Politics! Politics! Politics!

Colette Walker writes about her journey from being impacted by policies as a disabled person to getting involved in politics for disabled people.


"If you told me 10 years ago I would be so passionate about being involved in politics I would have laughed in your face. 

But, my life experience as a disabled child and adult has been a challenge then to top it off I become a lone parent / carer to my son who is totally blind and profoundly autistic.

At every stage of my life, I have had to fight, or work three times as hard as everyone else to get anywhere, yes I am visually impaired, I might need support at times but I am a human being and so is my son at the end of the day, and we expect to be treated as such, but in today's society we don't, which in 2017 is shameless. 

My father kept telling me I should be in politics with all my moaning and complaining at what was happening to me and many others in my situation .

Me ? Politics? No I don't think so !! I didn't go to a grammar / private school, I didn't go to university and not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. 

But low and behold, due to my involvement with Inclusion Scotland, I see a post on Access to Politics fund for disabled people, oh now what is this? Could I? Should I? Oh to hang, contact them and find out. 

All of a sudden I am meeting with a member of staff, discussing the fund and possibilities, then being given Lee's details about her project to encourage woman into politics, then going to Holyrood, meeting my local MP, going to a public meeting training day at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, helping Katherine while she canvasses in her area in Musselburgh, going to another woman in politics meeting in Edinburgh where I met Kate and then attending a hustings meeting hosted by Glasgow disability alliance, where I had a very good discussion with the Conservative candidate in the local election.

Through going out, meeting new people, discussing topics in forums etc I feel I have built a lot of confidence already at speaking out for what I feel passionate about and how I feel things could be changed.

For a while I was undecided on what party I wanted to become a member of, but after looking at policies, and comparing that to what I am looking for in a party I eventually decided, but ultimately too late to stand in local elections. 

As I see it, things happen for a reason, now I am a member and GE is coming up I am planning on working hard for my party, I worked at the polling station last Thursday, will then be campaigning for my local MP and attending training offered, working in the new shop premises they have opened for GE doing leaflet work etc. 

I am now on the panel that has been set up to organise and revamp the Scottish benefit system now they have been devolved, so it makes it a fairer and less stressful system for the service users, this will be a great experience. 

I have joined two disabled groups to start working with them and getting myself known in this community, so when I plan to stand in future, they know I have their interest at heart, from one disabled person to another, one carer to another, one lone parent to another. 

It certainly has been a very different and enjoyable few months and this is only the start. Watch out!!

Campaigning for a local council seat - Labour, Musselburgh

Member of the Scottish Parliament Project peer group, Katherine Sangster, shares her experiences of campaigning for her first local council seat.

"As a candidate in the upcoming council elections, over the last few months or so I have been delivering leaflets, knocking on doors and phoning voters.  So much so that I dream of delivering leaflets in my sleep!

I'm fortunate to have been joined every evening by a core group of party members who come out to support me time after time.  However, there is always more to do and I would thoroughly recommend that everyone who is involved in politics spends some time campaigning in the next few weeks. Most branches will go out to their members asking for help and you will find details on your candidates Facebook page, they will be delighted to hear from you.

Last week, as part of The Parliament Project, an initiative to help more women into politics I was joined by Colette Walker an activist for disabled rights and partially sighted herself.  Colette was surprised by how many people we spoke to didn’t have an opinion, we were met with “sorry I’m not interested” or “oh I don’t talk about politics”.

Politics has become increasingly discredited over the last few years, with politicians seen as out of touch, an elite to be at best ignored or worse mistrusted.  The rebuilding of trust and engagement must begin at a local level. Most of all people want you to listen, a “no I’m not interested” or “I don’t vote Labour” can quickly turn into a conversation when you ask, “what concerns do have at the moment” or “anything you would like to talk to me about”.  So far many issues have been raised with myself and colleague, sitting councillor Andrew Forrest who has been able to deal with most of them – a vandalised bus stop, an additional police patrol in a neighbourhood blighted by break ins and the need for a disabled parking space. Not to mention some overgrown trees blocking sunlight into people’s houses! People are also very concerned about the lack of funds directed at their local services, the issue of elderly care comes up time and time again. These are issues that affect people day in day out but somehow the connection to these issues and what politics can do and how politicians can help has been lost.

