For those members who were unable to attend the talk at Unity House last Friday evening (17 November 2017) here is an overview of some of the key themes Lilian Greenwood touched on in her most interesting talk.
Lilian Greenwood is the Labour Member of Parliament for Nottingham South
Lilian began by asking if we minded if she stood to speak, explaining that as a result of seven years in the House of Commons, she could no longer talk when sitting!
Lilian drew attention to the friendly links between Loughborough CLP and her constituency, Nottingham South and then spoke about her political journey. She explained that she was selected nearly ten years ago but that she had cut her political teeth in the trade union movement in which she had worked for nearly twenty years. Her roles in Unison, NUPE, and CPSA had effectively given her the training she needed to become an MP: listening skills, self-confidence, and problem solving abilities, amongst others. She highlighted the overlap between the roles of TU Officer and MP, in that both involve casework on behalf of people in difficulty. On the subject of casework, Lilian reflected on the fact that there is a great deal of it at the moment with people struggling against the effects of austerity in terms of benefits cuts and sanctions etc. This work can be very difficult, she admitted, but the occasional win brings great satisfaction and can make a real difference.
Speaking further on her time in the trade union movement, Lilian told of how in her early twenties she worked for NUPE as an Officer. It was rare then, she said, to have a female Officer, and it was difficult to overcome the expectations of the membership that an Officer would be a man. Lilian's negotiating style, which lacked table thumping and strident demands, was seen as somewhat disappointing in the early days until she won people over. She was the first Officer to have a baby, and to job share - which caused the logistical headache of whether two women - one living in Derby and the other in Nottingham were able to share one car. The solution eventually hit upon was that each would have a small car rather than the big car enjoyed by a full time Officer. As a woman in Parliament, Lilian drew the comparison that the expectation is still that an MP will be male and that, as with trade unions, this is a default assumption that needs challenging and changing.
On why women are often reluctant to put themselves forward for the role of MP, Lilian spoke of women's lack of confidence in their abilities. Often they will focus on the reasons why they can't stand rather than thinking about their transferable strengths and skills. This is not only the case with becoming an MP, but also with being involved in local government as a Chair or Councillor.
Lilian also drew attention to how tough the selection process can be and recalled that unlike canvassing for someone else, going out knocking on members' doors on her own behalf as a prospective candidate was a much more difficult thing to do. She might be out alone, on a dark rainy night for hours. And, at first, she would be keen for people to open their doors so that she could talk to them, but simultaneously be terrified that they would respond to her knock! But, she said, even though it had been hard to do, it was very effective for connecting with members, and that one family had even invited her in for her dinner one night!
Lilian spoke about changes that have taken place in Parliament since 2010. In addition to support from the Chief Whips and more experienced MPs, there is now an induction process for new members. She recalled the advice she was given by Dennis Skinner on how to ask her first question in the House, 'Just make a long statement and stick a question on the end' he advised. She also praised John Bercow, who is 'good and fair to backbenchers'.
At present about 45% of Labour MPs are women, and there are now more female MPs than at any previous time. Lilian thought that Labour may have shamed the other parties to begin changing the make-up of their parliamentarians. The huge change in Labour has come about through all women shortlists. She stressed, however, that there are still many challenges, and that the proportion of women who get selected through open selection is still very small, hence all women shortlists are still so necessary. Lilian also expressed her concern about the factionalism in the party and the negative impact social media can have. This seems to facilitate a loss of respect for others' views, and has led serious abuse in some cases, of which women are often the target - Luciana Berger, Diane Abbott, and of course, tragically, Jo Cox have all been victims. This kind of aggression could well put women off, Lilian asserted, and she urged the necessity of tolerance for different viewpoints. The House of Commons, she went on, needs to be properly diverse and to embrace people from all walks of life: working class, disabled, and people from BAME communities should all be represented.
This is also the case with select committees, Lilian explained. As the Chair of the Transport Select Committee, she finds herself in a very male dominated sector and it is crucial to increase the number of women as role models. The Women and Equalities Select Committee is looking at inequalities on select committees themselves where on some, for example, the Science and Technology Select Committee there are no women at all. She spoke of meeting Ailie Macadam, a prominent engineer, and asking her how she had come to choose that career path. Macadam explained that her dad had been an engineer and this had given her a role model and access to information, both of which had been really important. This furnished Lilian with the 'macadam test' - which is that if you meet a woman in a male dominated field, she will have had a father who worked in the same area.
