To honour campaigners of old, challenge injustices of today

The Government wants us to celebrate our democracy. What better way to do so than to demand fair and equal representation?

Helen Pankhurst
4 July 2018

Image: Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst. Rights: IWM Non Commercial License.

2018 is a year of many important anniversaries for British democracy. February marked one hundred years since the first women won the vote. And it was exactly 90 years ago this week that the voting ages of men and women were equalised.

Understandably, given some of the more difficult political issues it is grappling with, the Government is delighted to have something to be jubilant about and it has announced the UK’s first “National Democracy Week” - billed as a “week-long celebration of democracy in society” - in the first week of July.

I’m all for celebrating the unquestionable progress our society has made and - even more to the point - celebrating the sacrifice, optimism and relentless determination of those who prised this progress from the hands of history. My concern is this: celebration of the past cannot blind us to the injustices we face today. Commemorating campaigners of old must not delude us that the time for campaigning has come to an end.

We would do well to mark these anniversaries not by simply looking back on history as a job well done, or on the protagonists as Homeric heroes of a bygone age, but by looking to today’s injustices and asking, “What would Emmeline, Millicent or Sylvia do?”

And injustices certainly remain. Take our Parliament, where MPs are more than twice as likely to be male than female and more than twelve times as likely to be white than not. Take #MeToo and the untold thousands whose superior is also their harasser. Take a Victorian-era democracy that shuts out diversity, both social and political.

These injustices are why I convened the Centenary Action Group this year: not to merely celebrate what has come before but to use this year to win concrete policy changes to achieve gender equality at home and abroad.

Building on the #MeToo phenomenon is important: we can shine the spotlight on the abuse faced by ordinary women in every country and every walk of life - not only those who work in show business and national politics in the West.

The Government’s “National Democracy Week” is a start but we need much more, hence “Demand Democracy Day”, which took place last Saturday. This day of action, organised by Make Votes Matter, saw members of the public across the UK reaching out to their communities and politicians to call for Proportional Representation: a voting system that is much better at making use of our votes, that is much more likely to ensure that our voice is represented.

The UK is one of just three OECD nations that still uses a “First Past the Post” voting system. It’s been in use since before the UK was a democracy in any recognisable sense, and its shortcomings are stark. Elections held under this archaic system are far more likely to lead to Parliaments that are male, pale and stale. Majorities are often handed to the one of the two biggest parties on a minority of the vote, while millions who vote for other parties or independents are denied representation of their choosing. As a result, British politics often unfolds not in response but in contrast to the wishes and priorities of the population.

There are alternatives. Most developed countries - and indeed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - use some form of Proportional Representation: systems in which seats match votes and, as a result, Parliament reflects the full diversity of the people rather than the relative uniformity of the existing political class.

And yet, when the political establishment offered the people a referendum on the voting system in 2011, they voted down an amendment put forward by Caroline Lucas that would have given voters a choice of Proportional Representation. Instead, they offered us something called the Alternative Vote: a double rarity among modern democracies both because it is even less widely used than First Past the Post and because it is often even less proportional.

It is good that the government is celebrating the past but the best way to celebrate democracy is to champion it, and to champion democracy is - by definition - to meaningfully give power to the many.

Join the movement for Proportional Representation: Make Votes Matter.

Dr Helen Pankhurst’s book “Deeds Not Words, The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now” is published by Sceptre.

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