14 FEBRUARY 2018
BY FRAN PERRY, Member of the People's Powerhouse delivery team

February 6th 1918 was an extraordinary date for UK democracy. However, as we celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act it is timely to reflect that not all women were enfranchised in 1918. You had to be 30 and a property owner to get the vote.  It was hardly “equality” in 21st century parlance but it was a big step. It was only in 1928 that the voting age was equalised with men, at age 21. 

Things have moved a long way since then and women play a massive role at home and in our workforce, our regional and national government and our supporting services and yet there are still glaring areas where women are not performing as well as we should be.  Less than a third of our MPs are female (we rank 37th in the world); young women still aren’t taking up STEM opportunities in the numbers that we need them to; pay disparity is writ large across major corporations including the BBC; too few women sit in the senior management teams and on the Boards of major companies; unpaid caring responsibilities are largely unacknowledged; the unavailability of flexible work and reasonably priced child care hobbles women’s career aspirations and earning power. There’s a way to go yet, which would sadden, and possibly surprise, Emmeline Pankhurst.

The Peoples Powerhouse came about because a Northern Powerhouse Conference programme in 2017 was seen to be predominantly “pale, male and stale”, this despite the preponderance of women leading Councils across the North in places like Doncaster, Leeds, Bradford, Oldham, Wigan, Sheffield etc.  The oversight hit a nerve and helped to create a movement, the People’s Powerhouse, which has become about considerably more than women’s omission on conference panels (though we continue to monitor gender balance very carefully). The People’s Powerhouse is about everyone who doesn’t get to be involved in policy decisions about things that will directly affect them, their families and their communities in the Northern Powerhouse.

Last week’s Northern Powerhouse Education and Skills Conference and its launch of the Educating the North report was very heavy on talk but pretty shallow on the really tangible actions that will take the Northern Powerhouse from a blearily defined project to the actuality of an unstoppable and highly relevant movement for positive change.  This was hardly surprising because despite the subject matter there were only a very small number of people in the room who could talk with experience as either beneficiaries or facilitators of the ideas under discussion. Can we really claim we are speaking for the many, and indeed is it truly democracy, if so many are not in the room to share their lived experience and give their voice to decision making?

To continue the theme of enfranchisement.  In 1903 Mrs Pankhurst adopted the Slogan “Deeds not Words” for her new Women’s Social and Political Union. “Words” had failed to shift the argument in fifty years of campaigning. It was time for a programme of “Deeds” to push the message harder and this was to include angry demonstrations, arson, stone-throwing, chaining to railings and even Emily Davison’s fatal attempt to intercept the king’s horse at the Derby. Whilst the People’s Powerhouse is not suggesting the adoption of violent means to get our views across we are urging that the rhetoric ends and that we get some “Deeds” under our belt.

So, here is the Peoples Powerhouse premise.  We want to test ideas and solutions such as the recommendations in the Educating the North report throughout 2018 with people and communities in the north, outside the major cities and conurbations.  We will be seeking to involve people in the design and delivery of their local services, encouraging collaboration to ensure community voices and suggestions are heard, and facilitating a space where ideas and best practice can be shared. We want local voices heard and reflected as much as possible in all Northern Powerhouse policy and plans.

In summary.  In the words of Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham “open the doors of the Powerhouse and let the people in”.  Because that’s essentially what democracy is, government by the people under a free electoral system. In this month of all months let’s remember that, raise a toast to Emmeline Pankhurst and to every woman who fought so valiantly for equality, and push harder for the inclusion of everyone in the Northern Powerhouse conversation.  There are “Deeds” to be done!

About author

Fran has over 30 years experience across private, voluntary and public sector organisations – since 1998 in the employability, skills and education sectors. Until 2015 Fran was a Board and Executive Director at CESI, the pre-eminent research and policy organisation working in employability and skills, where she led on communications, new business and partnerships and where she remains an Associate Director. She has made a major contribution to the creation and has also led the leading membership organisations in the sector including ERSA (the Employment Related Services Association) and the IEP (Institute of Employability Professionals). Fran is the owner and Managing Director of Bright Sparks Consultancy Ltd and a member of the People's Powerhouse delivery team.

Find Fran on Twitter @francesparry

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The Fawcett Society is running the Devolution Project, funded by the Smallwood Trust and the Barrow Cadbury Trust, to ensure that diverse women’s voices are heard in the new English city-region devolution deals in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, and that policy makers make decisions that will advance gender equality.

Do you live in the West Midlands, and want to make your voice heard? Express your interest in attending our first round of workshops here.