“Aren’t you a bit small to be our Police and Crime Commissioner?”

Guest Author, the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Posted on the 22nd November 2011

Jane Basham was the Labour PCC candidate for Suffolk

“Nearly toppled the establishment…”

…..Is what colleagues have said after my performance in the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections. I stood as the Labour Party candidate in Suffolk, a largely safe Conservative county with 7 Conservative MPs, only one of which is a woman.

Out of 4 Commissioner candidates in Suffolk I was the only woman. I secured more votes than my Conservative opponent in the 1st preference count. But this was not a ‘First Past the Post’ election; and by the time the second preference votes were counted I came second 

That is fine… back to real life from the excitement and slog of active campaigning!

Before that, I can reflect on the experience …

Let me tell you a little about me. I have had an enjoyable, rewarding and varied 32 year career, to date. I was a Management Trainee at Harrods which led onto senior roles in large retail companies. I moved into Human Resources Management with the public sector. As HR Manager, I was a senior member of the Management team at Suffolk Police for more than six years and amongst other things I led on complex industrial relations issues in a complex unionised environment.  I was then Chief Executive of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality for five years. In this role I developed successful outreach work in prisons; led on nationally and internationally acclaimed work on stop and search with the police worked with vulnerable victims of crime and played an active role on Suffolk’s Youth Offending Service Chief Officer Management group.

I had never stood for election before and was a complete novice. I stood because I believed I had the prerequisite skills to do the job. I understood the current structure and felt that the police should be able to be held more accountable to local people and that I understood how to do so. I stood as the Labour candidate because as a working-class woman it is quite simply who I am. I believe in social and economic justice, equality and rights. I am hugely grateful to the party for paying my deposit. I pledged to deliver on issues that were not mandated by the Labour party nationally  I was and remain cynical about Independent candidates claiming to not have any political allegiances.

I felt from the outset that being a woman candidate was a strength. I had countless connections with people who told me I was friendly and approachable and not ‘establishment’. People shared very sensitive personal material with me and believed that I would make a difference.

During the election campaign, the media would usually describe two of my male ‘opponents’ by referring to at least two of their previous roles. One was regularly described as a ‘well known public figure’ and ‘leader of… ’ The other was ‘former boss of..’ and  ‘he has had a prominent role in public life in Suffolk for many years’ The third was described as a ‘County Councillor’.

I was only ever described as ‘former Chief Executive of Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality.’ My ex-police HR management experience was not given the prominence it deserved.

Police Staff and HR are predominately female-dominated professions. Much of police policy is about the allocation of staff resources in the right place at the right time. I know there are some that are talking about the numbers of successful ex-police officers in these elections (all men I understand) but I believe my senior police experience was as valid as that of any senior police officer in this role.

In several hustings, I received the ‘ladies first’ opportunity from my opponents when deciding who should answer the questions. Those who think it is women who pay too much attention to gender should think again.

My ‘business experience’ was often challenged or questioned in conversations with possible voters. The business experience of my opponents was accepted as fact.

In some debates, the environment was unwittingly against me. No microphone was provided at one event with a majority male audience. My quiet feminine voice was disadvantaged by the deep loud male voices and this was reflected in feedback. When this was raised at the end of the event by a female colleague to the organisers it was dismissed.

The term ‘policeman’ was used by 2 of my opponents regularly. I suggested that the term should be police officer as women do the job too, and could feel the audience and my opponents bristle.

Another time an opponent referred to statistics being like a bikini; in that ‘what they reveal is interesting and what they conceal is significant’. I noticed mainly the men in the audience laughing knowingly. Two people, one of whom was male e-mailed me about the inappropriateness of this analogy afterwards.

After one event where I had made the point about ‘police officers not policemen’ a woman came to speak with me and described to me her very traumatic experience of fleeing domestic violence with her two young children. Another woman walked by and said to us ‘well I will leave you sisters to it then’ I thanked her for coming and she then angrily said that she did not agree with all this political correctness rubbish, that she has made her own way and women should just get over it.