Returning from another night of canvassing and settling down to catch up on the events of the day via Twitter is a disconcerting experience. There seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the concerns of the professional commentators on Twitter and that of our communities.  Many commentators would do well to step away from their phones and visit the communities they claim to speak for.  I have experienced no appetite for debate on Brexit or a second referendum just a desire from people that we as politicians and aspiring politicians listen to their concerns and respond to those concerns.

Only time will tell if Labour’s terrible showing in the national polls will translate to defeat at the local elections.  One thing is for certain, the road back to electoral success for Labour is a long one, it will be hard won and won vote by vote, door by door, street by street.  It will be won by living and breathing the concerns of our communities and being of that community.  It will be won by getting the job done and caring about the day to day concerns of whom we seek to represent."

The Parliament Project's first 6 months

Women do want to get into politics! 

Over the last week we have read some articles suggesting that women are not interested in politics and this is why they are under-represented in all positions of political power. Judging by the interest in The Parliament Project workshops since we launched in May and June we believe this not to be the case! In 2016 over 400 women came to our events across the country, with a further 150 booked to attend in Jan and March. Over 250 came to our launch events in Edinburgh and London and nearly 150 attended our events and workshops in Manchester, Musselburgh, London and Edinburgh.

Thank you to the amazing political women who supported us at those events. Jo Swinson (Liberal Democrats), Nan Sloane (Labour), Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh MP (SNP), Maggie Chapman (Greens), Jeane Freeman MSP (SNP), Kezia Dugdale MSP (Labour), Annie Wells MSP (Conservatives), Sophie Walker (Women's Equality Party), Baroness Anne Jenkin (Conservatives), Cllr Melanie Main (Greens), Cllr Shamin Ahktar (Labour), Cllr Kelly Parry (SNP), Cllr Amina Lone (Labour) and Talat Yaqoob.

Workshop locations for 2017

We have been overwhelmed by interest from people wanting us to come to their area to run workshops. We currently have the following planned.

New locations, dates to be defined:  Newcastle, York, Glasgow, Bedfordshire, Cambridge, Ayr. If you are interested in a Parliament Project workshop for your area, either 'Exploring your Political Pathway' or 'How to Become an MP', please email us on help@parliamentproject.com

Partnerships developed

We are delighted to have formed some partnerships with great organisations working towards increasing women in politics in various ways. Inclusion Scotland: Access To Politics is a project to increase the number of disabled people elected to positions in Scotland. We are grateful to be collaborating with them at the intersection of gender and disability and appreciate their financial support for attendees of our workshops in Scotland. We are running our Birmingham event in conjunction with The Sikh Network, who would like to see better representation of Sikh women in politics. Both Women 50:50 in Scotland and 50:50 Parliament in England are pressing for at least 50% of MSPs and MPs to be women and we are delighted to have had Women 50:50 Founder and Director Talat Yaqoob support our workshops and 50:50 Parliament collaborate with us to#AskHerToStand. For our Manchester workshop we collaborated with DivaManc an organisation seeking to ensure women's voices are heard in devolution to Manchester. We were also delighted to speak about our project at the 'Political Women have More in Common' event to celebrate the life of Jo Cox, Labour MP and at the first Women's Equality Party Conference. Thank you to all these organisations and to all of the people who contact us on social media offering to help.

We are very excited to be running a workshop as part of the Women of the World Festival this March in London's Southbank Centre. We should have room for about 150 to attend. More details to follow as the programme gets confirmed. We are also hoping to have an information stall in the foyer of Royal Festival Hall. If you would be willing to help us woman the stall on Fri 10th, Sat 11th or Sun 12th March - anytime between 11am to 6pm, please let us know. We would love you to join us. Please email us onhelp@parliamentproject.com.

Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust - Thank you!

