Caroline Lucas is one of a rare breed, a female Member of Parliament at Westminster. In addition, she is the only (thus far) elected MP for the Green Party. The Green Party is led by another woman, Natalie Bennett, which speaks volumes about Green party attitudes towards women and sets them apart from the main parties at Westminster. We talked in July 2014, just after the Conservative Prime Minister had introduced a few more women into Government. Coincidentally, not long before the general election…
Jane: Caroline, an obvious question so forgive me but…being a woman in our UK parliament seems tricky enough as it is, but being the only representative of your party must feel quite lonely at times. What are the particular challenges for you? Are there advantages to it?
I was quite shocked when I first came to Parliament! It still shocks me now at times and I’m not the only one.
That old boys’ club ‘Yes, Dear’ attitude is not unusual, even now. But we have some really great, talented women in Parliament. They’re still woefully under-represented though and there are those of us working hard to change that.
I’d certainly like for there to be more Greens at Westminster, because there’s a huge amount that needs to be done. I suppose it has had its advantages – I’ve experienced an unusual amount of freedom in my work there, and it’s provided a distinctive platform, which can be very helpful.
I think we’ve been able to prove that just one MP on their own can make a difference. I enjoy a lot of really good cross-party collaboration – but I’m also able to be a voice that pushes people further, that holds the other parties to account.
I recently interviewed Bridget Harris, ex Liberal Democrat, who blew the whistle on some of the (alleged) sexist behaviour of a Liberal peer. Is this something you have encountered? If so, how do you deal with it?
When I suggested that the Sun was removed from the many areas of the Palace of Westminster estate until Page 3 is removed, the Prime Minister seemed to think the whole thing was just very amusing…Some of the sexism is specific and overt, but much of it is more of a sense of male entitlement that pervades the place like a colourless and odourless gas.
I think all of us need to challenge it much more vocally. The more voices joining that debate, the more pressure there will be for genuine change. It will get harder to ignore. The recent response to the Daily Mail ‘catwalk’ coverage of the women joining the Cabinet elicited an enormous response – rightly so, it was appalling. I want to know what my fellow female MPs think, not what they’re wearing! (You can see some of that press coverage here)
If you could introduce one piece of legislation to improve equality for women, what would it be?
Some real progress has been made, but sadly there’s still much to be done, and we need to get some of the basics right. For example, it’s a scandal that, despite so much campaigning over so many years, the gender pay gap still exists. It’s totally outrageous that, in this day and age, women who are doing the same jobs as men can still expect to earn significantly less. It sends out a terrible message about how we treat and value women – it needs to be addressed, now.
What was young Caroline like? Were there any clues in your childhood that you’d be a politician and public figure?
I always had quite a fierce sense of justice I think. I couldn’t just let something lie if I believed it was unfair. I suppose I was a bit of a rebel, a bit wayward. I remember once, in the sixth form at school, I felt that a particular injustice had been done, so I rallied my classmates for an impromptu protest, placards and all…
What was your path into politics? Did you have a formal route in through University etc?
I studied English Literature at Exeter University. My involvement in politics was sparked by activism. I joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s and was involved in the protests at Molesworth and at Greenham Common. I supported other causes too, but it was reading Seeing Green by Jonathan Porritt in 1986 that suddenly made clear to me how all these issues were underpinned by the political process. The Green Party offered a political solution which recognised the connections and stood for real and necessary change.
After university, I did several jobs, including working for Oxfam for 10 years, most recently as head of their Trade policy team, and also had a year’s secondment to help set up a new international trade section at the Department for International Development. I was elected as Oxfordshire’s first Green County Councillor in the 90s, and then also spent 10 years in the European Parliament.
What has been the best thing about being elected to Westminster?
It’s an enormous privilege. The Green Party had fought for decades to get to Westminster. Stepping over the threshold on that first day was amazing, and the culmination of so many people’s efforts over so many years. I’ve never really lost that sense of wonder – even amid all the frustrations of Parliament. It’s a privilege to have been elected to stand up for the people of Brighton in that place, and to enable green politics to have a national platform and profile.
And the worst?
Initially it meant I was often away from my husband and family, and it was a huge wrench not to have them around me.
How would you like to see Parliamentary structures altered to support the introduction of more women into the House and to combat the macho behaviour? (Which I think would be welcomed by many men too.)
You’re right it would be welcomed by many men too.
Parliamentary reform has been high on my priority since my first day in the Commons. An important new report from an All Party Group, of which I’m a member, on Improving Parliament: Creating a Better and More Representative House, considers how to increase the number of women in Parliament and investigates the barriers and challenges that still exist to women’s equal political representation.
Just 22 per cent of our MPs are women. That ranks us at 65th in the world – behind countries including Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan. Clearly, we need to get that number up, and fast. We a truly democratic Parliament – one which reconnects with and represents society.
Many people cite positive discrimination as a way forward. And the report does suggest gender quotas as a way to redress the gender balance. I agree – I support all women short-lists,for example, though it’s no silver bullet. It needs to be part of a package of reforms.
We need Parliament to be a much more accessible workplace for women. We need to look at mentoring schemes and much more affordable childcare. We need to address the very culture of Parliament – Prime Ministers Questions is a braying bear pit: it’s no small wonder it puts women (and many men!) off politics.
Unless Parliament looks more like the people it is meant to represent – in terms of gender, but also in terms of including far more people from ethnic minorities, for example, or people with disabilities – then we can’t expect it to enjoy the public’s confidence.
What advice would you give to any women thinking of entering politics?
Don’t be afraid to stand up and speak out. If enough of us do it…
Who has been the most influence on you? Who helped form your political attitudes?
A woman named Petra Kelly, who co-founded the German Green Party, has been the greatest inspiration of my political life. There’s a wonderful image of her, on her first day as a German MP, wearing jeans, and entering parliament with armfuls of sunflowers. That picture just conveys so much: real joy and hope, and Petra’s demonstration of politics as something personal – that everything we do, all the choices we make, are in some sense political – they have consequences.
Caroline, thank you. I hope your example will inspire many women to follow in your footsteps and eventually the gender balance will tip.
You can keep up to date with Caroline via her website, Caroline Lucas.
RenewYou is my inspiring, one day course for women – check it out here.
Posted on July 28th, 2014 by Jane