They seek her here, they seek her there. At last, the election is over. But where, oh where were the women?
I know, I know, you’re sick to the back teeth of the election. Just be grateful you don’t live in the USA, alright? But whether you voted or not, it’s worth taking a quick look back at the election campaign and results and asking the question, so what now for women in politics?
Well, I don’t think any of use can say we’re truly surprised that Labour were voted back in. But what about the number of women MPs? As predicted, they fell, so now 17% of MPs are women (before the election it was 18%). This is mainly due to the fact that a low number of female candidates were selected by parties to fight seats, and very few women were allocated to safe seats. The fact that Tony Blair gave a record number of women appointments to his Cabinet still doesn’t make up for that.
As Ffion and Cherie dutifully followed their husbands around the country, smiling for the cameras but never saying anything, journalists began to notice that female MPs were rarely seen campaigning and when they were at press conferences they invariably did not get a chance to speak. Women in general seemed to have a low profile, second-division role (not counting the page 3 model Jordan, who got a lot of publicity standing as a candidate, apparently fighting on the key election issue of free breast implants…).
Anyway, this issue, and the issue of the low number of women MPs in general, was given a little publicity when a female journalist from the New Statesman (Jackie) broached the question in a press conference, only to have Gordon Brown embarrassingly interrupt the female MP the question was aimed at. Whoops! Interestingly, Jackie and other female journalists had been trying to ask the question for several days, until the male journalists made a pact not to raise their own hands for questions so Gordon Brown had to speak to her – the only hand raised in the room. Hah!
The issue was covered in some newspapers, and in a Newsnight report (presented by the American feminist writer Naomi Wolf, of all people!). But then the issue seemed to be forgotten. Even so, it did seem to embarrass the parties, who all vowed to improve the situation. Well, we’ll see. When the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, lent his support to female candidates, journalists dubbed them ‘Charlie’s Angels’ – his version of the ‘Blair Babes.’ I bet someone had been waiting for ages to use that soundbite.
It’s no wonder women – and men – were fed up and bored, when all we seemed to get was endless, tiresome debate about Europe and the Pound. Groan. It took a very angry woman, Sharon Storrer, to bring health back to the agenda when in front of the national media she harangued Tony Blair, not letting him get a word in edgeways.
The Independent reported comments made by Radio 4 presenter John Humphries about the author Professor Lisa Jardine, who’d been called in to the Today programme to comment on election issues. First of all, asking her a question, he addressed her as ‘the token woman… I mean, the only woman on this panel…’ One assumes it was meant to be a joke. Apparently, she asked him why the interview was not being conducted by a woman. His reply? ‘Because it’s a serious political discussion, of course.’ Hmmmm!
Election night coverage
On election night itself, the BBC had a hugely expensive production, with it’s main presenters being David Dimbleby, Andrew Marr, Peter Snow, and Jeremy Paxman. There was Fiona Bruce, supposedly to add ‘glamour’ (as some newspapers patronisingly reported), but she was stuck in the most pointless and boring part of the set: the ‘studio set cafe’ interviewing cartoonists and various random celebrities. The only other woman in the studio was Alison Park from the Centre for Statistics, offering comment to Dimbleby. No Kirsty Wark either, as she was working in Scotland. Shame, shame! What about ITV, you ask? Who cares!
At the 1997 election the Fawcett Society calculated that in the media you would have to listen to 19 male commentators before hearing one woman’s voice. It didn’t seem to get much better this time – and it will be interesting to see the new statistics when they are released.
The main issue of concern was the very low turnout. At around 60%, it was the worst turnout since 1918. Considering that women only got the vote in 1928, this means it was the worst turnout in a UK truly democratic election, ever. Something is obviously going wrong, somewhere, and the government urgently needs to address this disinterest in politics, preferably by looking at the issue of voting reform. Which brings me nicely on to…
So after the historic election of 120 female MPs in 1997, the situation has not improved but has got worse. So what on earth can we do? Well, one suggestion is a change in the law to allow positive discrimination for women. This occured in 1997 and directly led to a huge increase in female MPs being elected. However, it was soon after declared illegal.
Undoubtedly, positive discrimination does work. But is it right? It is still a controversial issue, and despite strong support by feminist organisations such as Fawcett, it appears to be unpopular with the general public. It doesn’t help that there only ever appears to be two sides: you are either in support of women’s rights and strongly in favour of positive discrimination, OR you are an evil anti-feminist who thinks women should have no special help, ranting about positive discrimination being ‘patronising’ to women. That’s the impression the media gives when it interviews women on the issue. But of course there are other options to increase the number of female MPs, such as changing the voting system to proportional representation, something which has been successful in other countries.
On the next page is the text of a briefing on women and voting reform from the Fawcett Society. It suggests why PR would be successful and improve the democratic process in general.
How do you think we should increase the number of women MPs? Are you in favour of positive discrimination or a change in the voting system? What did you think about the election campaign? Please contact us with your opinions: we would love to hear what you think.