Women in democracy – increasing impact & raising profiles


Some thoughts from an open space session with Cambridge Green Party, & what I learnt from participants

This evening I was at a big gathering of Cambridge Green Party members for a speech by Dr Rupert Read – who stood for the party in Cambridge at the 2015 general election, breaking the 4,000 votes barrier for the party in the process. There followed an interesting open space session where I pitched the session with the title of this blogpost. With over 50 people in the room and a roughly equal gender split, I wanted to tease out some ideas on how to increase the presence and participation of women in local democracy in Cambridge.

“Why, as a man are you focusing on increasing the presence of women in democracy?”

For a start it feels like the right thing to do.

Perhaps more importantly though, in order to get change (or rather ‘improvement’) in how our institutions function, it needs people who are currently conspicuous by their low numbers to have an increased presence and profile. This is part of my continued evolution of how to take part in, and improve things in Cambridge. Obviously the challenge for me is to avoid becoming like this dude -> http://www.theonion.com/article/man-finally-put-in-charge-of-struggling-feminist-m-2338. I don’t want to lead anyone or anything – I’m not cut out for it.

I’m taking my cue from the parliamentarians in the debates on Mon 26 October on both tax credits and the #tampontax. Having spent much of the afternoon watching both debates, it struck me that the best speeches were delivered by women. Most of the speeches I heard from the men were dull and lifeless in comparison. In the case of the latter, the most important thing (one that was missed out by a lot of people) was that the MPs taking part in the debate secured a change in Government policy as a result of their laser-like scrutiny. In particular Dr Stella Creasy MP here. Not only did Dr Creasy confirm the concession which pretty much matched the amendment tabled by her parliamentary colleague Paula Sherriff MP, but secured a commitment that ministers would come back to Parliament to explain publicly the results of their actions (and thus subject themselves to further public cross-examination!)
I’m experimenting above with embedding the video of a speech – Dr Creasy’s in this case directly from Parliament’s website.

“What did the participants have to say on women in democracy?”

Lots – and it was great to hear of so much interest. My premise to everyone in the room was that as a community reporter who films and live-tweets from council meetings is that I can only report what happens. If they are not there asking public questions, I can’t really report about them. However, if three or four of them turn up having tabled public questions in advance, then the journalists there are compelled to write about them, raising their profiles.

Two big barriers I was unaware of: Self-confidence in knowledge of areas, and understanding of local council procedures

I’ve been aware for quite some time both anecdotally and also articles mentioning how women are less likely to apply for jobs unless they feel they’ve met pretty much all of the competencies in job descriptions. A couple of people mentioned that this is similar to wanting to ask public questions: they said they felt they wanted to have detailed knowledge of an issue before asking a question in public about it. They acknowledged it was a bit counter-intuitive, because if you’re asking a question it’s implying you want to find out the answer to something you don’t yet know.

This also linked to the ‘public performance’ of a public question – which given the setting of a grand council chamber can often have the sense of theatre about it. People inside Cambridge’s political bubble often talk of how ‘full council’ meetings in the council chamber are full of grand-standing speeches by alpha-male councillors, while the real decision-making happens in scrutiny committees. Interestingly, those who took part in the open space discussions for the first time spoke positively at how it worked for them, both in terms of deciding what to talk about and the flexibility of being able to move from discussion to discussion without feeling guilty about it.

This then brings me onto the third learning point – knowledge and familiarity of council systems, processes and procedures. Things like:

  • The general public having the right to attend most meetings
  • The general public having the right to ask questions in public of councillors/the council
  • The general public having the right to film and report from meetings

See https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/have-your-say-at-committee-meetings to have your say at Cambridge City Council meetings. Also, see my video guide of the council chamber in The Guildhall below:

Some thoughts about mutual support

One of the most interesting discussion points was about overcoming isolation in a room full of people – some of whom might be hostile to the points you are raising. Several of the participants were at The Guildhall for Dr James Smith’s public question on divesting from fossil fuels. I mentioned that during the evening there were four people asking public questions and all of them were men. How could we change that? We discussed the idea of having a group of people asking separate questions on a similar theme. The impact for example of having a group of women questions on a specific theme means you have the mutual support and reinforcement. So, for example after Dr Smith’s question, it could have been followed with questions on conversations the council has had with Cambridge University, or Cambridgeshire County Council – or even Central Government on responding to climate change.

