On Thursday, I got the chance to interview Helen Whately, MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, and Conservative Party Vice-Chair for Women. We spoke about being both a conservative and a feminist, an issue we’re both passionate about promoting. Following the party’s summer announcement of an aim to reach a 50/50 candidates list, we discussed how to encourage more women to stand for public office and taking down the barriers which prevent women from running for election.
Helen’s interest in politics developed from a desire to influence healthcare policy, after very nearly going into a medical career herself, having originally studying Human Science at Oxford before transferring to Politics, Philosophy and Economics. She unsuccessfully contested the Kingston and Surbiton seat in 2010 before winning her Faversham and Mid Kent seat in 2015. She’s served on the Health Select Committee, and as the chair of the APPG on Mental Health.
As Vice-Chair for Women, one of Helen’s main roles is encouraging greater involvement of women in all ranks of the party, and also promoting more women to consider standing for local or frontline politics. This is something that we could all benefit from, as having a greater diversity of women in the House of Commons improves the topics and contents of debates.
Whately said that, “It’s so important to get people from a wide range of backgrounds into politics because in reality you draw from your own experiences as an MP“, and singled out Tracey Crouch’s debate this week on supporting fathers in early parenthood as an example of how parliament benefits from a diverse makeup of female MPs.
In order to tackle and deal with the pipeline issue of female candidates, we have to go beyond just encouraging party members to consider standing, but to get women involved in party politics in the first place. In Whately’s view “I’d say it’s not only the gap between party members and candidates it’s a gap between somebody who is a conservative supporter interested in politics hasn’t yet taken the step to becoming a member“.
“One thing is the power of politicians talking about this. I remember very well when David Cameron was relatively new as leader of the party and he did a kind of shout out saying that whatever your background, whoever you are – particularly women – to think of becoming a candidate. Quite a few people simply heard that and responded“.
Whately points to mentoring as something that can benefit women not only when they’re considering standing, but also to help them navigate campaigning as a candidate. “I think what makes a real difference is that you’re mentoring the people who want to stand or are standing, so that you can support people on ways to ways to handle things. Because sometimes the pressure of a campaign, people aren’t sure how to do things, and you can say “well let’s work out how we can do this” and help”.
With the abuse MPs receive on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook increasingly becoming the subject of media attention, she urges potential candidates to not be put off standing for office.
“What isn’t visible to the general public is all the nice stuff that you get. So I know that for every every random, nasty tweet I will have umpteen letters and e-mails saying thank you so much for trying to do something about about mental health, for what you’re doing standing up for women in this scenario for intervening to try and make sure I get my PIP payment. You get all these personal e-mails to you because you’ve helped someone. That to me outweighs 100 times the random abusive tweets.”
In order to tackle such abuse on social media which targets political activists and candidates alike, Whately believes that there’s a role for both the social media companies but also for society.
“There are essentially quite proactive things that those sites are doing, and can do. It’s really incumbent on them to make sure that they are not facilitating the sharing of harmful material. But, we have to treat each other with common decency and humanity. And clearly you need to set an example as to how we treat each other. Some of the language that’s used during the Brexit debate MP is criticizing each other is clearly not setting a good example.”
Isabel Hardman’s book “Why We Get The Wrong Politicians” reignited the debate about the personal and financial costs of running for election, and she agrees that there’s still questions about how we can make being a candidate, and campaigning, more family friendly.
“It’s very difficult to take kids canvassing in my experience but there are other ways of campaigning. It’s one of the conversations I have with the Conservative Central office candidates team in selecting people to go into our candidates list. Let’s keep an open minded about the forms of campaigning that count as having campaigning experience. If spending evenings in a call centre is what you can do, then it is as valid as spending Saturday mornings knocking on doors. It doesn’t matter which you’ve done, it’s all different and relevant forms of campaigning.”
There’s a simple philosophy that if you can see someone doing something, then you can believe that you can do it as well. It’s clear that one of the main ways of brushing off the party’s supposed stereotype of being ‘pale, male and stale’ would be the heightened visibility of women at all levels within the party, primarily in the media.
“We need to get new, fab, younger – and older – women on the telly doing stuff…we need to shift and encourage our women to be proactive. Women have to be more proactive about getting to our journalists and saying yes to those opportunities.”
Being a Conservative and a feminist are inherently related, Whately argues. This is a subject she feels passionately about and has recently penned a chapter on the topic for an upcoming book.
“Being a feminist is believing in equal opportunities, for both women and men. As Conservatives, we believe in equal opportunities. So actually, if you’re a Conservative, you need to be a feminist”.
When asking women to stand for public office, Whately emphasises that it’s having a strong sense of public service that makes the biggest difference, and that your background shouldn’t hold you back.
“I guess this is quite common thread – an MP has a sense of public service so there are many members here who come from families of doctors and you do have this huge sense of feeling that you want to do something which is kind of good and worthwhile in your life. So having that motivation – irrespective of whether you come from a political family or not – is a massive factor”.