UK: the power of the women’s vote

Resistance to viewing women as a homogenous block can all too often provide politicians with an excuse to ignore women altogether. Women hold half the electorate’s voting power: which party will be brave enough to reach out for their vote at the next General Election?

Ray Filar
21 November 2012

The countdown has begun to the 2015 General Election. In two and a half years’ time, our coalition government will be hoping to preach economic success as its case for re-election. Unlike reckless Labour, they will want to say, we have cut the national deficit. Our social reforms, however unpopular, have put the economy back on track. We are clearing up the mess the previous lot left us with. Now please give us five more years to finish the job.

Economic recovery, however, wouldn’t be a cure for all ills. What will the 2015 election platforms have to say about - or even to - women? The coalition is certainly loud about its intention to cut the deficit. It is rather sneakier when it comes to the cutting of reproductive rights. On the cutting of the gender pay gap, it is noticeably silent.

Women hold half the electorate’s voting power. And it is extensively documented that austerity hits women hard. It is not just the Conservatives. All political parties are guilty of ignoring gender, both in policy and in the determination of votes. At the UK Feminista lobby of Parliament last week, my local Labour MP refused to accept that economic policies could affect women and men differently. He hadn’t done any particular research on the issue, he just didn’t want to believe it.

In 2015, taking women’s support for granted might turn out to be a mistake. After full suffrage in 1928, women tended to vote Conservative. Recent analyses of voting behavior, however, show a swing to the left. Given women’s disproportionate burden of childcare, David Cameron’s old claim that he would make this country the “most family-friendly” in Europe could have been an attempt to win women back. Post-austerity, though, such vaguely progressive overtures have been lost in a cloud of cut jobs, cut services and cut benefits. And a side-order of sexist commons remarks. As Heather McRobie has recently argued, the coalition’s creeping assault on reproductive rights is just the nail in the coffin.

Better news for the Tories is a backlash against any perceived whiff of “identity politics”. Resistance to viewing women as a homogenous block can all too often provide politicians with an excuse to ignore women altogether. In place of meaningful social categories, speech writers have fabricated a rhetorical division of the voting populace into “workers”, “small business owners”, “bankers” and “mothers”. These are buzzwords. They reflect the identities that affect peoples’ lives, but using them as replacements trivializes the real causes of disadvantage.

Unfortunately there are also plenty of women convinced that better representation in the boardroom is the primary aim of the feminist movement. This is the kind of right-wing woman who believes that meritocracy actually exists, that gender quotas would be an insult (lucky for them, then, that the European Commission has postponed its attempt to mandate 40% women on corporate boards by 2020). Powerful institutional misogyny also causes many women to disidentify with the class “women” altogether; it can feel far better to decry “angry feminists” than to admit the scale of the problem.

Yet for every anti-woman woman, or true blue feminist of the Amber Rudd MP ilk, there are many women alienated by a politics that is willfully blind to social inequality. When Conservative HQ leaked a memo about attempts to tackle their perceived “woman problem”, they were picking up on a real issue. Whilst policies to attract women are considered additional to the real business of politics, it is clear that gender issues have been sidelined. Is it any surprise when women feel that political parties do not represent them?

Into this breach comes an opportunity for One Nation Labour. Ed Miliband is finally emerging as an electable politician. The slightest analysis demonstrates the coalition’s execrable record on the political issues that impact women. At the 2015 General Election, Labour could emerge as the only pro-women major party. That’s if it is brave enough to bring feminist policy to the fore. With more women MPs than all the other parties put together (56% of female MPs are Labour) and a 35% women shadow cabinet, a pro-woman Labour is viable. Even so, women in government does not guarantee feminist policy (cf. Nadine Dorries).

Last year, when former NUS Women’s Officer Liv Bailey asked if Labour were a feminist party, Ed Miliband replied in the affirmative. In contrast, at his keynote conference speech last month, he made little if any mention of women’s issues. Admittedly, his commitments to repealing the NHS bill and creating jobs for “the forgotten 50% who do not go to university” are good news. He also stated that “inequality matters”. Yet the attempt to appeal equally on all fronts: private sector, public sector, “squeezed middle”, “those living in poverty”, implies reluctance to face up to what inequality really means.

Perhaps Labour are afraid to foreground feminism for fear of media backlash. Even where women politicians succeed in muscling feminist policy through a recalcitrant government, the press is determined to maintain the status quo. Harriet Harman has been a game-changing politician, opening up Labour’s ranks for the likes of Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves (unpaid interns aside) and Mary Creagh. Yet Harman’s work towards gender equality is almost unrecognized in the media, who prefer to rehash sniggering insults about her. At the same time, a recent study by Women in Journalism have found that 78% of national newspaper bylines are male, that 84% of those mentioned by name in lead stories are male, and that 75% of people cited as ‘experts’ are, you guessed it, male.

One Nation has within it the seeds of a pro-feminist political paradigm. For women to be part of one nation, they have to be able to participate in it fully. This means a politics that addresses the disadvantages that women systematically face. Is Ed Miliband strong enough to openly side with Harman and Cooper against his own backbench dinosaurs, to refuse to bow to media misogyny and to package women’s issues as central to mainstream politics? If he does so, Labour could win back disenchanted women voters.

So next time Labour policy writers are asking me for advice, I’ll tell them this. Labour needs to move gender equality into the heart of the One Nation philosophy. They need to explicitly commit to carrying out Gender Equality Impact Assessments on all policies. Their proposed economic alternative, prioritising the creation of jobs and growth, should explicitly target the employment obstacles that women face. The gender pay gap is important here. Forcing companies to publish their data on employee wages would be a significant next step in addressing it. Labour should ringfence funding for state subsidised childcare, the reopening of Sure Start centres, investment in public services: parks, libraries. They need to provide benefits that the unemployed, the sick or the disabled can actually live on. This includes ending the rhetoric that stigmatises the jobless as scroungers. They could take steps to move towards a Scandinavian model of shared parental leave.

Investment in the women’s sector is also important. Labour should stand for funding of Rape Crisis centres and women’s refuges in every town. Reproductive rights must be firmly committed to, no matter what Frank Field might want. The addition of consent-based Sex and Relationships Education to the national curriculum, targeting endemic sexual harassment and bullying in schools, would go down a treat. And if all this means that spending on defence will have to be cut, that major corporations will have to stop evading and avoiding their tax, that taxes on top earners will have be raised - well, we’ll just have to cope.

Perhaps all this looks idealistic. The point, however, is this. A significant number of women voters are currently wavering, marginalised by a government that doesn’t recognise gender issues as important issues. During the 2015 election, these votes will be up for grabs. Will Labour be the party that is brave enough to reach out for them?


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