in the Commons.
Why does this matter? On the most basic level, democracy functions best when those in power truly understand the needs and experiences of the people they represent – and research has repeatedly shown that women politicians are more likely than their male counterparts to focus on issues that matter to women.
Getting more women into parliament is one of the many ways we can get closer to true gender equality – so we asked 11 female MPs and the leader of the Women’s Equality Party to share the advice they’d give to women considering running for office. Prepare to feel inspired…
Dawn Butler, Labour MP for Brent Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities
“I suppose I have always been politically active without even realising that I was being political. I walked out of school at the age of seven because of a disagreement with a teacher and held my first strike at the age of 11. As an adult I have faced racism, sexism, ageism and misogyny – and as I got more involved in politics I faced more, not less, which was a bit of a surprise to me.
If you feel passionately about an issue, I would recommend following my CORE principle: Campaign, Organise, Recruit and Educate. Use your voice to mobilise others, and find people who share your vision and values; I can’t stress enough the importance of having good people and true friends around you. At the same time, know that you will not be universally liked, and make peace with that.
I have said before that perhaps we will only have true equality when there are as many rubbish women as rubbish men in politics. I say that in the hope that women can know that they don’t have to be extra special to succeed in politics. Don’t get me wrong, it helps, but it isn’t the prerequisite for the job – after all, look at all the men in parliament.”
Maria Miller, Conservative MP for Basingstoke and Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committe
“People shouldn’t become MPs because they are interested in politics, then should become an MP because they want to improve their community. So get involved: become a school governor, join your hospital board, your Parish Council or your local community centre fundraising committee. Understand how you can make a difference first.
Politics is about making a difference. If you have made things happen in your local community that will give you all the confidence you need to become more involved in politics.”
Jo Swinson, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Shadow Foreign Secretary and MP for East Dunbartonshire
“My first political action was signing petitions in The Body Shop when I was about 10 years old. There are many ways you can get involved: contacting your elected representatives to raise issues, sharing campaigns online, or volunteering some time with a local organisation. I’d also encourage you to get involved with politics by joining a party, standing for election yourself, or volunteering to support others who do.
Feeling a bit daunted is totally normal and not a reason not to do it! Councillors and MPs are just (fairly) normal people – we all had to learn the ropes and while parts of the job are tough, it isn’t rocket science. There is no exam or qualification you need to be a successful politician. The most important thing is that you actually care: about people, your community, and the things that need to change to make our country a better place.”
Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party
“I became an activist and politician because I was tired of being taken for granted. I was tired of seeing politicians think they already had my vote in their pocket and that I would continue to wait in line until they got around to me. I was tired of having my equal rights dealt out piece by piece as others saw fit, under tired political structures that didn’t understand the lived experiences of women.
I became a politician because I understood, finally, that no one was coming to the rescue and that I had to save myself. And it was liberating. So my advice would be – don’t wait to be asked and don’t ask for permission and don’t hesitate to do things differently. We can’t achieve women’s equality by operating within the structures that are holding us back. So raise the roof. Climb the barricades.
And don’t ever forget that no one woman will have equality until we all have equality. It takes a movement to break down structural inequalities and it takes women from all backgrounds and experiences to find common ground. Don’t be tribal. Collaborate. The strength of our resistance is in our linked arms.”
Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central
“My mum was very political – football and politics were what we talked about at home. She was also disabled and couldn’t work so I grew up on benefits, meaning that public services like great local schools, council housing and the NHS made all the difference to me. I joined the Labour Party when I was 16 because I felt strongly that everyone – in the UK and abroad – deserved the chance they gave me.
If you want to become more involved in politics, I would say: do it! And do it now! But make sure you have support. Reach out to women’s political networks and to women politicians. Any woman in politics who isn’t willing to help other women get into politics needs to take a long hard look at herself.
Always remember you have something amazing to contribute – your experience, your views, your life. Those – generally men – who take up all the political airtime, they have no better right to speak than you and very often less to say of any use! Speak for yourself, and for all those whose voices need to be heard. If women are not in the room when decisions are made, women will always be disadvantaged. And if we are disadvantaged the whole of humanity loses out.”
Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion and co-leader of the Green Party
“I started my political activism at Greenham Common, where inspirational women from across the UK came together to protest against the barbarity of hosting US nuclear missiles here.
