Tuesday 16 April 2013

"The way it is around here" - surviving and thriving in local politics

For a week that focussed heavily on the death and legacy of a female politician, there was a marked lack of informed and constructive debate about the role of women in politics.  It was therefore really refreshing and timely for me to attend and speak at the residential course 'Women into Grassroots and Local Politics', run by the WEA at the University of Nottingham.

I decided to talk about resilience in politics and explore the kind of things that women need to thrive in a political environment.  Below is a summary of the themes I talked about, having observed resilience in action at a variety of different local authorities; and seen the often toxic effect of the political arena on both male and female councillors.  I'd love to know what you think!

Queen Bee syndrome

This is essentially where women reach a position of power but then keep that power to themselves, to the detriment of other women following them into politics or working with them (Thatcher, of course, was a classic example of the 'queen bee') .While I don't condone the behaviour I appreciate why it can happen - for some women, this has been the only way to get on and survive in a predominantly male space. 

So how can women in politics mitigate this?  One way is to avoid working alone; build networks of like-minded women, and if they don't already exist - create them.  Networks should extend beyond political groups and councils and don't have to be 'official'. Twitter, and other social networks are a great way of developing this kind of support.

As an aside, it's interesting to consider why this 'syndrome' is only mentioned in connection with women - surely men behave in these ways too? Or is this just the accepted way for men in politics to behave anyway?

Feeling the pressure

Most people do not appreciate and understand the pressures faced by, and the sheer volume of work that confronts local politicians.  Coping mechanisms are needed to deal with piles of (often distressing) casework, and these are skills that can be learnt. Most local authorities have courses and resources available; there are also national programmes available through the LGA and other bodies. Topics might include: managing your time, using social media effectively, dealing with your casework.

Coaching is a great way to help set goals and track progress, in a safe space - and there are some great coaches around who specialise in political resilience.  Keeping a reflection diary and collecting all the complements and thanks you receive can be very positive actions, as well as being great records to look back on.

Many political groups provide mentors for newly-elected councillors, but it is a good idea to identify your own.  A mentor is a powerful role and the choice of mentor should always rest with the mentee.

The passion and drive needed to be a politician can work against you and be misunderstood by even those closest to you.  The late MP Mo Mowlam wrote about achieving balance between politics and family:

"Make sure you have a hinterland...make sure you have something else in your life that is important. Make yourself as normal as possible; if not, you become addicted to politics and forget what life is about and what other people are thinking."

Political space

On countless occasions in my career, when questioning behaviour or the status quo I have been told 'it's just politics.'  Politics is used as an excuse for a lack of respect, rudeness, ignorance and discrimination and the effects of this are far-reaching.  It is hard to change a culture but that is no reason to accept it.  Questioning accepted practice and language is a great way to start to unpick and explore assumptions.  Why do Council meetings have to be held this way?  Does politics need to be combative and aggressive? If so, why? Can we have a discussion about it?  Why, why, why? (you can tell what kind of 5 year old I was...!)

I came across a quote by Saul Alinsky that sums up how I feel about the power of the question:

"It's not co-incidence that the '?' is an inverted plough, breaking up the hard soil of old beliefs, preparing for new growth."

So the next time someone uses the phrases 'that's just politics' or 'that's how it is around here' why not take that question mark and start digging around and exposing assumptions?

More information about the 'Women into Politics' programme run by WEA can be found here:


and for general info and debate about women in democracy


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