Wednesday 5 May 2010

UK election: where are the women?

[written on the train to work in response to an emergency call from Our Kingdom, where this piece has also been posted. So, apologies if this is is a little rushed.]

The General Election of 2010 has been a fusty gentleman's club of stale argument and panicked triangulation. None of the major parties has paid much more than lip-service to 'women's issues' on the platform, with both Labour and the Tories under the impression that one can substitute talking to women - always uncomfortable - with talking about 'families', because women's needs and desires are really only important in a family context. For a feminist activist, tuning in to watch three middle-aged white men talk to each other about 'families' is enough to make one throw one's (sensible) shoes at the TV.

This rhetorical marginalisation of women as appendages to the main game of politics has also been played out in realtime, with the tabloid Battle of the Wives.

The Fawcett Society has just rounded up a lot of women to protest.They say in their letter in the Guardian: "At the current rate of change it will take a further 200 years before we reach parity in the numbers of women and men in parliament". Which is optimistic.

For, despite the fact that there are marginally more women standing as candidates this year than in any previous election (21% of candidates overall, as opposed to 20% in 2005), the role of women in UK politics is rapidly shrinking, apart from in Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon retains a powerful position as deputy leader of the SNP.

There have only been three women visible in the mainstream London media's coverage of the biggest game in Britain: the perkily pregnant Samantha Cameron, whose yummy mummy outfits and gorgeous shoes have already earned her her own glossy magazine abbreviation - SamCam!; Sarah Brown; and in the final week Gillian Duffy, the becardiganned nan from Romford whose fluffily xenophobic views nobody is now allowed to contest. Nick Clegg's wife has been rather out of the media spotlight - possibly because, on top of being Spanish, she has her own career and her own surname. The message has been clear. Women voters should look to the leaders' wives as role models - before turning out dutifully to vote for their husbands.

I'd vote for Sarah Brown if I had to choose, despite the fact that her toes, as the Daily Mail daringly revealed, are really rather freakish when compared to SamCam's posh polish. But I don't get to choose. In my constituency, no women are standing at all; and although the 21% statistic looks good on paper, that still means that four out of five candidates are - yes - men. The Tories are apparently looking to triple the proportion of their MPs who are women - from their current 18 to a staggering maximum of 60 women out of some three hundred projected Tory seats. Labour's female quotient is unlikely to fall below 85, even in the unlikely event of a Tory landslide. The Lib Dems, who are actually fielding fewer women candidates this year than last year, are however the only mainstream party to have put forward a serious and thought-through manifesto for supporting and developing women's rights in this country, the Real Women policy paper.

What does all this mean for women in politics? It means that gender equality, as ever, isn't simply a numbers game.

Anyone can put forward a female candidate for an unwinnable seat, and the Tories have become experts at "padding out" Cameron's entourage with anonymous, prettily coiffed ladies and even the occasional non-white face. Putting women on empty display has never been hard. Actually giving them some power is another matter. Only 10% of the Tory shadow cabinet is female, and not a single women is being put forward for a top job.

Surrounding our future leaders with female faces, obsessing over their wives and sermonising about 'the family' gives the false impression that women have been graciously granted a stake in the election game. But when Tory concern for 'the family' boils down to a tax break designed to reward married women for staying in the home, that illusion begins to wear terrifyingly thin.

Political gender equality is not a numbers game for the simple reason that merely owning some nice shoes, an XX chromosome and huge tracts of land in Cheshire doesn't necessarily make one a friend to working women or those who want to claim an equal place in their own right and without the advantages of inheritance. Of the handful of women being put forward for winnable seats by the Tories, many are the direct enemies of women's rights, using grinning high-heel evangelism to disguise a cold, hard right-wing moral agenda.

What about Nadine Dorries, the self-styled 'Bridget Jones of Westminster’, who was the impetus behind the forced-birth amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill of 2008, who maintains close links to the bigoted, fundamentalist organisation Christian Concern For Our Nation, and who - Westminster sources confirm - is planning to resume her pro-life tubthumping in the event of a Tory government? What about Philippa Stroud, PPC for Sutton and Cheam, who along with formulating Tory family policy founded a church that tried to "cure" homosexuals by driving out their "demons" through prayer? What about - let's face it - Margaret Thatcher?

