Women in leadership

At Cabinet on Tuesday Nicola Beech had her 10 month old son Alex. As we worked through agenda covering Adult Social Care, South Bristol’s Recycling and Reuse center, the Portway Park and Ride station, our budget, road maintenance and the Harbour review. He sat there squeaking and making noise. I was proud.

Cllr Helen Godwin had stressed the importance of Family Friendly politics. It’s vital our politics is more inclusive and in turn expressive of different life experiences. With the burden for childcare disproportionately falling onto the shoulders of women, making politics family friendly makes it more possible for women to take leadership roles. For too long our politics in general – and local authority politics in particular – has been dominated by retired white men. And we have reaped the consequences.

We made a 50:50 commitment for our cabinet. And we have delivered: with five women appointed to four men and one woman as a Deputy Mayor. We have women in leadership. Between myself and my cabinet we have 13 school aged kids between us.

I was talking to young women this afternoon about women in political leadership and I was struck by the role modelling, the number of women in leadership in Bristol,  has brought.  

And most importantly, we can look at the city looks like through parent’s eyes. The result?

There are implications for this commitment. School plays, parent’s evenings, pregnancies and sick children are normal parts of every family and have all impacted on our cabinet. They have not impacted on performance but we have had to find a way to support each other to navigate the unending supply of council meetings. If we don’t do this we will lose younger, more gender and ethnically diverse councillors. Staying real with family is critical to remaining rounded political leaders who understand the city and continue to deliver.

Despite this, an opposition councillor last week made a complaint to the press about Helen Godwin our Cabinet lead for Women Children and Families for not attending a Scrutiny meeting. The circumstances are important. Her son was off school with a fever, along with 50 other children from the school. She had talked to me beforehand, ensured her work load was being taken forward. What’s more, the setting of the time and dates had not been checked with the member. It is Helen that instituted and led the development of the Bristol Children’s Charter, work on care leavers (including exempting them from council tax up to the age of 25yrs), childcare, street conflict and knife crime and a campaign on period poverty that’s influenced national policy and won the admiration of the Mayor of Los Angeles, amongst many others.

Our Cabinet member for strategic planning, Nicola Beech leads some of our most complex work around urban planning and large developments worth billions of pounds whilst being a mum to two children under three. The pace of city development and cranes on the horizon are evidence she is doing a great job. No complaints from credible developers in the city or government until an opposition councillor raised questions about her attendance at some council meetings. Again, an unwell baby had come in between her and those meetings but had not come between her and other council meetings or the true role of councillors of delivering for Bristol. Its Nicola who has taken leadership of the Temple Meads redevelopment, setting out minimum standards and on climate resilient housing at Frome Gateway .

It’s evidence of a failure of the opposition to either understand or take seriously the need to make politics more inclusive – particularly in this instance for women – and what it takes to make it more inclusive.

I am proud of my cabinet. We are the most diverse cabinet in the most diverse political party Bristol has ever known. We have delivered inclusion alongside an ambition and excellence that has won national and international plaudits. The emphasis for this administration has always been on working with the city to deliver rather than talking to ourselves in meetings that offer councillors anonymity as they fail to get anything done. We are delivering where the old systems have failed.    

These attacks are not real political debate. Rather it’s symptomatic of the deterioration in the tone and quality of our civic discourse. Michelle Obama might call it “low” politics, and we are all paying a price for it.

And this week an opposition councillor has raised questions over Anna Keen, our cabinet lead for Education and Skills. Anna is a Primary school teacher. She reduced her work hours to part time to make space alongside family to take on the cabinet role. Again, Anna has delivered not least by bringing genuine expertise in the education system and professional knowledge of what’s happening on the front line i.e. in the classroom, to the decisions we make. And yet an opposition councillor has suggested she shouldn’t take the full allowance if, as he wrongly suggests, she isn’t full time.   

Again, there is no question over Anna’s performance. In fact, even on the challenge of SEND, the recent inspection said that while Bristol was not where it should be (a consequence of both local and national failures that have been building for many years), it is since Anna became the lead that the green shoots of recovery began to appear.

But we need to keep the following in mind: working people have to keep their existing jobs because of the insecurity of political appointment and election cycle. Working people then have to balance two jobs, or a part time job if they have an understanding employer. Working people can’t spend all their time in cabinet and then drop off a cliff after election or cabinet change by mayor. People who aren’t independently wealthy need the income to supplement what is a modest allowance  when compared the quantity of work and scale of responsibility they take on and they need career security afterwards.

We want people in political leadership who face the same challenges as the city, who look like them, have to behave like them and face financial and family challenges, like them.  If we start attacking them when life gets in the way of council meetings, we’ll lose them. This will be both an injustice in itself and bad for us as we are thrown back in time to a world in which only the wealthy had the time and financial means to become political leaders. 

Somebody recently asked me about what the hardest part of my job as a mayor was. I told them that it was trying to juggle the responsibilities as a husband and father with the demands of office and diary.

No-one is asking for sympathy. That is not the point. What we need is a better quality of political debate, a more representative political cohort made up of broadminded people with lived experience of the array of life challenges and a city council ready to make provision needed to make that possible.

I don’t usually respond to the efforts to throw mud and create fake debates. But I thought I would on this occasion. We made a pledge to make politics in the chamber child friendly and we have. And we will stick with it in the face of whatever criticisms the opposition may try to dredge up and pass off as real politics.

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