INTERVIEW | Baroness Beverley Hughes about women in politics

01 December, 2018

Baroness Beverley Hughes, a UK politician from Labour Party, was member of the British Parliament from 1997 until 2004, served Minister of State for Immigration, Citizenship and Counterterrorism, later Minister of State for Children, Young People and Families from 2005 until 2009 and since 2017 is Deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester for Policing and Crime.

The interview was conducted by UDI Chief Content Manager Alina Nychyk and first published at Hold the Trend.

Baroness Beverley Hughes

  1. Dear Baroness Beverley Hughes, could you please tell how you decided to become a politician?

I didn’t decide to become a politician. The opportunity to put myself forward as an elected representative, first as a local councilor and later as a Member of Parliament, came about through years of activism within the Labour Party as well as other community organisations. That activism, in turn, stems from my personal values and commitment to social justice, equality, wanting to help people and improve opportunities for those most disadvantaged.

  1. During the time you are a politician, there were substantial changes in gender equality in British politics. Can you call this a normal evolutional process or have you seen some revolutionary parts of it (special projects or events, influence of concrete individuals)?

My first position as an elected representative in politics was when I was elected to Trafford Borough Council in 1986. I became the leader of the council’s Labour Group in 1992 and was appointed Leader of the Council in 1995. I held this post until I was elected to the UK Parliament in 1997.

When I entered Parliament in 1997 the number of women MPs increased dramatically from 60 to 120 (17% of MPs were women then), with 101 of those being Labour MPs. This growth in women MPs has continued in the five general elections we have had since (2001, 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2017). In 2017, we saw 208 women elected to the House of Commons, meaning 32% of all MPs are women.

Now, whilst this is some way off being truly representative of our population (which is approximately 51% women) we have seen progress in the last 20 years and there are a number of things I could attribute it to.

I would say, though that I don’t think it could be classed as a “normal evolutionary process”, as women had accounted for less than 10% of all MPs elected in 21 consecutive general elections between 1918 and 1992 before the dramatic increase in 1997 and the subsequent increases we have seen since.

In a wider sense, of women being in and able to progress their careers, there have been some key pieces of legislation that I think have enabled and encouraged more women to enter politics and further their careers. These include the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act in 1994, which guaranteed every working woman the right to maternity leave for the first time, and was furthered by Labour in 1999 when we enabled both parents to take leave from work to look after new born children, rather than the responsibility lying solely with the mother.

Additionally, there have been a growth in role models for women wanting to get involved in politics. From Margaret Thatcher as the first female Prime Minister in the 1980s; Diane Abbott being appointed the first black female MP in the 1987; Betty Boothroyd as the only ever female Speaker of the House of Commons; Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman being appointed the Leader Deputy Leader in 2007 and countless number of women being appointed to various Cabinet and Junior Minister positions; and in particular the most prominent state offices such as Home Secretary (Jacqui Smith), Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Margaret Beckett), the Health Department (Patricia Hewitt). Outside of Parliament, we have also prominent female social campaigners, such as Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Helen Newlove and Sylvia Lancaster who have turned terrible personal circumstances into something positive and worked tirelessly for social, political and cultural change.

Locally, in Greater Manchester, we have seen in women holding political and powerful offices. Of the 10 Greater Manchester authorities, we currently have two female council leaders, three female chief executives and the Mayor has required every local authority leader to appoint a deputy of the opposite gender, ensuring that females have a prominent role in shaping our local political decisions in every borough. This is nowhere near good enough, but is a progress.

All of these measures have helped to gradually shift the perspective and opinions of society, where it is now more the norm for women to hold positions of power and influence in the public and political sector. It was certainly a slow process from 1918 and women gaining the right to vote up until the General Election in 1997, but since then great steps have been made to ensure that women have a better representation in today’s politics, and whilst there is still more to do be done, we are heading in the right direction.

  1. Do you support the view that having substantial number of female politicians bring the country to higher social standards and more peaceful societies (as example of Scandinavian countries)?

I’m not sure, I could say one way or another whether having substantial number of female politicians bring the country to higher social standards and more peaceful societies as there are hundreds, if not thousands of other contributing and interdependent factors that come together to define a societies collective standards or how peaceful it may be.

What I can say, though is that Greater Manchester has a long history of being a place that stands up for justice and equality, and leads the way in radical and liberal thinking in the political, social, economic and religious spheres. Those principles are as relevant and prevalent now as they were in 1868 when Manchester acted as the birthplace of the Suffragette Movement and the very first public meeting on the matter of women’s suffrage was held in the Free Trade Hall (now the Radisson Hotel).