Just being a woman doesn't make a candidate a friend to women, and just peppering the campaign spin with women's faces hasn't meant that this election has included women's voices. Women in the UK have some way to go before we can truly say that we have seized political power; and unfortunately, we are not being offered that sort of choice on our ballots this year. Like last time, and the time before that, we get to vote for which powerful man we'd prefer to have deciding what women want and whether we should be allowed to have it.

Unless we're living in Brighton Pavilion, that is - and if you are, for goodness' sake vote for Caroline Lucas. She's the only party leader who doesn't have a wife.


  1. Completely agree and have been ranting along the same lines myself. It's encouraging to see this post. I've been surprised how little the feminist blogosphere has engaged with the Election.

  2. I think the main reason women play second fiddle in elections is that they usually vote the way their fathers, husbands, brothers, boyfriends etc., tell them to. Because of this subservience, obedience and deference seeded by the female half of the population to the male it is principally the opinion and voting intentions of the male sex that determines electoral outcomes. If you are persuasive enough to win the men over to your camp you automatically gain the support of their women as a frill; a bonus if you will.

    It's the natural order of things.

  3. Don't forget Salma Yaqoob another women leader, she is backing Caroline Lucas and Caroline Lucas is backing her.

    Hall Green and Brighton Pavilion could deliver two amazing women MPs, if you live near either Brighton or Birmingham and are reading this please go and help make history tomorrow.

    Don't leave it to male and mostly public school politicians who advocate war and cuts.

  4. Really good post. I've written something about the 22 British-Asian women candidates standing in the general election this time round. There is, as yet, no British-Asian female MP at all. Most of these PCCs will of course be in no-hoper constituencies though one or two seem pretty likely to win (btw the Tories seem to have all the glossy, attractive ones...)

  5. To be fair on Gordon Brown, all the high-profile Labour women are uniformly dreadful, now that the Blessed Ruth Kelly is no longer with us. Those who suggest that more Harriet Harman on the news is a vote-winner need a lie-down.

    But if you notice, some of the odder men are missing, too. Given that he's often seen a possible successor, it's odd how low profile David Miliband's been.

    For a feminist activist, tuning in to watch three middle-aged white men talk to each other about 'families'...

    Can you possibly turn from the mirror for one short minute, and consider that nobody is targeting the electorally vital feminist activist vote ?

  6. I'm in Shirley and there are two female candidates. Unfortunately one's the Conservative candidate.

    However the incumbent Lib Dem is a lady - and she's always replied to me when I've written to her. I may not agree with all the Lib Dem policies, but considering my choice is "Big Three or UKIP" I'll be marking my ballot against the yellow rosette.

    I would love the Lib Dems to get a decent power base. We may actually have a change to the current electoral system. Roll on PR.

  7. Laurie: your post contradicts its title - as Laban cruelly points out - but it's still a good point: it's not just about 'numbers' (which has been the tone of every other 'Where are the women?' article I've come across during the campaign). But then we should have learnt that lesson when Thatcher was PM.


  8. There was one woman on the list in my local election. One. It makes me so frustrated and mad.

    My friend in Lewisham found the same thing. Only that the only lady on the list was from the BNP. Fucking hell it is wrong all of it...

  9. Finally you mention Caroline Lucas! I voted Green at approximately 7.05 pm and have been encouraging other people to vote (except people who might vote bnp, and I only know one such person, and that was a massive surprise, and luckily there is no bnp candidate in her constituency.

  10. totally agree. it's absurd that in 2010 women are still being marginalised in politics and that the most high profile women are the wives.

    frank - the f word has been quite engaged with the election with some quite interesting posts.

  11. THANK YOU for this, it is so much better than the piece-of-shit post on Liberal Conspiracy by Jennifer O'Mahony - did you see it?

  12. Excellent stuff, but it was roachdale not romford. Pedantic, but it does rather re enforce the feeling that northerners are just too far away from the center of power to matter.

  13. Little known fact - Margaret Thatcher (then Margaret Robinson) voted in favour of legalising abortion when it was presented as a Private Member's Bill.


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