Uday Nagaraju interviewed Seema Malhotra, Labour and Co-Operative Member of Parliament for Feltham and Heston (UK), Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Founder and President of the Fabian Women's Network, Former Shadow Home Office Minister for Preventing Violence Against Women and Girls and shared it with iKNOW Politics.
1. Seema, you grew up, one of five in an immigrant family, living over a shop in not so rich area. There was no connection to politics. What motivated you to get into politics?
I became interested in politics when I was very young, when I was still at primary school. I remember as a child developing a strong sense of what I believed what was right and wrong. Right and wrong in family life, right and wrong in society. Children, I think, are very driven by a desire to see the world be better, particularly for other children but also for the people they see around them. I stood in my primary school elections for the Labour party in 1983 and argued then for better pensions for the elderly. My grandmother lived with us and that raised my awareness of a very different sort of issue. In many ways my interest in politics stemmed from that. I didn't connect with the Labour party itself until I was 17 and at school but I did develop a social conscience. Learning from friends who were involved already, I developed a desire to participate in the community. It led me to do lot of voluntary work from when I was 13 years old, giving up my time in the summers, sometimes at the weekends to do charity or other community work. Cleaning up ponds, working with handicapped children gave me a much better understanding of my borough, what the world around me was like. I think that is a very important thing because otherwise when you grow up as a child you only know your family or your school but it’s important to develop your wider understanding. Then when I was in secondary school, I became involved in different campaigns, particularly around gender equality and also environmental campaigns. I think the turning point for me came when I realised that what I was doing was being involved in pressure groups, where you put pressure on others to make decisions. Democracy is something precious; it is something that you have to participate in for it to be sustained. It is part of what keeps us at peace with each other and I think that is what created a lifelong commitment to politics. And, indeed with the Labour party where the values of fairness and equality chimed with me; the sense that you also have a responsibility to others as much as to yourself. I was aged 17 and still at school - I had no idea that it would end with where I am today and it is an honour every day to have the chance to serve as a Member of Parliament.
2. You were Shadow Minister for Preventing Violence against Women and Girls. In the context of the UK, what were some of the most related issues and can you tell us your biggest achievement in this role? What about violence against women in politics? Were you or your fellow female peers subject to it and if yes, how did you overcome it?
The biggest issues we addressed were domestic violence and sexual violence. Domestic violence where we know there are more than 2 women are killed by their partner or ex-partner each week and millions of incidents reported to the police each year. A huge cost to us all. Approx 90% of the victims of domestic violence are women. I took on the role just as the child sexual abuse scandals were rising up the agenda as a national political issue. There was very much a shift in how we started to look at prevention. It led us to undertake a series of girls’ safety summits across the country to understand how safe girls felt in our communities and online. For young people today there is a greater interconnection between online and physical bullying and violence. There is a blending of the online and offline in a way that many adults less familiar with the online world and social media don't fully appreciate. When I held a discussion in the constituency at a school, the head teacher was so shocked at what he heard - the extent of feelings of intimidation, bullying and forms of sexual comments and assault that girls described - that it led the school to change its strategy on handling such issues. Our work was then increasingly driven by the view that we all needed to come together much more as a community to tackle domestic violence by looking earlier as well at where it was starting - often in gendered attitudes that developed while children are young. Partly because they are copying what they see as other role models in media or films. We wanted to understand that and see what you could to interrupt that, to shift the culture to zero tolerance of violence in relationships in any form; it was incredibly enlightening. I then did visits and discussions or "summits" around the country with other MPs and we got quite a powerful picture from young people who felt that there needed to be much more relationship and sex education in schools. They wanted faith groups and community to be intervening to change and challenge attitudes that were developing. They wanted greater intervention from faith leaders to talk about what should be acceptable and they wanted to be heard. They hadn't felt that there was anywhere really to go where they would be taken seriously. The recommendations from the summits were important and changed adult attitudes about the way the world is today for young people. If we had won the election we would have brought in Violence against Women and Girls Bill and implement many recommendations - something that I still feel very strongly that we’ll need to do. It was a really important, informative year for me in doing that role.
2.1. What about violence against women in politics?
Violence against women in politics, yes. The pattern it’s really taking now is a lot of abuse online. I can get abuse when I write blogs or articles. I get it on Twitter as well. One thing that reduced it for me is I put on my twitter description that I didn't respond to anonymous tweets and after a few objections it somehow stopped a lot of comments. I’m under no obligation to respond to people if they don’t want to say who they are. And I made that clear. As an MP you always have to be aware for yourself and for your staff. For colleagues that have had a lot more abuse it has led to them having to come offline for periods of times. They have actually received death threats; they have actually had to get police protection for them and their family. It's something that nobody should go through, least of those in the public service. I think it strengthens our resolve now to support each other when that happens and also to say that we won’t be pushed out of online space that we are in - it's a space where we all have a right to be present and be treated with respect.
