Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Last year I attended the Labour Women’s Development Programme in Sheffield. The key aim of the programme, funded by Labour's NEC, was 'to encourage participation at all levels in the Labour Party to help address under-representation'. My personal motivation was to meet local women and form associations with like-minded people. Run by a private coaching company, Real Clear, the programme looked interesting and promising for developing political networks locally. The free programme was available through an application process to women from and around Sheffield. Membership of the Labour Party was not mandatory, though respect and support for Labour Party values was important. It ran for 6 half-day sessions, on a Saturday morning and was attended by up to 20 to 30 women each week.
At the introductory session we met the person to whom we owed the pleasure of being there. Terry Barrow, a local Labour councillor, told us how she had mounted a concerted campaign to get the programme funded. A passionate advocate for women's empowerment Terry felt strongly about investing in a professionally delivered programme rather than relying on unpaid volunteers. The sessions were organised and delivered by Lisa Reed, a well-qualified professional coach and trainer. Following its tremendous success and popularity in 2018 this was the second iteration of the programme a year later. Two women from the original programme attended the first session and spoke in glowing terms about how personally rewarding and empowering it had been for them. This set us up for an inspiring start.
After explaining the background to the programme, Terry spent some time talking about her own life history. It was from this moment that the whole programme came to life and became one of the most stimulating and nourishing events I have ever attended. Terry’s candid personal narrative set the tone for the rest of the meetings. I am certain I was not the only one in the room who immediately warmed to the intimacies Terry shared with us. This not only provided the kind of insight one needs to forge deep connections with others, it also signalled to everyone in the room that this was a safe space in which to open up and share experiences.
Lisa Reed then outlined the aims of the programme which were primarily about empowering and enabling women to achieve a ‘goal related to the Labour Party’. Since these goals were very generic to any progressive political agenda, it did not seem like a very partisan agenda. The goals included the following themes:
· Creating an economy that works for all
· Negotiating Brexit
· Towards a national education service
· A fair deal at work
· Social security
· Secure homes for all
· Healthcare for all
· Safer Communities
· Leading richer lives
· Extending democracy
· A more equal society
· A global Britain
I attended five of the 6 sessions and regret missing that sixth one because of ill health. In every one of the sessions Lisa highlighted a particular objective and took the group through various related exercises to embed the learning. Lisa’s leadership of the sessions was informed by theory and experience of training people in diverse organisations including trade unions and university academics. Although her experience and expertise on the topics was unquestionable, Lisa also brought to the sessions a diffident and easy kind of humility. This allowed the diverse group of attendees to warm to her and engage confidently in the probing and sometimes challenging tasks Lisa set. Each session was themed with the aim of developing a key set of skills and knowledge – the first one was about ‘understanding personalities’ and others included ‘emotional intelligence, confidence, resilience, public speaking, decision making, goal setting and managing challenging behaviour.’ After providing some information and background on the themes Lisa would ask the women to work in groups to carry out tasks that applied the theory she had introduced.
While the content of the sessions was interesting and informative, the real value for me was in meeting and befriending the diverse group of women who attended. Many of the exercises Lisa asked the groups to engage in were designed to enable positive communication and learning about ourselves and the other participants. Lisa’s presentations were frequently interrupted by questions and comments that opened up the conversation to a whole new world of meanings, stories and debates. This was partly due to the competence of the facilitator in provoking thoughtful dialogue but also because of staggering levels of diversity within the group. Attendees included experienced councillors, educators and activists as well as political novices, housewives, office workers and young students, ranging from retired people in their 60s to teeangers who had just finished their A-Levels. The only common factor seemed to be the shared experience of being a woman. I could not think of another public space in which I could have encountered and enjoyed the company of so many different people from so many varied walks of life. The way in which the sessions were organised allowed for everyone to participate. Quite soon there developed a culture of common empathy and shared passions that elicited revealing accounts from the women, drawing from their rich lived experiences. The women shared histories, ideas and opinions that spanned several generations and continents. As the sessions progressed it felt like barriers kept coming down and new and more authentic forms of communication began to evolve. Inevitably some dominated discussions while others listened intently, hiding in the back row of seats. With gentle persuasion, Lisa ensured that the less assertive got their say too.
Over the weeks, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of emotional energy generated in the room. Despite the early morning start on a weekend I couldn’t wait for the sessions and always left feeling slightly giddy and elated. By the time the last of the six sessions arrived I felt I had gained a room full of new friends and political allies with whom I had been on a unique journey of self-discovery. If the aim of the programme was to enable and empower, this could not have been demonstrated more potently than the very last task to deliver a 2-minute presentation in front of the entire group. Having had guidance on how to present and communicate ideas effectively at previous sessions, each of the women came prepared with their own unique script. Some spoke about how important events had shaped their lives, some raised issues close to their heart, others made a plea to support a charitable cause or introduced their artistic hobby and so forth. Each and every presentation was interesting and lively, even though some were clearly seasoned public speakers and others had never faced an audience before. After a lot presenting and clapping the programme was officially closed and we indulged in a sumptuous spread of cakes and savoury treats contributed by all the women. Group photos were taken with brimming smiles and earnest pledges to stay in touch. Everyone was determined to keep the group spirit and momentum going.
I cannot claim that the programme transformed my life and I don’t know if it did for anyone else. What it did do was to broaden my mind, stretch the boundaries of my social circle and renew my faith in the collective power of people. The latter achievement is the one I believe matters most. We live in a strange and unfathomable world where morally bankrupt liars and cheats like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson occupy the highest office, with popular support, and the most venerable and incorruptible men like Jeremy Corbyn get vilified for speaking the truth. Much of our time is spent looking at screens, whether it is for work or leisure, and we feel completely powerless to do anything about the most profound risks to our current and future lives. We have never been more vulnerable as citizens to the vagaries of forces beyond our control, from the democratic deficit, climate change, unemployment, falling wages and now Covid-19. None of these challenges were vanquished by the Labour Women’s Development Programme but I have no doubt that if as citizens we are ever going to address them we will need to forge the kind of alliances and create the kind of supportive spaces that the 6 week programme fostered.
Political parties in all Western liberal democracies are facing a crisis of legitimacy as voters lose faith in democracy and turn to populists and right-wing opportunists like Trump and Bojo. If political parties want to breathe life into failing Western liberal democracies then they must create opportunities for citizens (their voters) to participate in civil society. It is well known among social movement scholars that it is not the presence of grievances, the availability of resources or the political freedoms of a country that determine levels of political participation. While all these factors are necessary they do not fully explain political mobilisation. Research by well-known theorists like Alberto Melucci has demonstrated how political action develops from networks of day to day interaction. It is within the multiple connections made between people that collective identity is fostered as an essential ingredient of political mobilisation. In other words, if political parties want to survive in a world where democracy is being hollowed out by rising level of mistrust in politicians, then they have to invest in the kind of opportunities that the Labour Women's Development Programme offers.