On International women’s day,Uday Nagaraju interveiwed Jennette Arnold OBE AM, Chair of the London Assembly since May 2015. and shared it with iKNOW Politics. They talked about measures to achieve gender equality in politics at the local and regional levels, and Ms Arnold’s achievements in changing the perception of domestic violence issues in London.
You had a career in nursing and served in senior roles in the Royal College of Nursing. What motivated you to get into politics?
My interest in politics has been with me since forever. As a young woman I was surrounded by people who were engaged in politics. Adults around me were talking about some major issues like the anti-Apartheid movement as they were members of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. They were talking about the Caribbean and whether Caribbean Islands should be federated or independent, so I grew up in a household where political discussions were in the order of the day both at a local level, in terms of the country that we lived in and internationally. So I have always had an ear for politics. And for me, I can’t remember who said it but “politics is life”. The decisions that are made about us are political decisions and I believe we should be part of them. We should be part of the decision making, the discussion, and we should be engaged in the things that impact our lives. After a male mentor of mine encouraged me to engage in a political party, I joined the party as a young member and then took representation roles, and then I progressed within the party going from one post to another as issues developed.
You were a councillor and deputy mayor for the London Borough of Islington. From your experience what do you think is the main cause of under representation of women in local politics?
Working from the premise that 51% of the population is female, then it will be good if we saw a 51% female political in the local, national and international levels. This is far from being the case, we see quite clearly that, at every level, the greatest representation is held by men. I believe this is due to the orthodoxy that has developed in our world where men hold on to positions of power, positions of leadership. It is interesting to look at what has happened over the last years in many countries that have revised their legislative structure. I think you will find that many countries have quite a high proportion of women, many of them sometimes 40% to 50%. We want greater representation, but why don’t women get involved and stay in politics? I think there are so many reasons for that. I think we know that sometimes it is due to the environment. Politics have a strong male dominated environment, and since usually entering in politics is a voluntary thing, so why should women volunteer to get involved in an environment that is not inclusive? That is where you start to get the fallout at the local level because committing is voluntary. Then when you get there, especially if you are paid like I am at the London Assembly, the competition gets strong. We know that traditionally the men on interview panels tend to choose men, and we have to challenge that. In my party, we have now better women representation and this is due to the party’s many efforts. We introduced guidelines and regulations within the party that reserve some parliamentary seats to women only. Furthermore, our officers at the local level of the party have to be 50-50. I can speak about the labour party and the labour movement in the UK, we saw this advantage and we introduced changes within the structure. We also need to focus on legislation that requires equality. Gender equality, more specifically, should be the order of the day within our public and public life.
Why does under-representation at the local level not get similar attention compared to regional or national level?
I think it’s because there are so many councillors in local government. If there are 60 members and more on each council, in London for example we have 32 boroughs and 32 councils. Some boroughs have good representation, others do not. I think it’s a concern within the local government associations, and of course in individual boroughs. The media has strong influencing powers but it does not tend to pick up local government issues. Our media in the UK is dominated by national politics. You would have to look in your local newspaper to see local news, but a local newspaper is really talking about the day to day service uses, the incidents of people falling on the street or robbery or violence. They do not highlight the issues of equality at that the local government level but they should, they should, and they should.
The London Assembly has 8 women out of 25 which is about 32%. What steps need to be taken to achieve gender equality at the local and regional levels? What are you personally doing towards this?
The 25 Assembly members come to the Assembly through their political parties. Instead of looking at the Assembly level, you should focus at the political party level. You would then have to look and see what political parties are doing about their delegation, their group, their candidate. My party, the Labour Party, has a program that looks at half of our seats, in terms of the constituencies, and half of the 14 constituencies’ seats are reserved for women. The party presents 7-7 candidates, but there are thin chances to win the 14 seats. As an activist within my movement, I would like to see the 7 of those seats which are likely to be won in the constituency whether or not there are a majority of women in those 7 seats. I have argued and campaigned that of those 7, half should be all women shortlists. This is a campaign that we have in our party. And then there is another group of 11 members that join the London Assembly based on the vote share each party receives. In my party, in order to get 11 members on that list we do something we call “zip in”, so we start with a woman who would be number 1 of that list and place a man in the second position, then a woman in third and a man next. Then, if we’re likely to get 4 of those seats, 2 of those seats would be held by women, because the first one would be a woman, second a man, the third one would be a woman. That’s how we seek to get parity in the Assembly. We have guidelines within our party that seek to achieve that, so there would be seats allocated to women only. Thus if you are nominated, you’re selected and then the electorate would only have a panel of 3 to 4 women to choose from, and therefore they would be bound to choose women. In the Assembly, 5 of the women are Labour Party women, 1 is from the Green Party, 1 is from the Liberal Democrat Party and 1 is from the Conservative Party. Our party has 5 women out of 12 representatives, which makes it just below the 50%. Currently, we have more men but within the party system we will be seeking to get the same number of women as men. The Assembly cannot require parity, it is the political parties’ responsibility to make sure women and men are represented equally.
