Fabian Women’s Network Visits European Parliament

Fabian Women's Network, Labour Party


As in previous years, I was very pleased to recently host the Fabian Women’s Network – their sixth annual visit – as part of the group’s mentoring scheme, developing skills in political activism amongst women. The group were guided through the workings of the EU institutions and met with fellow Labour MEPs. There was great insight from the group in spirited discussions throughout the day. Visiting on the eve of the triggering of Article 50, their dedication to seeking progressive solutions was an inspiration and their direct challenge to MEPs – to make politics work better for women – will certainly stay with all of us.


The group were joined by colleagues from the Socialist and Democrat group and Zita Gurmai of PES Women who issued an impassioned call to mobilise for feminist change. Swedish MEP, Jytte Guteland highlighted the institutional change that is necessary to tackle the gendered bias in the workings of the European Parliament at every level. She urged that all staff and MEPs are properly trained in this area and drew attention to the need for a fair distribution of reports according to gender, as well as in the recruitment of staff.



We were also pleased to meet with Dagmar Schumacher, Director of UN Women, and feminist campaigner Pierrette Pape from the European Women’s Lobby. Reporting from the recent sixty-first session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York City, they called for vital feminist movement-building that is responsive to the a bolstered global backlash against women’s rights.


Blog PES group


Christine Revault d’Allonnes Bonnefoy spoke on her important work as Rapporteur on the European Parliament’s accession to the Istanbul Convention; an essential tool in the prevention of violence against women and securing access to justice. Mady Delvaux and Marc Tarabella fielded questions on the challenges of championing a progressive Europe in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and a buoyed right-wing populist movement.

It was a wonderful day spent showcasing the achievements – and ongoing challenges – of working with the European institutions to affirm women’s rights and gender equality. Although undeniably bittersweet given the spectre of Brexit and the threat it poses to the gains made at EU level, it was heartening, however, to see such an impressive group of dedicated women engage with the issues and call for their rights to be protected.

— Below, participants give an account of their visit —

A group of mentees from the Fabian Women’s Network recently visited the European Parliament in Brussels as part of the FWN’s incredible nine months’ mentoring programme.

The trip to Brussels – sponsored by Mary’s office – is a highlight of each year’s mentoring scheme. But while this year’s followed its usual pattern of an introduction to how the EU works, a session with Mary, and a series of discussions with MEPs, it was also slightly, but significantly, different. It took place on March 28th – the eve of Article 50 being triggered.

The trip was hugely enlightening and inspiring for all who went – yet also, given its timing, rather sobering. Here, four mentees reflect on what the experience meant to them…
My visit to the European Parliament really affected me because, as I listened to a number of MEPs from a variety of European countries speak to us about their determination and work to realise gender equality, I saw first-hand that through exiting the European Union we would be turning our backs on an achievement that the war generation could never have imagined 72 years ago: the ability to cohesively work together with our European neighbours to try and improve the lives of all citizens across the continent.

As Theresa May plays poker through the Brexit negotiations she disrespects not just our European friends but also our ancestors, who suffered decades of conflict to finally reach the point where they could co-operate to create a better future for their descendants.

– Rebecca Geach


The remarkable thing about our visit to the European Parliament was how genuinely European it made me feel. I suspect that the British, who have always been at arm’s length from Europe, need to go to the heart of the EU to understand that belonging to it doesn’t detract from Britishness, it adds another dimension. I need hardly point out the irony of experiencing this the day before Theresa May triggered Article 50.

That feeling of belonging was affirmed by a series of seminars listening to some of the brightest and best MEPs of all nationalities. Whether they were discussing domestic violence or gender equality, immigration or women’s representation, I felt they had our backs. We must continue to offer them our support in return and to work in partnership with them. It is far too soon to accept Brexit as inevitable.

– Jane Middleton

Mary escorted us into the Hemicycle: the unexpectedly beautiful horseshoe-shaped plenary chamber of the European Parliament. We joined groups of excited students from around the world who were taking photos, but our group was quietly reflective, looking at the 28 flags at the back of the Chamber; realising that soon there will be one fewer.

The chamber was designed to encourage consensus, reminding us that, from inception, the European experiment aspired to pragmatic collaboration – not the combative theatrics of the Westminster model. As Mary explained, there are no histrionic speeches from the floor and the real work takes place in committees. A shared characteristic of the many MEPS within the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats that we met was an absence of ego. All were determinedly working within processes complicated by a multiplicity of languages, a variety of cultural backgrounds and undeniable bureaucracy, to achieve something positive and lasting.

