Engaging more women in Politics

Posted on: 24th October 2015

Engaging more women in Politics was not why Councillor Sue James stood for election but is an issue she has become passionate about since.

Women in Politics Event

Left to right: Sarah Newton MP, Ann Kerridge Chair of Cornwall Council, Councillor Sue James, Lord Speaker Baroness D’Souza, Mary May, Vice Chair of Cornwall Council and Richard Williams, Legal/ Monitoring Officer for Cornwall Council

On Friday 16 October, Liberal Democrat Councillor Sue James, who represents St Just, attended County Hall for an unusual meeting and found herself sitting between Lord Speaker, Baroness D’Souza, a cross bencher in the House of Lords and Sarah Newton, Conservative MP for Truro and Falmouth. Whilst the 3 may not have shared the same Political views they were all passionate that it is vital that more women come forward to get involved in Politics, at all levels of our democracy.
Sarah Newton kicked off and was proud that the last General election had increased the number of women from 24% to 29%. During the question and answer session, Sarah acknowledged that Labour’s policy of all women short lists had significantly increased the number of women they got elected but said she favoured an approach that encouraged and supported women to stand, through mentoring, bursaries and development programmes.
Baroness D’Souza took a more International approach to the theme, highlighting that the more women were given equal voice, in Parliaments and on Company Boards, there was evidence that there was better decision making and economic prosperity. In developing countries she cited that educating women was the key to bringing about systemic improvements to family health, welfare and the economics of an area, region or Country.
Speaking to her brief of her journey to become a Councillor and the barriers she had encountered, Councillor Sue James gave a more personal story. A story that began with her growing up in a working class family on a council estate where her only memory of Politics was her parents voting. It was not until she came to her husbands birthplace in West Cornwall, in 2005 that her successful journey to the Council Chamber began. She highlighted the stepping stones to the Unitary were 6 years on St Just Town Council, including a year as Deputy Mayor and then a year as Mayor.
Sue James did reveal that back in the early 80’s, when studying to be a probation officer, she had flirted with the idea of becoming an MP but on discussing it with her tutor was told firmly: ‘no matter how high up you go Sue, you’ll always feel you don’t have enough power to put the things that trouble you about society right. You have to do what you can, for who you can, NOW’.
Sue told the audience “I did not stand for election because I felt women were under represented in Politics but by getting elected it has come home to me how much women are under represented in Politics and it’s not going to change on its own.” Sue also drew their attention to the fact that “In the GE election this year 459 men were elected to Parliament but only 450 women have been elected in 97 years, since 1918 when they first entered the Parliament!” Of the current Cornwall Councillors only 29 of 123 are women.
In terms of barriers to a career in Politics Sue James confessed to those listening “Most of the barriers were in my head. Telling myself: A person of my background doesn’t do that; What’s the point? And asking: Would I be any good?” She also pointed out that, as a young women “I didn’t know how to become an MP. I had never spoken to an MP or a Councillor so they were aloof people that I put on a pedestal as “important” and “better than me””.
The organisers of the event, the Parliamentary Outreach team and Cornwall Council’s Equality and Diversity team felt that the event was worthwhile and had reached its target audience of young people and women. In the run up to the next Cornwall Council elections in 2017, there will be discussions within the Council on whether similar events, around Cornwall, might increase the diversity of Councillors in the Chamber.