UK election: Women Going Backwards

New Labour seemed to have a strong feminist component when it came to power in 1997, its legacy is a rollback of women's influence in British politics made painfully evident by the general election.
Laurie Penny
5 May 2010

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.

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