The Hemicycle’s symbolic significance lies not just in its design but also in the fact that work on its construction began in 1989: the year the Berlin Wall – a fragment of which stands outside the Espace Léopold – fell.  What a senseless thing to turn our backs on an institution that can count among its many achievements the maintenance of peace and stability within a region long characterised by violent dispute.

– Sheila Chapman


I arrived at the European Parliament with a feeling of hopelessness in light of the UK referendum, but all the MEPs welcomed me.

I listened to example after example of the safeguards and opportunities the EU has provided me and my family. I felt privileged to have been a part of it.

As I shook the hand of Mary Honeyball in thanks for her work, I felt uplifted knowing that wherever the voice of the European Union remains present, there is hope for a future EU which is an exemplar to the UK of how to be a fair, decent, democratic society.

Thank you to each and every member of the European Union. I will miss you.

– Rebecca Hepplestone

Tories hit families with welfare cuts

Labour Party

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Tories planned £12 billion worth of welfare cuts will have the greatest impact on families. Tax credits and other working age benefits are expected to be slashed and now the right leaning think tank, Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), has branded it ‘extremely unfair’.

Despite Cameron Making a speech on the issue of welfare yesterday, his ministers still refuse to give specific details on how the government plans to save £12bn. One possibility is to cut child tax credits back to 2003 levels for those in work as well as housing benefit. It is also thought that some disability benefits could also be affected.

Labour warned during the election campaign that tax credits would be vigorously cut if Cameron returned to power. And Ed Miliband took to Twitter yesterday criticising his speech and suggested that Cameron disguised his own effort to cut tax credits as a way to help working people: “The PM’s one-nation speech feels like a weak attempt to explain why it is OK to cut tax credits and say you stand for working people.”

Although cuts are inevitable, Labour always said it would be done more sensitively, and not aggressively, hurting the most vulnerable in society the hardest. Indeed, Andrew Harrop general secretary of the Fabian Society said of Cameron’s proposed welfare cuts: “This isn’t ‘one nation’; it is nasty politics and terrible policy. The prime minister … hopes to improve life chances for all, but singles out children as the main targets for cuts, once again.”

During his speech Cameron attacked the tax credit system which helps lower paid workers to stay in work. Instead he favours encouraging employers to pay higher wages, based on a living wage.

But he is unlikely to force employers to pay a living wage which would replace the lost tax credits, therefore failing to address the problem of helping working families on low incomes, or to protect the most vulnerable within those families, namely, children.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-up

Labour Party

Cameron’s defeat following the election of Jean- Claude Juncker was an embarrassing disaster that may have been avoided had he negotiated better. His main failure was that he failed to recognise the power of negotiation and instead thought he could throw his weight about and in doing so adopted a ‘bull in the china shop’ style which failed. Dismally.

I wrote this piece for Labour List outlining my thoughts.

Andrew Rawnsley, writing for the Observer, offered similar thoughts on why Cameron’s defeat was so ‘dire’. ‘The genesis of his mistake can be traced back to 2005’, wrote Rawnsley. During Cameron’s leadership campaign he appealed to the right of his party and said he would take the Conservatives out of the European Peoples Party (EPP).

Sage voices cautioned at the time that leaving the main centre-right group in the European Parliament would cause problems down the line but nevertheless he stubbornly stuck to his word and left the EPP. This not only excluded him from the groups decision making but it cut him off from the informal alliances which are made and often where deals can be struck, Rawnsley argues. “It set a pattern that has since been repeated of Mr Cameron throwing chunks of meat off the back of his sledge to try to sate the pursuing pack of Europhobic Tory beasts”, writes Rawnsley.

He also points out that: “Had the Conservatives been in the EPP, it is quite likely they could have stopped the Juncker juggernaut before its engine was even running.”

Cameron’s other problem, which Rawnsley rightfully observes, is that far from executing excellent negotiating skills, he has been ‘hopelessly crude’.
A critique of his negotiating skills was offered by the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski. In a leaked conversation Sikorski suggested Cameron had messed up…although he used slightly more colourful language.

And during an interview for the Andrew Marr Show the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, described Cameron’s handling of the situation as ‘cack handed.’