‘If you are there asking public questions, I can film you and report/publicise what you are saying’

My point to participants here was about making the local news rather than being passive recipients of it. The campaigners who secured Cambridge City Council’s commitment to divest from fossil fuel investments was a textbook example of how to make the local news. With so many activists – in particular women – involved in that campaign, familiarity with the systems and processes mean that for future campaigns going through the actions are a lot less daunting.

The journey from sympathiser->supporter->party member->party activist->local party spokesperson->candidate for election

This is something I’ve been pondering about the Cambridge branch of the Women’s Equality Party as well as Cambridge Green Party. For the ‘big three’ political parties locally, if I want to point people to high profile women I know who to go to. For example:



Liberal Democrats

For the past few years, I’ve been snapping at the heels of local parties encouraging them to bring forward more women to stand as councillors. It was great to see in the Romsey by-election in Cambridge (just after the general election) three talented women standing for The Greens, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Here’s my interview with the winner of that by-election, Cllr Zoe Moghadas.

“Yeah Puffles, you’re not exactly Paxo when it comes to interviews, are you?”

My aim for interviews is never to catch the interviewee out – especially in this social media world where so much of what we say or write is posted online. I see my role as a community reporter to cover events, meetings and gatherings that involve local democracy and put them in a context where people watching will want to get involved.

In the case of interviewees in a political sense, I see my role as to help the interviewee come across as the sort of person the viewer would want to have a conversation with and perhaps follow up with their own questions. The reason being that in today’s mainstream media, so many responses are so scripted as to be robotic (taken to new levels by Ed Miliband in his early leadership days). They’re not so much interviews, more shorter ‘in conversation with…’ video pieces. I’m still an untrained amateur in this field, but what I try to do is to give people who might otherwise not appear in the media that little bit of extra video footage. For example recently the deputy leader of the Green Party, Amelia Womack visited Cambridge. No one from the mainstream local media was on hand to interview her, so I took it upon myself to do so.

It was the same when Labour’s then shadow rail minister, now shadow transport minister Lilian Greenwood MP visited Cambridge just before the general election. Ms Greenwood is the boss of Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner in Labour’s transport policy team, Mr Zeichner having the remit of local transport, including cycling. Thus making the Cambridge Cycling Campaign potentially very influential in Labour’s transport policy given the huge level of policy expertise they have in this field.

“We’ve seen the impact of a critical mass of women parliamentarians in recent debates in the Commons & Lords, will we see it in local democracy soon?”

I’d love to see what a guided open space event on the title of this blogpost would result in with the participation of the political parties and non-aligned people – essentially setting it up as a challenge for people to solve together.  I say ‘guided open space’ because for some of the challenges, it would be useful for example to have staff from the local council to deliver short presentations on things like their procedures on meetings & public speaking. Could such an event draw in more women to take an interest in local democracy, leading to a greater influence on our local councils?

Food for thought.


One thought on “Women in democracy – increasing impact & raising profiles

  1. I think your guided open space is an excellent idea. It is VERY confusing to work out the different processes for involvement with City Council, County Council, South Cambs, City Deal and then the various committees within them. I think it’s not just women who would benefit but also young people or anyone new to this kind of involvement. I am learning fast, but count me in should a session like this be organised (I’m happy to help). I’m currently trying to create a simple guide on these processes for new volunteers with the Cambridge Cycling Campaign (should I get some time between consultations!).

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