It’s true to say that when women become decision makers in significant numbers, when there is a critical mass of visible women, it makes a difference to what is defined as important and to the way business is done. It is simply wrong that the processes to elect our representatives and to appoint senior leaders in our public services produce a cadre of decision makers that are predominantly white men.  And white, middle class men at that.

We are trying our best to make the decision makers in GM more representative of the populations we serve and are making explicit attempts to address the completely unacceptable imbalance we currently see. We are supporting work by the likes of Northern Power Women, collaborative campaign seeking to accelerate gender diversity in the North of England and to transform the culture of organisations by recognising, celebrating and showcasing role models. And Diva Manc is working with GM women political leaders to strengthen the voices of young girls and work in our GM devolution structures.

  1. There is an opinion that women are necessary in politics, as they care about issues, which are not relevant for men, such as the availability of kindergartens and schools, pedestrian infrastructure in cities, violence against women etc. Do you see this in British politics or do you think that gender roles have already mixed and both female and male politicians are dealing with similar things?

Ever since women were allowed to vote and run for Parliamentary seats in 1918, they have had the opportunity to shape and ensure the political debate was considering the views of and was working for the benefit of women as well as men. For example, once women MPs entered parliament, they led and continue to lead on a number of legislative changes focused on the more equal treatment of women in law and on the health and welfare of women and children. Much of this began with Private Member’s Bills and back in 1919, the Women’s Emancipation Bill resulted in the Government of the day bringing forward its own Sex Disqualification Bill, outlawing discrimination in appointments to professions such as law or accountancy or in the public sector.

More recently, and going back once again to 1997 and when I entered Parliament amongst a significant number of fellow female MPs, and subsequently into the Cabinet and ministries, it is clear that it has made a difference to the priorities for the Government, including an increased focus on families, early years, childcare, jobs for women, the national minimum wage and low pay. All of these issues came to the top of the agenda because of the women in Parliament and in the Labour Party.

Whilst it is unfair to say that every male MP wouldn’t be aware of and thinking about how to deal with those issues, diversity brings new perspectives, ideas and talent to the fore and can only lead to better outcomes for all. It enables policy debate and decisions to draw on a wide range of individual, personal and collective experiences, experiences that male MPs just will not have ever had or discussed or possibly even understood in great detail.

Along with the examples given in the previous questions, one important recent development that would highlight the need for and progress of the drive for equality is the Government’s decision in 2015 to appoint a Women and Equalities Committee of the House of Commons. This committee has been given the function of examining performance on equalities (sex, age, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity, pregnancy and maternity, marriage or civil partnership status) issues. In the three years this committee has existed, it has already held a number of key inquiries into topics such as Pregnancy and maternity discrimination, abortion law in Northern Ireland and sexual harassment and violence in both schools and public places. It gives a platform for women’s voices and experiences to be listened to, learnt from and used to help shape future policy.

  1. In Ukraine, there are 12,5 % of female members of Ukrainian Parliament, society often underestimates the potential of female politicians and media supports such view, presenting them in a sexist manner. However, there are many new projects, which fight for higher representation of women in Ukrainian politics. What can you advise such countries, which are still behind in gender equality in politics? From the other side, are there some mistakes which were made in Britain in this process that you can advise us to avoid?

There are number of ways equality can be pushed for and achieved. But as we have shown in this country, change can and often does take time to materialise. It also often requires a number of courageous people – women especially but also men if possible – to push out the boundaries and press for change. Once it does though, there is always the possibility that further change and improvements can happen in the very quick time as it becomes the norm and, in this instance, women become more accepted and respected in political positions due to the insight, intelligence and experiences they can bring to the table.

We are trying our best to make the decision makers more representative of the populations we serve and are making explicit attempts to address the completely unacceptable imbalance. We are creating a gender balanced Youth Combined Authority, representative of all parts of Greater Manchester reflecting its full diversity. We have strong female representation on my Police and Crime panel, including BME women such as Cllr Rehman and Afia Kama.

But we aren’t there yet, whilst we are moving towards seeing our primary political institution being truly representative of our society, we still have a long way to go in both the political and the wider public sphere. Currently, approximately two thirds of the UK’s public service workforce are women but only 20% of leadership roles are performed by them.  The gender wage gap is still 17%. Whilst it’s now the norm in this country for women to hold positions of power in political and public life, there are still those in society who will try to belittle, demean and limit the role we play.

The key messages that I have taken from my career with regards to the push to achieve gender equality in politics would be as follows.

  • Believe in ourselves and our abilities. Speak up for ourselves.
  • Support other women in particular, and seek support from other kindred spirits, men and women.
  • Don’t shy away from leadership.
  • Don’t be afraid to lobby for change.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak out.