None of this would have been possible without the financial support of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust so a huge thanks to them for their grant this year. Thank you so much to all the many volunteers who keep offering to help. We want to see more of you in 2017, when we plan to fundraise a bit more and expand our work. The world never needed women in politics as much as it does now. Let's get on it!

All the best, Lee and Vicky

Why the Parliament Project?

I had been passed on the details of the London workshop by a friend and thought, “this could be interesting – why not”. I was intrigued by what I might learn at this workshop.

Within the first few minutes I was gripped.

We were told research showed that women hardly ever thought about standing forward without being asked. It usually took someone else (often male), to say “Have you thought about standing” and was usually met by the response “who me?”

There I was thinking…yes…that is so true… that is exactly what happened to me. I am a confident woman, successful in my career, but why had I also fallen in to this pattern?

It was the fantastic Jonathan Bartley, now co-Leader of the Green Party but then the Chair of the Lambeth Greens who had encouraged me to stand as a candidate in the Parliamentary Elections.  It was the support of him and the peer group within Lambeth that gave me the courage to take the first step and put myself forward.

The importance of the Parliament Project was evident. Having access to a supportive group of experienced people is often rare to find. Even harder to get in one room at the same time. We discussed barriers and obstacles that might be holding us back from standing in an election, we were given practical steps as to how we may overcome those barriers and we heard from an MP who had successfully navigated the road to being elected and being effective in parliament.

It was inspiring to hear. Most of all it was inspiring to hear the stories from the women around the room. Humbling to learn that although we all shared similar fears and barriers, we were determined to be politically active in some shape or form.

At the close of the session we were all motivated to leap in to action, our first steps noted down, and our peer network established.

I was very impressed with the organisation and content of the workshop. Often these experiences leave me with the feeling “well that was good in theory but what about the reality”. The Parliament Project moves away from that. It provides tangible constructive support to women across the entire political spectrum who may be considering entering politics. It is also a long-term project, not a one-off event that has limited impact. If you do get the opportunity to attend one of the workshops I would highly recommend doing so.

I admire the vision and challenge that Lee Chalmers and Vicky Booth have taken on in setting up The Parliament Project and I look forward to continuing my political journey with them.

Gulnar Hasnain, 2015 Parliamentary Candidate for Vauxhall, The Green Party

London 'Becoming an MP' workshop November 2016

For decades, female MPs have made up less than 5% of the total seats in Parliament. Today, only 191 of the total 650 seats are taken by women, and though progress has certainly been made, it is clear to see why many women approach the idea of running for political office with slight hesitation. Surely, many of us who entered the London workshop were speculative about the male-focused game, wondering whether the unforgivable crime of having a uterus or not being mates with Boris Johnson would prevent us from being represented fairly in politics. From the atmosphere in the room, however, it was clear that every single woman left the workshop feeling so inspired that she may have been inclined to wage war on the political patriarchy there and then. The Parliament Project is so imperative when it comes to motivating and empowering women from all backgrounds to participate in politics, and in short, I would recommend any of these workshops to all women, irrespective of their political leaning. Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh MP began and set the tone for the night by detailing how she balanced a degree and brief career in law, the raising of her four children, and her role as an MP. 

She depicted the difficulties of being a female in Parliament (upset a few male MPs only slightly and get ready to be accused of having a wandering womb), but also described the great satisfaction that accompanies being a female voice in the House of Commons. When asked whether women should worry about the restrictions placed upon constituencies by existing members,

Tasmina replied that being passionate enough about change is key to breaking the mould, and called for greater representation to accommodate all genders, ethnicities and ages. She also expressed her desire to ensure that there are more disabled MPs; so many laws are passed that affect disabled people, yet they also lack substantial Parliamentary representation. She went on to explain how to secure a winning seat, and told us how forging relationships with people in your constituency creates the vital link between the ordinary person on the street, and the laws made in Parliament.

