The dilemmas of a would-be councillor

It’s official then. Less than six months after the hurly-burly of the May local elections, the Labour councillor for my home ward of Kentish Town has resigned leaving two Lib Dems and a vacancy, so we will be having a by-election in December for which I have been selected as the candidate.

It couldn’t have come in a better area for us in Camden. Kentish Town was our second best ward in May (after Highgate where we had two councillors elected) and I was only 157 votes behind the Labour councillor who won, so we’ll be fighting hard to take this seat and think we have a good chance.

The council changed hands in May, with the Labour administration replaced by a Tory/LibDem coalition, so this election won’t be about tactical voting but simply about who people want to represent them. And the people in Kentish Town are lovely, with a strong social conscience and very green (with a small g at least). They may very well want their third councillor to be an independent voice that keeps the coalition on their toes.

Winning will take a lot of hard work though. Outwitting the freakishly organised LibDem election machine will involve speaking to as many voters as possible on the doorstep, and competing with the implausible number of leaflets they will put out during the campaign. I dread to think of the amount of paper that will pass through my flat (our HQ) during the next six weeks. It’s all recycled, and is even printed with vegetable inks these days, but it still feels a bit weird as a Green to be creating this much recycling.

Local election campaigns throw up a few dilemmas like this. But there isn’t any effective way to reach the electorate other than to put leaflets through their doors, and it’s clear from speaking to people that our credibility depends on dropping enough of our messages through their letterboxes.

The other quandary that rears its head at these times is what to do about those ‘no junk mail’ notices. There were some fascinating discussions on the Green email lists in the run-up to May on this subject. Some of us argue simply that election leaflets are not junk mail at all but essential to the democratic process.

Fair enough, but then you can lose your nerve when you get an email from a voter who is terribly annoyed at being leafleted ‘by the Green Party of all people’ when their ‘no junk mail’ sticker has been put up for virtuous ecological reasons. There has been a new rash of these stickers going up lately, provided by the Recycle Now campaign, and this makes things particularly tricky for us. Surely people who respond to a recycling drive are more likely to be Green voters? Ignoring these letterboxes feels like a real waste.

Oh dear, what to do? Perhaps we should just rely on our local paper, the Camden New Journal, which covers council business with as much fascination as the nationals cover the shenanigans at Westminster. When delivering in my street the other day, I discovered my favourite hand-made notice on one of the doors: ‘No junk mail,’ it said, followed by, ‘NB the Camden New Journal is NOT junk mail!’ Well said. Now I just have to persuade them to add to it, ‘and Green Party newsletters’.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.