Cat Headley, former parliamentary candidate and graduate of the inaugural Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme, says women in the Labour movement deserve a sea change in our party’s attitude to sexism, abuse and harassment.
The current sexual harassment investigations and allegations both at Holyrood and Westminster will come as no big surprise to the many women who work in or campaign for political parties. We witness sexism every day and across every element of our lives, and sexual harassment is part of that continuum of sexism.
The Labour movement is one with equality and social justice at its heart, but it is not immune to the inequalities and injustices it seeks to overcome.
Every political party is filled with women who have stories of their experiences. Some will have experienced the worst of harassment and abuse and felt unable to come forward, for fear they will be labelled troublemakers, or not believed at all. Others have run as candidates and experienced online harassment and trolling all with a gendered dimension to it: about how we look or should look; about how we are not capable for the position; being told to get back in the kitchen.
Still others have run for selection to be candidates and have experienced the sexism directly from those who they thought were their “comrades”. If you want a glimpse into the sexism we face, just try arguing for all women shortlists. What we see are questions about the merit of women candidates if they are chosen through this mechanism, or the passing of the buck entirely on gender equality by rejecting an all women shortlist, because this particular CLP has a favoured son they would like to get into the local council.
It is the duty of our party to take all of these experiences seriously. If we ignore the sexism faced by women who run for selection, we create a space in which we dismiss women’s experiences and which may consequently prevent victims from coming forward to report harassment or abuse.
That is why initiatives like the Jo Cox Leadership Programme have been inundated with women wanting to take part, because women in our party want a space to develop and strive that is safe and without sexism. Hillary Clinton is absolutely right when she says that the only way to get sexism out of politics is to get women into politics.
Being part of the first cohort of the Jo Cox Leadership Programme was not only a privilege; it was a life changing experience. Applications for the second cohort of the programme are now open and I strongly encourage any woman in Scottish Labour to consider applying: https://labour.org.uk/members/jo-cox-women-leadership/#apply
At the start of this leadership election, I and eight other women came together to launch Scottish Labour Women’s Voice. Between us we represent different political positions, are supporting different candidates, are elected representatives for different areas and campaign on different issues. But the one thing we all have in common is the passionate desire to eradicate sexism from our party and beyond.
Both Anas Sarwar and Richard Leonard have signed up to support the five commitments we are looking for, which you can read in full (https://scottishlabourwomensvoice.wordpress.com/) but the fifth pledge is the one that needs particular attention:
Commit to tackling sexism faced by women within the party and ensure there are real reporting mechanisms in place which take swift action.
This is a pledge written before the growing list of sexual harassment cases began, because we knew that the issue of sexism wasn’t being taken seriously enough across politics. The time is overdue for that to change. No matter what level of sexism we see, whether it is the woman running for selection receiving intimidation and sexism from those around her, whether it is women MSPs dealing with abuse and trolling online or whether it is blatant sexual harassment and abuse of power. By implementing these commitments, across the Scottish Labour movement, we can strive for a more inclusive and fairer party.
Women in our movement deserve change, and we will be waiting for whoever becomes leader to implement these commitments quickly and with sincerity.