For political change to happen, politics itself must change

Alys Mumford calls out the state of sexism in politics and what it means for equality in the City Chambers.

Councillors Kayleigh O'Neill and Jule Bandel sitting at a meeting of the Transport and Environment Committee
Councillors Kayleigh O’Neill and Jule Bandel at Transport and Environment Committee earlier this year.

For International Women’s Day this year, I spoke on a panel at an Elect Her event about what it was like to be a woman in politics. It was meant to encourage other women to get involved, but unfortunately we kept straying into territory that could do little but put people off as we discussed the toxicity, stress and mental health implications of being involved in institutions designed by men, for men.

The horrific sexist and racist comments about Diane Abbott from a major Tory donor should show everyone that politics is not a safe or welcoming place for Black women. Everyone rushed to discuss what implications this might have for women’s safety. Everyone, that is, except for Diane Abbott herself, who was not given permission to speak during PMQs, and was forced to stand and listen while others discussed her abuse. And all this just 2 weeks after Rishi Sunak made pledges about keeping elected members safe in office. 

Of course Westminster isn’t the only place where women are made to feel unwelcome or silenced in politics.

Edinburgh Green Councillor and wheelchair user Kayleigh O’Neill has been forced to publicly acknowledge that her safety is at risk if she enters the city chambers, in order to kickstart the Council into paying attention.

Tory councillors attempted to disband the equalities working group last week, saying we focus too much on equality and not enough on “things that actually help people”. And I remain the only woman (co)leader of a political group. 

Two weeks ago, the leader of the Liberal Democrats tabled a motion acknowledging the tragic death of schoolboy Thomas Wong, asking for a report into improving road safety. The Greens added to this motion suggesting specific cycle safety measures be included, for example restricting heavy goods vehicles at school drop off and collection times. 

Citing a desire not to ‘politicise’ a tragedy, or to pre-empt any findings of the police investigation, the leader of the Liberal Democrats exerted significant pressure on the Greens to withdraw the amendment, which they duly did. The Green transport reps – two women, and the two youngest people ever elected to Edinburgh Council – were repeatedly told that it was inappropriate to call for this, with the implication being that they could cause additional upset, and that they should just keep quiet. 

Imagine our surprise, therefore, when the following week the press revealed a campaign from that same Liberal Democrat Leader for heavy good vehicles to be banned at the school gates. Apparently, he had been ‘spurred into action’ by the recent tragedy. It’s only young women, it seems, who are in danger of acting inappropriately by trying to make change.

Of course this wasn’t the only hypocrisy on display at that particular meeting of Edinburgh’s transport committee. Mere hours after wringing their hands and saying “never again”, Lib Dem, Labour and Tories voted to remove vital cycle and safety measures on the Greenbank quiet route, at the behest of the motorist lobby. 

Two years in, and you’d think I wouldn’t be surprised at cynical moves from other parties, but to be honest I hope I never lose that naivety. To meet such things with a shrug rather than disbelief would be to accept that this is just how things are and we can only expect the worst of others. That’s not how I think we can achieve a better politics.

At the IWD event, panellists were asked why we had stood for election. The answers? “I wanted to make change.” “I was sick of not seeing people talk about things I care about.” “We need more women in politics.” We absolutely do need more women in politics, but we also need politics – and men in politics – to understand just how many barriers are in our way.

Alys Mumford is a co-convenor of the Edinburgh Greens Councillor Group. This article was originally featured in the Edinburgh Evening News.