My one piece of advice for women is to get involved in something you’re passionate about – join campaign groups and a political party. You’ll meet other people who are doing interesting things, and learn plenty of skills too. Also, don’t be afraid of not knowing everything. It’s very easy to strive for perfection, and in the process not speak up on issues we care about. Success is all about risk taking and asking the right questions.”
Gloria de Piero, Labour MP for Ashfield and Shadow Minister for Justice
“As a teenager I was always aware that I was from a poor background, but was never sure what, if anything, I could do about the poverty that I and many others faced. When I was at sixth form I went on demonstrations organised by my student union, and was overjoyed to discover there was a political party I could get involved with to fight injustice.
If you want to become more politically active, get in touch with the local political party that most aligns with your beliefs, and convince your colleagues to take up issues that you feel passionate about. Stand for the council and for parliament. The only attributes you need to be involved in politics are a passion to fight for what is best for your community and your country, and that you can make a difference. Be true to yourself and don’t try to be anything you aren’t.
If you have doubts about your own ability, switch on BBC Parliament for five minutes and ask yourself – am I as good as some of them? In fact, am I a more human version of some of them? Of course you are. And that can only be a good thing.”
Justine Greening, Conservative MP for Putney
“I never planned to go into politics. For me it was about helping make things better in my local community. I eventually became a local councillor, which I really enjoyed, and that inspired me to think about taking things a step further.
Get involved with your community on the issues that you really care about – you’ll find you’re not the only one. And even if you are at the start, when the next person who feels like you turns up, you’re the start of a team. Most importantly, just go for it! Democracy needs us all, and that means more women. Do it for all the women you’ve ever met who you thought should be listened to. Don’t ask ‘why me?’ Ask ‘why not me!’”
Seema Malhotra, Labour MP for Feltham and Heston
“When I was still at school I joined Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International, and became involved with their campaigns as they were issues I cared about. Starting campaigns locally to improve our parks and the environment got me to meet local councillors. They encouraged me to join the Labour party and the rest is history.
Decide what you believe in and what you would want to change – politics follows purpose. And believe in yourself. If you think that every man who has ever been elected to Parliament is better than you, then I would appreciate those reasons. But if not, then believe in yourself and you will find an army of women behind you backing you all the way.”
Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon
“I got started in political activism after doing a masters in education. I realised I needed to be an MP to effect change in the education system, and joined the Liberal Democrats after comparing the education policies of all the political parties because I felt their policies made the most sense.
If you want to become more involved in politics, make sure you do it your way. Lots of people tell you what to do, but remember some of those people are men who have no idea of your circumstances. If your problem is a lack of confidence, I’d say: just do it. Like anything, you can learn how to be political. Pinpoint what you fear, and get training – and a mentor.”
Liz Saville-Roberts, Plaid Cymru MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd
“I first got into politics with local issues, specifically schools. Local politics gives you the chance to learn skills, find a public voice and take responsibility for decisions, popular and unpopular. I’ve had to learn to forgive myself for getting things wrong, and find a way to switch off the little voice in my head that constantly finds fault in everything I do.
My advice to women: be brave and be adventurous. If in doubt, do it! And don’t let anyone – yourself included – tell you that you can’t. Yes, there are bastards out there in the virtual arena of social media and the real arena of day-to-day politics, but the first political virtue is courage. Remember that when one woman speaks, a hundred more will find their voices. You don’t do politics for yourself, you do politics for the voiceless.”
Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow
“Politics is about passion. I first got involved because I was interested in local community issues in my town, and I made the connection between those issues and what a local political party was campaigning on. Ask yourself: what do I care about? What is the change I want to see in the world, and how will being involved in politics make that happen?
Don’t start by going to local party meetings; they’re often the worst advert for getting involved. Oscar Wilde said “the problem with socialism is it takes up too many evenings”, and he was right! Start with a campaign, and ask to meet with a local activist, councillor or MP to have a chat about it. Also, check out leadership workshops and women’s support groups within political parties. In Labour, there are amazing organisations like the Labour Women’s Network or the Fabian Women’s Network, and I also run a non-partisan women’s leadership workshop called the Circular Firing Up Squad. There are lots of people who want to help women get into politics, because we know what a difference it makes.
Most importantly, don’t sit on the sidelines. The world right now needs to change, and the only way it will change is if we get stuck in. Some people – they tend to be mainly men – will tell you that politics has to be done a certain way, but it doesn’t. Politics is what we make of it.”
This article was originally published on International Women’s Day 2018.
Images: Rex Features / twitter.com/LSRPlaid