Lib Dem Councillor Aude Boubaker-Calder highlights toxic culture in public life

Lib Dem Councillor Aude Boubaker-Calder took a motion to Fife Council this week calling for an end to bullying, misogyny and discrimination against women in public life.

Aude described some of the dreadful  behaviours she has experienced, including being mocked because of her Belgian accent.

She told the meeting:

Today, I rise here not just as an elected councillor, but as a woman. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I think it’s essential to reflect not only on the progress we’ve made but also on the challenges that persist in our society and particularly in politics.

Incidents we have witnessed in Fife the last couple of years, are not isolated occurrences. They are symptomatic of a deeper, widespread issue — a culture of bullying, discrimination, and misogyny that has infected for far too long the political sphere. Today, I say enough is enough and I want to call out these behaviours and urge put an end to them once and for all.

Some may argue that such behaviour are nothing new, that it’s always been a part of politics. While I know that the political “banter” is part of the job, I want to be clear: poor behaviours, personal attacks are never acceptable, they were not in the days of the District Councils, not during the time of Cllr Lavinia Malcom or Cllr Edith Mary Sutton, the first female councillors in Scotland and England, and they are certainly not acceptable now. This are not acceptable in our society, our communities, and in a “regular” workplace why should it be acceptable for women and other protected and underrepresented communities to be bullied and discriminated against in and outside this chamber just because we are elected members?

As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez aptly stated in 2020, this issue goes beyond individual incidents: it’s cultural. It’s a culture of lack of impunity, of accepting violence and violent language against women, and underrepresented communities. It’s an outdated structure of power that perpetuates this behaviour.

I am considering myself as a survivor of those behaviours. I was spoken disrespectfully by some individuals not only here but also outside. I have been mocked for my speeches either on my delivery or my accent in this chamber. I’ve been criticised for delivering my newsletter with my daughter while my husband has been commended for it. I have been verbally abused, almost ran over by a supporter’s car, questioned about my motherhood, my age, my capacities and my origin. I have been told to go back home to make the dinner and finish my chores. All because I’m a woman born in another country and a young women in politics.

America Ferrera once said that women “have to answer for men’s bad behaviours, which is insane, but if you point that out, you are accused of complaining”. So let me complain then!

This attitude is not just about disrespect, it’s about a misplaced need for asserting power. I am a strong and vocal woman, holding to my values and speaking loudly about the needs and expectations of my constituents in these difficult days. Well, that is upsetting and bothering those who are just there for the power, not the people. It happened when we campaigned for the right to vote in early 20th century, for our rights in the 70s and, with others, I will gladly continue to fight for equality and respect for all.

I am not alone in this experience. Countless female councillors, not only within this chamber but also across Scotland and the UK, including elected representatives in Holyrood and Westminster, share similar stories. We must remember that we are all someone’s spouse, partner, or child. How would you feel if your loved ones were treated the way many female councillors are being treated?

We shouldn’t have to fear expressing our views simply because we belong to an opposing political party. All elected officials should be an example of integrity and respect not only for their constituents but also for their colleagues regardless of their affiliation. This is democracy.

The poor behaviour from some acts as a permission for other men or members of our society to do the same and I will not allow families or constituents to endure such abuse without repercussions.

I cannot allow my daughter, my husband, my parents (fortunately in Belgium and unable to see this), all those women, girls and underrepresented communities, victims and survivors of abusive, violent language or worse; I cannot allow pupils like the ones I am going to see next week in my ward who are looking up to me, who are looking up to all of us to witness this kind of behaviours happening and not being challenged. I will remind this chamber that silence on this is not acceptance, it is complicity.

According to the last census, women represent 51% of the Scottish population but only 35% of councillors in Scotland, 36% in Fife and many opt not to seek re-election due to the toxic environment in politics. How can we claim to represent our society if women and underrepresented communities are afraid to participate?

Today, I propose a motion to promote a culture of respect, inclusivity, and accountability within our council. We must strive to create an environment free from bullying, misogyny, and discrimination, where all councillors feel safe to voice their opinions without fear of personal reprisal.

I want Fife Council, I want us, elected members, to stand firm in our commitment to diversity, equality, and fair representation within local government. I want us to reiterate our dedication to upholding standards of behaviour and respect among all elected members.

To help us in our efforts to address these critical issues, I want us to agree to actively engage with relevant organisations such as Engender to whom I express my gratitude for their assistance in crafting this motion. By collaborating with such groups and others, I want us to aim to develop and refine our policies to combat bullying, misogyny, and discrimination.

Furthermore, I call upon the leadership of all regional and national political parties, including mine, to take decisive action. I urge them to promote clear and consistent messaging that unequivocally condemns sexist and discriminatory behaviours, particularly among elected representatives at all levels of governance.

Let us stand together and commit to making this chamber and this council a beacon of progress, where every voice is heard, every person is valued and create a more just, equitable, and inclusive society for all.

Aude wrote for us in 2020 about why she felt that she didn’t feel able to share her pregnancy while standing for selection in our party, so we should not consider ourselves to be off the hook on this.

She is right to challenge a culture which often targets women and other marginalised groups. We’ve seen too many women stand down from public office because of similar experiences. We need to call the poor behaviour out when it happens and it is incumbent on all of us in politics to support our colleagues.

Nobody is complaining about robust debate about ideas framed in respectful terms. However, when it gets personal, or where whole groups of people are targeted without evidence, it’s not acceptable. It’s great that Aude has stood up and recounted some of the appalling behaviour she has experienced.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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5 Comments

  • What Aude has said doesn’t surprise me – it was there in the same Council chamber over 10 years ago, probably from many of the same Councillors who are still on the Council, and at a time when both the Provost and the Deputy Leader of the Council were female. It extended beyond that, too, to age – I wasn’t exactly a spring chicken then, but I was (by some way) the youngest councillor at the grand old age of 39.

    In my view, this is the crux of the matter. Local government is still dominated by ageing dinosaurs, who aren’t prepared to adapt their systems; whether it’s to accommodate working councillors by having meetings in the evenings when they can attend, or by accepting that everyone has a key point to make. We need to find ways to encourage more people of all backgrounds to get involved – by paying councillors properly, by showing that they can make a difference, and by allowing the electorate the same right to remove a councillor as they have for an MP.

  • Steve Trevethan 25th Mar '24 - 8:02am

    So well done Aude Boubaker-Calder!

    Please keep up your good work!

    You are bullied in your political-social endeavours? That is to your credit!

    It means that you are standing up for making society better and kinder!

    “Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.”
    (Benjamin Disraeli)

  • Ronald Murray 25th Mar '24 - 7:21pm

    Well said Aude time this problem was addressed.

  • What courage from Aude. Have felt haunted by this post all week. Grieved that my experience as a PPC in the noughties (references to “pikeys” from one Lib Dem parish councillor, that I should be “in the home” from one Tory parish councillor, that I was a “walking Caesarean” from another local Lib Dem veteran) is still relevant today 😱.

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