The #MoreInCommon movement, its hashtag, and the phrase itself have come to prominence in the months following the murder of Jo Cox MP. In October, women came together to hear from a range of speakers on the theme of political women have more in common.
Each speaker told a story, or spoke about their work, and then gave the audience a specific, defined call to action. This short, sharp format was very effective, and reminded me that we can discuss these issues all we like, but it’s actions that matter.
The ethos is excellent – that there really is much more in common than that which divides us. This is what Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in the Commons last year.
The event’s speakers include women from the three main UK parties – Labour, The Lib Dems and the Conservatives – and all three have remarkably similar aims. They want to see more women in public life. It seems obvious to us as women that discourse is improved, and leadership more effective, when women are at the table. (Just as it is when those facing other discrimination, such as LGBT, BAME and disabled people are at the table.) The Labour Party’s Labour Women’s Network provides training, but also is acutely aware of the need for structural change in the environment into which women will be stepping.
I have long been an advocate of the need for structural change. Of course we should provide training for women wanting to enter public life, just as we should for men. There are skills that are very useful, and can be taught and practiced. Public speaking, for example, along with media skills and debating. This, however, is nothing without the necessary change in our public-life environments.
Parliament, for example, is hardly a women-friendly place. Not just the sitting hours but the attitudes and traditions of style, which have been created by and controlled by men over hundreds of years. Women are also disadvantaged by the structures of wider society. Stonewall Chief Executive Ruth Hunt, in her speech, reminded the audience that it’s ok to be clever, articulate and express your views. We are so used to being shouted down, interrupted, or ignored that it can take a lot to remember this.
So what can be done? Several of the speakers addressed this in their calls to action: when you see women standing up, don’t allow anyone to shout them down; give up your power to someone not yet at the table; amplify women’s voices; become a mentor. All of these actions involve other people. The key to our fight for equality, which was also highlighted by several of the speakers, is that we can achieve the most change when we work together. It’s not enough to break the glass ceiling, or get a seat at the decision-making table, you must make sure others are coming with you.
The keynote speech was given by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She spoke about Jo Cox’s activism and transition to becoming a Parliamentarian. She also unashamedly raised the very real issue that, following Jo’s death, there is a real sense of fear experienced particularly by women. There’s an increased fear for political women putting themselves out there, handing out leaflets in a public place, or knocking doors. This was also reflected by Yvette Cooper, who spoke about the Reclaim the Internet project. These issues also come back to structural change in society. It’s not acceptable to murder someone in the street, of course it isn’t. But it’s also not acceptable to shout abuse, or death and rape threats. Why, then, do we accept it online, and on social media, where some of the worst hate-speech can be found?
The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, pointed out that in the week or so following Jo Cox’s death, MPs took onboard her message that working together, rather than being partisan and combative, is the best way to achieve real change for people. It’s always a difficult idea for politicians – of course we need to push for our solutions over those proposed by our opponents, but when there actually is agreement it’s better for the people we want to serve that we work together to achieve things. Of course we will always be faced with opposition from those who propose different solutions to the ones we believe in, but this reminded me that it’s important to come back to our real purpose: serving our communities and making the changes that we need to see in the world.
My final takeaway was about power. In Julia Gillard’s keynote speech she talked about the difference between being a campaigner and being a politician. She used Jo Cox’s story to highlight the relevance of this. Jo was a campaigner – working most prominently at Oxfam – prior to her selection and election as an MP. Why did she make the transition? Julia Gillard pointed out that it’s power that actually gives us the opportunity to change things.
Women are often discouraged from seeking power – think about the overuse of words like ‘bossy’ and ‘b***h’ to describe women who openly seek it. The recent US Presidential campaign threw this into sharp global focus, but Julia also experienced it on her way to become Australia’s first (and still only) female Prime Minister.
It can seem on the surface dismissive, but she is right. You can’t make changes by being a name on a ballot paper, you have to win. The higher up the political system you climb, the more power you have, and the more change you can make.
Her speech served as a very empowering reminder that it is not only acceptable, but essential for women to seek political power, right across the world and at every level. That there should be absolutely no shame in women aspiring to hold the highest political office of the land. As politicians we can actual make changes on issues that are important to us.
As Prime Minister, she said, Julia was able to take action on several issues that mattered to her. As a campaigner with no power this would simply not have been possible. With women’s life experiences being broadly different to men’s, the issues that matter to us are of course going to be different. Again this crosses over into other disadvantaged and minority groups. When these diverse groups of people have political power, issues will be raised and changes made that transcend what just white men alone would come up with. Diversity of experience brings diversity of decision making and in the end this is the only way we can really serve society.