3. The current Parliament has the highest number of women historically with 191 out of 650 which is about 29%. This is a significant increase compared to the previous 23%, and the largest increase since 1997. What do you think contributed to this increase? How do you think this can be sustained?
The first thing to say is that there are fewer women who have ever been elected to Parliament then there currently are men in parliament so the scale of change that still needs to happen is pretty huge.
Having said that, of course we have made progress. One of the biggest changes that contributed to that progress was all women shortlists that were brought in by the Labour Party. That made a very big case for change through more concrete and positive action measures than just voluntary the start to see the number of women that we wanted to see in Parliament. In that I would absolutely attribute success to the work of Harriet Harman and others around her. Until after 1997 there had never been more than 10% of women elected to parliament. So if you think that the 90% of men elected were always the best people for the job then you don’t need to be having this debate. But I think we can probably say that it wasn't really a meritocracy that was in operation before. The all women shortlists didn't just change the culture and operation of the Labour party, they set a different standard because it showed what could be done. Our progress has put the other political parties on the back foot; they've had to develop their own strategies. Some have been more successful than others. The Conservative Party that is the party of government now has sixty eight women in parliament compared to the Labour’s ninety nine and we’re in opposition. So to get the numbers that we’ve got, to change their party rules as we have done, to have a 50/50 target for men and women in our Parliamentary Labour Party, to have as we have done - quota for our shadow cabinet, to be in line as a minimum with the gender representation that we have in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Those are some measures that have that created the systems by which we encourage women to come forward in the party, train them, mentor them. And I believe it’s seen a shift that the other parties now need to follow much more. That’s why you create sustainable change. It isn’t going to be Parliament making the change itself, it’s going to be political parties that have to change the way they work.
4. According to the Inter Parliamentary Union, the world average of women parliamentarians in lower houses is 22.6%. The UK ranks 39th with 29.3%, which is low for a European country and particularly low compared to Nordic countries. How do you explain this? How do you think this can be improved?
I think it’s quite straightforward to be able to explain that on two grounds. First is quotas and positive action that have existed and secondly their cultures of greater gender equality. On that I think the Nordic countries have battled for longer in different ways where women working in different professions has seen change more quickly, childcare are delivered in a different way, more consensus around universal provision. When a culture shifts and an expectation shifts, you can also have a more effective pipeline of women coming forward who are building their experience and being able to access those opportunities.
So I think we do need to ask a quite theoretical question about what happens within parties. For us in the Labour Party, we’ve already made a big change - we are at around 40% of our Parliamentary Labour Party being women, and we aspire for it to be 50%. If you look at record of the individual parties it shines a very different light on the average as whole of the 29% in the UK.
5. You are the co-founder and president of the Fabian Women's Network, whose mentoring program has won praise for helping women of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities into public life. Can you give an insight to our global readers about the network, the mentoring scheme and the results that were achieved? Perhaps, it could inspire others around the world.
I'm incredibly proud of the Fabian's Network, and also the political education and mentoring programme we set up 5 years ago. It's just had a report launched as well which the evaluation of its achievements is. It's been very clear that having an approach that has a competency framework is innovative and provides a structure for skills development. It's an approach that was based on my experience in the private sector of having a competency framework. It gives a sense of what you are working to achieve and what improvement looks like, how you could measure that. We wanted to develop an approach that looked at politics a bit more professionally because you do develop political skills. You build the skills over time and unless you understand which way you need to develop them, then you don't have a strategy for doing so. So we ran a programme to bring more women in, to help build their confidence, to build their knowledge, to build their networks --all of which are key critical success factors for being able to be selected and then to be elected.
We structured a programme that developed the individual as well as put them in a network and develop the network. So it operates at different levels within the overall frame of the Fabian society which is over 130 years old and has a huge amount of history and political assets, ideas. It's an environment that gives access to others who are engaged in the programme. Women MPs and parliamentarians, male also - have very willingly been mentors not just one year but every year. They've talked about how much they gained from working with the mentees. The mentees very quickly, within months report a big change for themselves in their confidence that has a knock on effect in terms of performance in their own workplace too. They develop greater clarity about what their own goals are and their sense of possibility about what they could achieve in public life.