In recent weeks, the revelations about the levels of sexual abuse and its cover up at Westminster have been very shocking and politicians owe it to people like Bex Bailey to make sure that this doesn't continue to happen. Policies need significant strengthening.
Barriers to girls putting themselves forward are apparent when Lilian visits schools to give talks to students. At sixth form level, boys will nearly always speak out, girls much less so - perhaps because they are seen as 'gobby' if they express their views. Similarly, at university level, Lilian has found female students are much quieter. Although she did recall a University of Nottingham event where one quiet little female voice was heard - Georgia - who Lilian went on to mentor and who has since been the Chair of the Students Union, a Councillor, a parliamentary assistant to Lilian herself, and is now a potential MP of the future.
Mentoring and supportiveness is vital, Lilian explained. And she drew attention to the mutual support amongst Labour women MPs. Transparency too is essential, together with the need to know the processes in Parliament. The role of MPs is changing. Sitting has changed since 2010 so that the hours are a little more family friendly, but still not enough so, especially if you are an MP who is not London based. Lilian spoke of the hope that suggested changes could be made to the procedure for voting in the Commons. Perhaps MPs don't need to physically be in the House to vote, which seems a very old fashioned system to have in a highly technological age. There is the advantage, however, of catching up with colleagues in the lobby. There has also been talk of job sharing for MPs, although there is resistance to this. One small change is that the clerks in the House no longer have to wear itchy horsehair wigs!
On the culture in Parliament, Lilian confessed that even though it's 'bonkers when you step back, the yah-boo thing can sometimes be fun' and there doesn't seem to be much of a consensus to change it at the moment.
Lilian said misogyny in Parliament has diminished but not gone. Lilian spoke of several initiatives and organisations involved in encouraging women to get involved in politics at constituency, regional and parliamentary levels. The Jo Cox Leadership Programme, trade unions and the Fabian Society are all engaged in proactive promotion. Also there is the Three Faiths Forum, the Labour Women's network, and mentoring by parliamentarians themselves. Some men are good at mentoring but women in particular don't want to pull up the ladder behind them.
Lilian then took questions from the audience:
How did you manage campaigning when you were still working?
I was selected in March 2008 and was elected in 2010. Councillors did a lot of campaigning for me and I had a campaign team, many of whom had been in competition with me for selection as the parliamentary candidate. Initially they ran just regular campaign sessions and the team gradually grew in confidence at canvassing. Working for a trade union I was fortunate to have a flexible and supportive employer. It is tough to canvass in a marginal seat, and the CLP needs to think about how to support the candidate. Fun is essential and hot chocolate in the pub after canvassing on winter night is recommended!
How can the party be made more accessible to members?
Facebook Live need to offer different options and ways to get involved. There is also a need to refresh the activist base. We are fortunate to have many students involved in Nottingham South.
As Chair of the Transport Select Committee, could you say what is happening about the electrification of the East Midlands Mainline?
The Select Committee is not letting the government off the hook. Electrification was a firm promise and the committee will keep pushing on this. HS2 is also necessary, even though it is controversial and the route may impact locally, but east-west connectivity is essential and so is the need to maximise opportunities for jobs.
Have you encountered hostility and intrusion from the press?
As a backbencher that is not really a problem. There is Whatsapp support for Labour women in the PLP who have received maulings from columnists such as Guido Fawkes. We look out for each other. In fact, sometimes there is positive coverage. The Nottingham Post dubbed me 'the queen of buses' because I use public transport so much. As Chair of the Transport Select Committee that was very good.
What does it really feel like to be in the chamber for PMQs?
PMQs is atypical. It is hyped up and whilst there is some hilarity, it is angry. The House is at its most partisan and there is sledging like you get in cricket. You learn to blank it out. It happens on both sides. But in Westminster Hall where a lot of business is done, there is no shouting.
If you were going to be outside Loughborough town hall on national campaigning day, what would you be saying?
You need to speak out about local issues, but also talk about what John McDonnell has been saying - the need for public services investment: the NHS, schools, police, and pay. The Tories are losing credibility on the economy and we need borrowing to invest.
When do you think there will be a general election?
That is very difficult to say. John Major managed to keep his minority government going, although it was messy, but with what's happening now, and two cabinet ministers going in the last week, who knows. It would be rash to make predictions.