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Westminster Foundation for Democracy at 30: 'We can’t assume democracy is safe – it’s not'

Westminster Foundation for Democracy at 30: 'We can’t assume democracy is safe – it’s not'
7 min read

For 30 years, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy has been spreading the word about the importance of democratic structures. Sienna Rodgers hears from three of its current MP board members on how its work has never been more vital

Sitting in Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine’s parliamentary office, her Conservative colleague Maria Miller notices a little sign tucked into her whiteboard. It reads “465”. Miller turns to Valerie Vaz to ask: which number were you? “293,” the Labour MP replies. “I was 265 in 2005,” Miller says. 

“I was shocked to find out I was only the 265th woman to ever be elected and, when I was in the Cabinet, the 38th woman to ever be in the Cabinet,” the Tory MP goes on. “You think, don’t you, as an outside observer, that our Parliament is so developed and so established. And it is. But the role of women within it is not well-developed and not well-established.”

“We haven’t got it right. But we also can’t sit back and assume that the rest of the world is going to be fine”

These three MPs are from different parties, but they share two experiences. One, they are women. And two, they are board members of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). The non-departmental public body, which was set up to support democracy abroad, is marking its 30th anniversary this year, and brings the cross-party colleagues together for this interview.

Some cynics may ask what business United Kingdom politicians have telling institutions around the world how to facilitate democracy when there is arguably a deficit at home to address – from diversity in political representation to abuse in public life, among many more problems. But Miller has a good answer: commonalities are, in fact, crucial to the WFD’s work.

Asked how they became involved with the Foundation, Miller tells The House she was approached to meet female parliamentarians from the Middle East and North Africa, and found they were “struggling with a lot of the issues we struggle with”.

“It’s that commonality which is really powerful. The fact that the things you’re experiencing as a UK politician are very similar to the things that women politicians struggle with across the world,” she says. “There can be nothing more important than having strong democracies, particularly in that part of the world. And by having more women involved, we know they’re stronger still.”

As a lawyer, Vaz was enticed by the constitutional side of WFD’s work. She also cites her participation in then-Speaker John Bercow’s delegation to Burma in 2013, as well as her Indian background and birth born in Yemen. “It always gave me an international perspective, so I was quite keen to bring that to this role. And I was really pleased. It has two of my favourite words – democracy and Westminster.”

For Jardine, it was the opportunity to travel that first attracted her to WFD. “I got involved originally for quite selfish reasons. I got a message from someone I know in the Liberal Democrats to say ‘we’re doing a thing with the African Liberal Network in the Westminster Foundation, with women politicians in Kenya’, and I had always wanted to go to Kenya,” she says.

“I went as a trainer to help women who wanted to get into politics in Kenya. I talked to them about presentation, having confidence, the threat of violence that we thought would be worse in Kenya but actually wasn’t any worse than here. And what I found inspirational: going out there and meeting women who were trying to make a difference in a democracy that was still really developing.” The MP now has a WFD role specifically related to the work of minor parties.

While the Foundation facilitates its own projects, it also funds work by political parties. This combination is crucial to its success, the three governors agree. “Democracy works better if you have strong political parties,” says Miller, highlighting that the Conservatives have been particularly active in the Caribbean. “We’ve worked in Jamaica to support record numbers of women to get into Parliament [there].”

New board member Vaz reports that her predecessor Rushanara Ali undertook a project in Jordan in which locals were trained in leadership skills and taught to train others. “We’re empowering people each time: each section, each group of people are then training the next person.” Labour’s focus is largely on the Middle East and North Africa, she notes, while Jardine observes that the Lib Dems centre their attentions on Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Lib Dem MP says: “I remember one of the things that struck me in Kenya was that when we were talking about violence and abuse, I had only recently been involved in a general election in 2015. This is 2016. I had lost in that election, and the abuse that I had taken at one point from one of the other parties was astonishing, and they were surprised. 

“But we were able to talk about how we would cope with that and how we would overcome it. We do have credibility, because the argument and the battle is so recent here that we can talk about it from experience, and say to them, ‘look, we’ve made a difference’.”

Womanhood is clearly at the core of why these MPs have joined WFD. “Women being part of a democracy changes that democracy; it brings different aspects to it, different understandings, different priorities. One of the things you find in every society in the world is that for women coming into politics, the first thing we think about is very often how it will affect the children,” Jardine says.

Miller is similarly enthusiastic about both increasing women’s participation in politics and having women lead that challenge. “There is a humility in women’s approach to politics, because we know that we’re all learning from each other. And that’s not to say men aren’t humble, but…” She laughs as she trails off. 

“I do think that if we’re going to make organisations like WFD work, we cannot go in pretending we know it all. Because we don’t. What we can do is we can help build capacity by helping people understand organisations or structures like we have, like the Public Accounts Committee, or the Audit Committee.”

The Tory MP adds: “The moment you lose humility is the moment you’ve lost people’s attention. Because none of us have got it right. I mean, we’re all struggling day-to-day in building strong democracies in our own jurisdictions. But it’s just that maybe some of us have been at it for longer, and know how much more we’ve still got to do.”

Jardine makes a powerful case for international work. “We haven’t got it right. But we also can’t sit back and assume that the rest of the world is going to be fine,” she says. “Some democracies are struggling, some are under threat, and we can’t just allow ourselves to be caught up in our own problems... Ukraine is a perfect example of that: the threat to democracy in Ukraine is a threat to us here. We can’t be insular about it.”

After years of repeated lockdowns during the pandemic, the three women are looking forward to taking their WFD work up a notch by travelling. They can only really know what is happening on the ground by visiting in person, Miller says. “[Microsoft] Teams is some sort of face-to-face, but it’s not really the same as going into a community.” 

Vaz chips in: “People tell you different things when you meet them face-to-face.” Nodding, Miller continues: “It’s also showing commitment. For organisations who are working with WFD on the ground, it shows real commitment if trustees can go out and reinforce the importance of that work.”

Jardine summarises the value of WFD’s work with a stark warning. “We can’t just rest on our laurels and think that democracy is safe. It’s not: it’s probably more under threat now than it has been at any time for at least the last 50 years.”

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