I think we all got into politics for one of three reasons: principle, policy or people. When it comes to joining a political party, most Liberal Democrats reading this will know which category they fall into. Maybe it was the idea that ‘no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity’; for some it was policies born from those principles, like electoral reform or fairer parental leave; and for others, it was the local councillor who took the time to get to know them and help when they needed it.
Liberal Democrat Women has a role to play in all three areas, but I’m going to start with the one that matters most when we are trying to turn supporters into activists, and eventually into candidates: people.
First, you need to get them started.
The Liberal Democrats rely on volunteers, far more even that the Tories or Labour, who have larger budgets. Getting people to give up an evening to canvass for you is one of the most important skills a candidate has and getting them to do it once a week, every week for their local party throughout a four-year campaign cycle, is practical magic.
Now, hold onto your hats because I’m about to be controversial: people are more likely to do things they enjoy. If you create an environment in which people feel comfortable, where they like you, and they feel respected and useful, they will keep coming back.
Unfortunately, some people fall at the first hurdle because the ways we offer newbies into the party can leave some women feeling isolated. New joiners’ drinks, conference fringe events or local party events like pizza and politics are great in theory, but often for a first-timer it means a room of predominantly white men, many of whom already know each other, clustered in little circles, talking about people or topics they know nothing about. This is exclusivity in practice.
This is not specifically a gender issue. It applies to men too, and it doesn’t apply to every woman or every local party. It’s not about policy – many of the men who’ve spoken physically over my head at drinks events like these are very good at equality in theory – and it isn’t about deliberate or overt sexism. It’s more about a general lack of interest in engaging with new people, and trying to understand their needs.
But just because it isn’t a gender issue, doesn’t mean LDW can’t provide a solution. Because we exist to support their needs, we give women who felt excluded by those environments another route into the party, and once they are in, they are more likely to stick around.
We also help build women’s confidence. Some new women members will be more comfortable in a room that has more women than men, because that’s what they know or where they think they’ll find the most sympathetic ears. (Guys, by the way, often feel the same, it’s just that they don’t have to search out a special room to find one that’s mostly men.) Someone who has that attitude might not be in an ideal position to be a candidate yet, but everyone starts somewhere.
Giving our new members as many ways as possible to make contacts and build networks within the party in a way that makes them feel welcome and comfortable does absolutely no harm to anyone. LDW can help with that.
We also have a role to play in keeping activists active.
We are a national SAO so we can provide continuity outside of the local party structure, especially for campaigners like me who move a lot. I’ve been a member of two university groups and three local parties in four years, and although I made friends in most of them, I knew I would never be somewhere long enough to properly bed down. Having a national organisation I could get involved in wherever I am is part of what keeps me active.
LDW can also direct campaigners to where they are needed most. It can be disheartening to be a campaigner in a small local party, or one of our opposition’s strong safe seats (growing up in Bromley and Chislehurst, I know the feeling). One way to keep our activists engaged is to give them the choice to go where they can make the most difference. LDW can direct them to the closest women candidates we know have a strong chance of getting elected, which means more Liberal Democrats elected, and more gender equality in our elected bodies. It’s a win-win.
And then there are the potential candidates we help.
Since LDW took over from the Campaign for Gender Balance last year a large part of what we do is supporting women candidates right through from approval to election.
One of the saddest things about the resignation of Sarah Yong as PPC for Somerset and Frome this week – apart from the loss of a fantastic potential MP – is that many of the comments I’ve seen from other women candidates have talked about a lack of support at all stages.
LDW exists to change that. Our training and mentoring schemes work because women trainers and mentors can offer personalised advice only someone experienced in jumping our gender’s particular hurdles can give.
The mentoring system also works just by our mentors being inspiring: knowing that a woman ahead of you has done what you want to do, and done it brilliantly, is a new experience for many women, where men take it for granted.
This second reason is why I can not support anyone who claims women candidates need more support than men, or even that they are getting a bigger chunk of the available support. The support LDW is offering is well-publicised and well-structured, which makes it more obvious. But our system simply mirrors the existing unofficial and very powerful support networks that already exist for men.
Men grow up in a world where positions of power are dominated by people who look like them, and it is assumed they can achieve similar heights. Men are also more likely to be encouraged to join networks – like sports teams – by teachers and parents and their bosses tend to value their work more highly and offer them more advice. In other words, most men don’t need a mentoring program: they’ve got life.
LDW helps supporters become campaigners and activists; surely no-one has a problem with that?
Next time: LDW and policy: is there such a thing as a ‘women’s policy’?
* Alice Thomas is a member of the Federal Board and leads the FB Disciplinary Sub-Group. She is a solicitor based in Southwark who joined the Lib Dems in her hometown of Bromley & Chislehurst in 2006, just in time for her first by-election and has been campaigning ever since.