As a candidate, I met Rape Crisis Centres, Refuges, Muslim young women’s groups, African supplementary schools, and groups working with young people with Learning Disabilities, businesswomen and men, hundreds of people on the doorstep and on the street. I listened and built my prospectus on what they told me mattered. I prioritised tackling violence against women and young girls, Hate Crime and vulnerable victims of crimes. I pledged also to address inequalities in policing (internal and external) and to stand against the cuts and privatisation.

I spoke with mums on the doorstep who described their children’s experiences of disability hate crime and their fears.

One woman told me about the lasting impact on her and her family of a drug rape she experienced several years ago. Another woman, now an alcoholic, talked about living with a convicted sex offender and how the cycle continues. A frail grandmother expressed her fears for her grandson who is stopped and searched on his way to run errands for her. A widowed woman living in social housing expressed her worries at being the target of frequent anti-social behaviour, without any help from the housing association. She stayed up at night in case her home was broken into.

I campaigned like I could win because I believed I could and recruited people to help, including many younger people along the way. I embraced social media and responded to each and every person that contacted me. As well as the Green and Independent vote, who asked candidates a series of questions I think I may have secured more women and first time voters. I may never know. People on the doorstep responded well to my explanation of what I could offer, and what I stood for. They were not unduly bothered by me standing for a political party, but whether I had the right skills and expertise.

I was quite regularly told by people from my own party that I could not win. This message in places like Suffolk becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Labour team that worked with me across Suffolk campaigned like they had never done so before and I think this made a difference. An unconfirmed result from the count shows that Labour ‘won’ in rural villages like Dunwich, Rendlesham and Wenhaston. These were places where local activists delivered the campaign newspaper and talked with local people.

Depressingly only five of the forty-one Commissioners elected are women (12%) two Labour; two Conservative and one Independent. None are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. According to Chris Terry from the Electoral Reform Society “This makes it the most unrepresentative political office in Britain in terms of diversity with possibly the single exception of directly elected mayors.”

Only two of Labours thirteen elected Commissioners are women. I was initially on a shortlist of two potential Labour candidates in Suffolk. The other was a man and a retired senior police officer. He withdrew before the local party members had to choose between us. I still wonder whether he would have been the preferred candidate for many Labour party members based on unwitting stereotypical preconceptions.

In the Eastern Region three out of six candidates were women, which looked good. Only the man however, was elected in Bedfordshire. An excellent candidate I understand he did have more support to fight off the threat of an EDL candidate. The rest of us it turns out were in ‘unwinnable’ seats.

I wonder if the selection process, criteria and the consequent national party support needs to be examined more closely. I feel women candidate should have had opportunities to run for Commissioners in potentially winnable seats across the country.  I know these were unusual elections but if issues of equality are properly embedded within policy and practice then it should not matter.

I know that in Suffolk many men and women remain uncomfortable with all women shortlists because I have talked about it with them. I don’t think a conversation has even really started in some places about the numbers of black and minority ethnic candidates we have. There is perhaps a disconnect in some areas of the country with the positive work that the Labour party has undertaken nationally on these issues.

I think a new debate needs to be had and all parts of the country should be engaged in it. There is an argument that all women shortlists undermine the credibility of candidates. I heard at the Labour Women’s Conference of a candidate who experienced a hate campaign from Labour party members as a result of such a shortlisting process.

I think there is a place for them as I believe wholeheartedly that positive action is the only way to address inequality. It needs to be more than a policy on all women shortlists however. It is vital that selection decisions are made free from unwitting prejudice and discrimination and unfortunately this cannot always be guaranteed with local party selections for candidates (primaries). Other steps to achieving equality are creating an environment where stereotyping is challenged, to include challenge to the media perhaps during campaigns. Also essential is effective training, both pre and post elections, and mentoring (such as that offered by Operation Black Vote) to give people the courage to try.

I am delighted with the outcome of my campaign, which was a victory in so many ways. It would not have been possible without having secured such fantastic support from so many places.

I end with my top comment on the doorstep from a very friendly man ‘Aren’t you a bit small to be our Police and Crime Commissioner?’

I leave you to make up your own mind!

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