Lee Chalmers and Vicky Booth continued the night by discussing the practicalities – financial and personal – of such political careers. We reflected on what may have prevented us from following such paths, and concluded (amongst other issues such as money and family commitments) that the fear of being a public figure, a lack of understanding of political lingo and perhaps, even, that it may be unattractive to men, were reasons why we may doubt our abilities. The conclusion was – on most of the issues above, but particularly on the perceived lack of sex appeal – that we should ‘give no f*cks’. The gender pay gap, a shortfall in female representation, and the oppression of minority groups are, we seemed to conclude, more important than the upset of those offended by successful women. We went on to discuss the various routes to Parliamentary roles, from Mhairi Black’s liberation from the fish and chip shop, to those who took a more conventional course. 

It opened our minds to the reality that politics is accessible whenever you are ready – no matter how old you are or what your family situation may be – and thus there is no set path that we all must follow, leaving our burning bras behind us.

Personally, the workshop inspired me to get more involved in my own constituency and ensure that I don’t take a backseat role in my party. It not only demonstrated that there is a greater need for female representation in Parliament, but also that there are so many women who are exceptionally passionate about making a change and standing up for what they believe in. I believe that the Parliament Project is an invaluable medium for those women and girls who want to create a more progressive and diverse political landscape, but are unsure of where to begin.

Emily O'Sullivan

The Parliament Project: Edinburgh launch, 29th June 2016

Guest blogger, Ella Taylor-Smith, shares her experience of the launch event in the Scottish Parliament

In the midst of the fallout from the Brexit vote, over 100 women and several men gathered in the Scottish Parliament to launch the Parliament Project  – to inspire and begin to support women to stand for election to their local councils and parliaments.

Willie Rennie, MSP, Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and Member of the Scottish Parliament for North East Fife, welcomed us, as the Parliamentary sponsor of the event. He described how the Scottish Liberal Democrats had aimed for equal numbers of male and female MSPs, but not succeeded. An all-male team of 6 MSPs was elected in May and Rennie hoped the party would back more proactive processes to improve their gender balance.

Lee Chalmers, the Parliament Project’s Founder and Co-director, briefly explained the project’s to encourage and empower women to run for political office in the UK. The project will run events, provide information and support peer-networking to support women from interest to election.

The Scottish Green’s co-convener, Maggie Chapman, awakened, politically, as she grew up in Zimbabwe, both through the impact of events there and South Africa, where many of her family lived. By the time she moved to Scotland her politics centred on peace and environmental justice and she became increasingly active as she studied environmental management and ethics. Previously a City of Edinburgh Councillor, Chapman had encountered outright sexism from a Tory city councillor and was honest about the need for more action to support women into being elected Greens. Although equality was enshrined in the party’s constitution, out of 6 MSPs elected to the Scottish Parliament in May, only one is a woman.

Jeane Freeman OBE, SNP MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley and Minister for Social Security, had grown up in her constituency and pursued a career in public service, including serving as a senior political adviser to First Minister Jack McConnell and, later, founding Women for Independence. Freeman made the crucial point that successful women politicians were led by their values and desire to change things for the better: “It’s not about you”.

The Centre for Women and Democracy’s Nan Sloane opened the panel talks, emphasising that women had essential roles to play in politics, and that politics was a noble, if much maligned calling. When politicians were prevented from working (discussing options, looking for solutions, managing the country’s affairs), the country was in trouble. When politicians could return to these tasks the country was on its way to health again. Sloane proposed that women were particularly suited to this, being solution-oriented, rather than conflict-oriented, and should support each other.

Kezia – Kez – Dugdale  described her journey from unemployed graduate, putting the world to rights over Kia Ora cocktails, to Leader of the Scottish Labour Party and MSP for the Lothian Region. Taking to politics – and the Labour Party – like a duck to water, she discovered a love of door-knocking, apparently shared by all the panel’s MSPs. Open the door a little wider. These folk are driven by a genuine interest in our lives. Dugdale advocated a strategic approach to getting things done as a politician; she had chosen to focus on a couple of big issues – children and poverty and payday lenders – to maximise her impact.

Finally, new MSP, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party’s Annie Wells described her very recent journey from working in Marks and Spencers to representing Glasgow in the Scottish Parliament. She reckoned she had received more grief for being a Tory than a woman, but praised the new MSPs for supporting each other.