Can you please explain to the readers of iKNOW Politics the seat split in the London Assembly in terms of ‘first past the post’ and those based on vote share?
14 seats are directly elected by the ‘first past the post’ system. For the remaining 11 seats, if a party gets 4%, they start off by dividing those seats starting with the minority parties. The minority party with 4% gets one seat, and another minority party with 4% gets another seat, then they go down all the parties who have met that 4% ceiling and then after they’ve given them, they start again and then they allocate to the major parties. Major parties usually get around 40% of the votes but they come last.
How are you celebrating International Women’s day today?
I am going to host an event of celebration, because we have to celebrate womankind and we have to celebrate our journey. The model that I use for this event, which I have been holding for the last 10 years, is gathering leading successful women, schools and girl guides members. This is to give the opportunity to our young people, our young women to meet and interact with successful women. We have a competition at this event on the number of business cards gathered. Beyond the competition, the goal is to encourage the youth to exchange with successful women and create a relationship with them, such as shadowing them for example. This has been quite successful over the years. Furthermore, I mentor an enormous number of women and young people. It can be short term, advice giving, helping them through applications to get to the next level, jobs, helping them through the political process, talking through their CVs. It is all about enabling them to have the confidence that they need. My past experiences show that mentoring and supporting young women work, and I pledge to continue doing that. It’s time consuming and it is hard. I am determined to play my part in enabling women to achieve the best that they can. I will always continue to do that.
You have been a constant supporter of women’s rights and involved in highlighting issues of domestic violence. Considering that 90% of reported victims of violence are women, is domestic violence having a detrimental effect on women’s participation in politics also? How should that be addressed?
Domestic violence is so pervasive. It stops women from accessing education, it stops women from accessing opportunities that are available to them, so that means by extension it would stop them from getting into public life. Just take for instance my experience of working with women who have experienced domestic violence and come out the other end, they were able to start to live free from domestic violence, and they have then gone into public life because they found that time for themselves. Many of them could not have done that before because they were in controlling relationships. I know women who succeeded in getting out of violent and controlling relationships that have gone on to becoming councillors, school governors, politicians. So, we can assume that it is stopping women because it is clearly impacting on their choices and lives. Finishing on a positive note, I’ve been involved in the work of the Metropolitan police services for 16 years. When we first brought up the subject of domestic violence around the year 2000, the Metropolitan senior police officer turned around and said that violence in the home is a domestic affair, a private affair between a man and a woman that does not concern the police. So it was through the work that myself, other women and the police authority did that brought this change in the police services and of course, women in parliament and lobby organizations helped a lot. We all then worked together. The police services now take calls of alleged domestic violence as a criminal offence and it is taken more seriously as they are now aware of the impact on the children.
So not so long ago domestic violence was considered a domestic affair and work by you and others has changed the perception of domestic violence from a ‘domestic affair’ to a ‘crime’?
In 2000, yes. It is a bonus if you can stay for a period of time in the public life, then you can see the work that you are engaged in eventually change the practice and the culture. We still have a long way to go for a perfect equality and justice. There are now courts in this country where the cases dealt with go to as a one stop court whereas before the women making the allegation had to go to many places and courts for their cases. It is dealt with now in a much more appropriate way. The victim is not being stretched out and having to appear in front of a number of panels, but also justice can be done quite quickly. The justice process as a whole is much better now.
That’s a great achievement.
I was speaking about this with some colleagues now standing down from the Assembly and I was saying to them they will be missed because we have been on this journey for 16 years and we can now look back and see the achievements that a group of people can realize. It also encourages people. However, there is still much to do and to fight for. I am pleased to see the encouragement and motivation that young women have about these issues today.