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What to do with women in 2015: ‘Perhaps sit them in the corner’?

12 Dec 2014
A t-shirt printed with, 'This is what a feminist looks like'

At the outset the 2010 General Election was all set to be the mumsnet election – decided at the school gates.

Professor Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender, University of Bristol
Professor Rosie Campbell, Professor of Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London
Professor Sarah Childs,
Professor of Politics and Gender, University of Bristol
Professor Rosie Campbell,
Professor of Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London

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Labour was clear that ‘middle income female voters with children in marginal seats’ would be key to the outcome. In the end it wasn’t quite such a women focused campaign – both women voters and women politicians were ultimately marginalized, replaced by media attention directed at the attire of the three main male leaders’ wives.

Five years on, what potential is there for women – as party leaders, candidates and voters – to play a prominent role in the election and shaping the debate?

The 2010 general election saw the first ever party leaders’ TV debates – three men interviewed by a series of male political journalists. With women absent it was perhaps not surprising that there was little talk of concerns widely regarded as women’s issues, such as childcare, work-life balance or violence against women and girls. Equally at the point of Coalition formation women politicians were absent; the price was very nearly the adoption of rape anonymity for defendants (which if adopted would have constituted the only area of criminal law that would have afforded the defendant such privacy – implying that false rape allegations are more common than other false allegations, for which there is no evidence). Despite some progress of a liberal feminist nature over the last five years (such as backing campaigns to end violence to women and radically overhauling the system of parental leave), the Coalition was dogged by allegations that it was out of touch with women throughout the parliament: media coverage focused on Cameron’s gendered gaffes, criticism that austerity had a woman’s face, and Cameron’s reluctance to put on that t-shirt.

The widespread realization that the UK is now a multi-party system, with the greater prominence of smaller parties, means that all-male leader debates in our view look increasingly unjustifiable: two of the seven main parties have women leaders, the Green’s Natalie Bennett and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon. One of the implications of denying smaller parties’ representation would be the symbolic exclusion of women.

2010 was a missed opportunity for women candidates. Cameron set his stall on improving the diversity of his MPs, and there was some notable progress – with the number of Conservative women increasing from 17 to 49 – from 9 to 16%. Nevertheless the Labour party still had more women MPs than all the others added together (33%, as a result of its use once again of All Women Shortlists); the Liberal Democrats saw fewer women candidates stand and fewer women MPs elected compared with 2005.

As of December 2014 the pattern of parliamentary selections shows continuing differences amongst the parties: in each of the three largest parties’ retirement seats – those seats they hope, if not expect to hold, at the election – 35% of Tory candidates are women; 75% of Labour candidates are women; and 40% of Lib Dem candidates are women. This distribution shows for the fourth general election the positive impact of Labour’s AWS. UKIP’s candidates are 87% male – one indicator of Farage’s problem with women, and maybe women’s problem with UKIP.

In 2010 there was little by way of a gender gap amongst support for the three main UK parties. Men were greater supporters of the SNP, UKIP, and the BNP, and women were slightly more inclined to support the Greens. The fallout from the 2014 Scottish Referendum election has brought gender and voting to the fore. Throughout the Scottish campaign women were less likely to support independence than men. It is an open question whether women will shift their support towards the SNP between now and the 2015 Westminster election. Ditto UKIP, who know they need women’s votes. Inter party competition over women’s votes may well be key in 2015 – although we said that last time…

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