‘I don’t belong here’.
By Dr Gemma McKenna
Assistant Professor, Health Services Management Centre, School of Social Policy
General Election, Thursday 7th May 2015. Palms sweaty, breath shallow, I am in the wrong place, surely? No, apparently not, it is my name on the ballot. This feels WEIRD. I vote for myself. At least that’s one in the bag I thought. The kind polling station volunteers look at me as if to say, she looks familiar, I scurry out and my head is a whirl of thoughts and feelings. I don’t belong here.
More comfortable door knocking and campaigning for others, but this time I was the Labour Parliamentary Candidate. How did I get here?
I can vividly remember my first recollection of social injustice as a young child travelling to Newcastle to visit my family via London King’s Cross. Way before gentrification hit the area, I walked through the cold and wet train station, and subway tunnels, where people were sad and looked hungry. I asked my parents why they were there and that is the first time I learnt about homelessness. This experience stayed with me and clearly had a profound effect.
My experience was also shaped by my family context. Living in 1980s Britain under Margaret Thatcher, high unemployment, mental ill-health in Northern communities experienced by mine closures, the mass selling of social housing, which my family relied on, and sky-high interest rates crippling many families who had managed to secure a mortgage. In need of work and with the support of a kind Uncle we moved to a working-class area of Portsmouth. The fire inside me was well and truly lit, stoking the flames of social justice, fairness, and equality.
Fast forward 15 years, some time as a youth worker, while studying for my undergraduate degree, and the realisation that frontline youth work needed evidenced based policy to ‘end’ child poverty. I found myself campaigning for the local Labour parliamentary candidate. We won! a wonderful female candidate retained the seat for Labour. My confidence was buoyed. The beauty of youth is the innocence of thinking anything is possible.
‘Look out boys the entertainment has arrived’.
Following studying for my PhD around homelessness and work in a national children’s charity campaigning on children and young people’s mental health, I decided to stand as a candidate. I soon experienced the barriers to standing as a working-class female in a wealthy, male dominated, environment. Resource issues impacted me first. It is well documented that running for office comes at high personal costs (Murray, 2023).
I was already in deficit, as the first person in my family to go to university fuelled by loans, and working full-time, I was both financially and time poor. The constituency was a beautiful sprawling rural setting intersected with urban areas. It was vast and I did not drive. My small but brilliant campaign team were, mainly, made up of long-time activists of experienced years. Social media was our only real conduit to reach loyal and potential voters but was also a medium for the abuse I would go on to experience.
The obstacles were further compounded by discrimination and verbal abuse. Whenever there was a mass leaflet drop at key points in the campaign, there appeared to be a coordinated effort by some locals to send me hurtful messages. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself’, your ‘education is wasted on you’, you ‘look much older in real life’, conversely, ‘you look too young to be a politician’ (I was less upset by this comment!), ‘you look nothing like your picture’ (who knows if that’s good or bad?!).
All were comments based on how I looked, acted, or tried to communicate and all were from men. None were about my evidenced based ideas for positive social change. Sadly, I also experienced this form of misogyny within my own party. While attending a party meeting, several male party members greeted me at the door with ‘Look out boys the entertainment has arrived’. The intersection of my class and glass ceiling effect made the whole process prohibitive from the start (Murray, 2023).
While misogyny played a part in my experiences there were many men who helped lift me up and supported me over the years. Too many to name check but my long-standing political hero the Late Rt Hon Paul Goggins MP was critical. This is important. Male supporters were crucial in the women-led suffragist movement (UK Parliament, n.d.). Helping to elicit progress. Working class women with political ambitions must work with men in their fight to achieve parity.
This all sounds quite bleak. It is not meant to be. I want to finish with the moments of transformation and joy, fuelled by courage. They were in the small things. Voters telling me they had never voted Labour but our campaign on child and adolescent mental health was so close to their hearts that they changed their vote. The young women and girls who joined our campaign team to help along the way. I was never going to win. It was never the aim. I knew that when I stood in a Conservative stronghold. But learnt from our suffragist sisters it is in the small gestures, by being visible to other working-class women and girls that I hoped to lay a small brick in the wall leading to an inevitable smash of the glass ceiling, one day. There is HOPE and she currently stands in 32,000 pieces of Lego in Muirhead Tower at the University of Birmingham, on loan from UK Parliament, as a beacon to remember the suffragist movement and our work in progress.
It’s a rich man’s world: How class and glass ceilings intersect for UK parliamentary candidates. (2023). International Political Science Review, 44(1):13-26 https://doi.org/10.1177/01925121211040.
UK Parliament. (n.d). Male supporters of women’s suffrage. Accessed November, 2023 from https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/overview/male-sympathisers/#:~:text=Some%20men%20actively%20played%20a,forcibly%20fed%20on%20many%20occasions.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.