In addition, business groups have voiced their concern over Britain’s position in Europe following Cameron’s debacle. John Cridland, leader of the CBI- Britain’s largest business group, said in an interview with the Observer, that the country’s economic success depends on it remaining a full member of the EU.

Cridland told the Observer that full membership of the EU boosted British jobs, growth and investment. “The EU is our biggest export market and remains fundamental to our economic future,” he said. “Our membership supports jobs, drives growth and boosts our international competitiveness.”

He dismissed some form of associate membership status, which some Conservatives favour. He said “Alternatives to full membership of the EU simply wouldn’t work, leaving us beholden to its rules without being able to influence them. We will continue to press the case for the UK remaining in a reformed European.”

Meanwhile, the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, warned that ‘The NHS, police, education system and social care are at risk of an “existential crisis” within the next five years if the Conservatives win the next election.’
During a speech organised by the Fabian Society Cooper said that public services are about ‘empowerment and opportunities and should not just provide a safety net as the Tories believe.’

Setting out potential policy ideas ahead of the 2015 election, Cooper announced, among other things, that Labour would hold a review to understand better the reasons for failed rape convictions and seek answers as to why the number of prosecutions is falling.


David Cameron should listen to his voters

Labour Party

Yesterday’s blog showed how out of touch those Tories obsessed with withdrawal from the European Union are compared with the majority of British voters.

Today I came across this piece on Guardian Comment is Free. Talking about support for the EU among young people, the article’s author Selina Nwulu could have read my mind.

Selina tells us that a recent report from the Fabian Society shows that the majority of the 18- to 34-year-olds surveyed claimed they would vote yes to EU membership in a referendum. The report revealed that  most young people, despite economic instability and the burgeoning Eurozone crisis, still feel positive about the UK’s involvement within the EU.

I totally agree with Selina’s conclusion that there is a discrepancy between UKIP’s and the Tories’ anti-Europe rhetoric and the views of the pro-European majority among the younger UK generation. As politicians we should never dismiss young people’s views simply because they are less likely to vote than the older members of our society. Their voice is valuable and deserves to be both heard and acted on.

Selina also make a very good point when she asks that given the fact that many young people in the UK are currently facing limited opportunities, why is shrinking them further by UK withdrawal being discussed?

She goes on to say, “As youth unemployment rises and hideous terms like, “benefit scrounger” and “Neet” bounce around current day vernacular, youth engagement within the EU presents a mass of opportunity. EU schemes such as the Leonardo Da Vinci programme and the European Voluntary Service allow young people to work and live abroad as well as encouraging young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply. It’s crucial that the chances for young people are widened, not limited.”

Selina ends her article by saying it’s time the David Cameron and his Tory MPs listened. While there are those who feel overburdened by EU regulation, there are also many people who have benefitted from the EU in various ways – the educational programmes Selina mentions, the EU structural funds, grants to creative industries, equalities legislation and environmental protection, to name but a few.


All Women Shortlists: Guest Blog by Emma Burnell

Labour Party

The last week has shown more than ever how vital All Women Shortlists are. Changing the culture of politics away from the misogynistic boys club that tells women to accept sexual harassment as part of the price they pay for being political will take more than fine words. It needs real, concerted action from all parties.

Now I can’t do much to affect the numbers in other Parties. They will go their own way.

The Lib Dems are encouraging their MPs to stay on for the next election to take advantage of their incumbency factor. Given that Fabian Research shows that five of their ten most vulnerable seats are held by women (and they only have seven overall). The Lib Dems may have had a good week, but they would have to produce miracles to keep all of these women in their seats. The other two are in constituencies where the swing against the Lib Dems in Eastleigh of 14% would also see them lose.

The Tories have done better in selecting female candidates and their number of women MPs was raised significantly by the A list at the last election to a whopping 16% of their MPs. But the A-List has been abandoned. There is a new assertiveness from Tory activists, but they look like this:


A representative bunch I’m sure you’ll agree.

Some – especially Lib Dems – will argue that the imbalance in representation is a result of first past the post. But on current evidence, this is extremely hard to prove. The European election uses PR and while Labour, the Greens and to be fair, the Lib Dems have reasonably equal representation, the other Parties don’t – particularly the Tories and UKIP. So the UK delegation to the EU Parliament as a whole is still nearly two thirds male. Nor is this a problem that only occurs at a national level. In the 2010 Census of Councillors, 68% were male. This is clearly a problem at every level of elected politics.

Equally, it is a problem with the institutions that surround politics. While there are some superb women in political commentary, in think tanks and in the media, there are far too few. The BBC have never had a female Chief Political Correspondent  for example, and Newsnight and the Today Programme are roundly criticised for having far too few female guests.

Think tanks are massively imbalanced too, with men taking both the lion’s share of the roles and also dominating those roles where they will learn the kind of skills – like public speaking and press writing – so likely to come in handy when it comes to getting selected to be a candidate.

It is quite clear from the figures that Labour’s efforts – through balanced lists at European level and All Women Shortlists for the House of Commons that our methods for changing the equality of representation are working. This must continue until by changing the cultural signifiers, we change the culture. All positive discrimination should have the initial impact simply of rebalancing the inequality it finds. But ultimately it should be possible that this rebalancing should change the culture around it. Normalise that equality.

In that normalisation, the process should make itself obsolete. Eventually, All Women Shortlists and other measures to encourage female candidates should become unnecessary. They should and must be a temporary measure that corrects a long-standing historical imbalance and forces wider cultural change. But sadly, as we have seen over the last week, despite increases in female representation at many levels, that cultural change – while started – is still lagging. We are still a long way from equality.

We have some amazing women in the Labour Party. Those who have made it to the top are great role models. These women recognise the value of bringing up other great women behind them. AWS is sadly still essential to doing that.

While that remains the case, all Labour members – male and female – who recognise the value of equality should continue to champion AWS as the way Labour have successfully made themselves the most representative party in the UK Parliament and in the European Parliament.

Emma is a socialist, feminist, environmentalist and proud long-standing Labour member. She is a regular contributor to Labour List and has her own blog, Scarlet Standard.

Tom and Kerry

Labour Party

Tom Harris MP has had to pull out of my fringe meeting at Labour Party Conference – Blogging for Labour – How social media can drive a wedge into the Coalition at Manchester Central – Charter 1, at 6pm. Tom is a real star. He has arranged for Kerry McCarthy MP to take his place. Thank you Tom.

Kerry’s blog is “Shot from both Sides” and she was appointed Labour’s first Twitter tasr.

Kerry is a solictor and linguist whose first elected position was as a councillor on Luton Borough Council.

Kerry is a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, the Co-operative Party, the Fabian Society, the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the Labour Animal Welfare Society.

Kerry was elected MP for Bristol East in 2005. In April 2007 Kerry was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Rosie Winterton, Minister for Health Services, and helped her steer the Mental Health Bill through the Commons.  From 2007 – 2009, Kerry was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for International Development.

In the June 2009 reshuffle she was made a Junior Whip.

Kerry was also Chair of the South West Group of Labour MPs, secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Somaliland, a member of Labour’s National Policy Forum, and lead contact for the End Child Poverty campaign amongst Labour MPs in parliament.

Kerry’s main policy areas of interest are: the economy; tackling poverty; international aid and trade; transport; and crime and justice.

In May 2010 Kerry was made a Shadow Junior Minister in the Department of Work and Pensions, with responsibility for disability issues.

I am delighted Labour’s top blogging woman MP will join me later to talk about how we can use social media, thank you Kerry.

About the Speakers at my Fringe Meeting – Jessica Asato

Labour Party

I was delighted when Jessica Asato agreed to speak at my fringe meeting.  Jessica is one of the few Labour women experts in social media, and I very much hope she will inspire more women to make use of the many and varied political online opportunities.   

As most of you know, Jessica Asato is Acting Director of Progress and an Islington councillor representing St George’s Ward.  She will speak at the fringe meeting in her capacity as social media organiser for the David Miliband campaign.

Prior to working at Progress, Jessica was a researcher at the Social Market Foundation think tank for three years, and spent a year working as a freelance researcher publishing reports on the issues of demographic change and paying for long-term care.

Jessica is, in addition, a former Chair of the Young Fabians, and has been an Executive Member of the Fabian Society since 2004. She is also a former Vice-Chair of Young Labour.

She is at present a governor of Tufnell Park School and acting Joint-Chair of the sexual health charity Brook.  In 2008 Jessica set up the Gareth Butler History Trust to raise money to pay for disadvantaged students to go on school history trips.

My fringe meeting is on Monday 27 September at 6.00pm in Manchester Central, Charter 1.  The other speakers are top Labour blogger Tom Harris MP, Alex Smith, editor of LabourList and Councillor John Gray from the London Borough of Newham.