Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Monsters and martyrs

This is an article I wrote prior to last year's general election. Obviously it's a little dated now, but I think the main argument still holds true. Since writing it, Patricia Hewitt has become health secretary, but I haven't noticed her achieve much since talking on the role...

Monsters and martyrs: why today's women in government are putting me off my vote

Nearly 100 years after Asquith and his Liberal government first rejected a private members bill to give women the vote, we have another general election imminent. The 2005 election will be only the nineteenth time in the history of parliament that women have been able to have a say in who governs them.

This time around, the major political parties have been actively courting the elusive woman's vote. I'm sure most politicians think they could recognise the woman voter a mile off: mid-twenties (to mid-sixties), politically aware but not a news junkie, anxious about pensions (but not the economy), concerned about MMR, MRSA and SATs, anti-war but willing to admit that they find Tony Blair the sexiest of the prime ministerial hopefuls.

But female voters are not a homogenous group and while women are traditionally more consistent voters than men, it is age and class, not sex, which seems to determine whether women turn out on polling day. A report by the Fawcett Society in 2004 concluded that while nearly 70% of middle-class women over 55 voted in 2001, only 20% of working-class women under 24 plan to vote this time around.

Why is the latter group so disengaged from the electoral process? While class and age are relatively good indicators of voting tendencies, the gender gap, as the difference in political attitudes and voting choices between men and women is known, is rather more difficult to explain.

Political engagement does not depend on electing people like yourself: black people can represent white constituents, sexagenarians can represent teenagers and men can represent women. But the relatively small number of female members of both Houses is a problem. And it's a problem across the world. Perhaps surprisingly, Rwanda tops the league table for having the highest percentage of women in parliament. The USA, however, where women have been able to stand for election since 1788, lags China, Angola and Turkmenistan in its number of female representatives.

Much was made of Blair's Babes after the 1997 election. While a number of women have risen to prominent ministerial positions, none have made it to the top of one of the big four: the FCO, the DOH, the MOD or the Treasury. For all the hype surrounding Blair's Babes they remain just that — youngsters in the political game, always giving the impression that they are still learning the ropes. Politically speaking, they've never grown up.

Take, for example, the rise and sharp fall of Estelle Morris who left her job as education secretary because she felt she wasn't up to the job. Or the long line of earnest, well-meaning female ministers — Patricia Hewitt, Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell, Margaret Hodge - who would fail to give a convincing answer on the Today programme even if they were just asked their name.

The Right seems much better at producing political heroines, even if they are the sort that you love to hate — Margaret Thatcher, Ann Widdecombe and, on the world stage, Anne Coulter and Allesandra Mussolini — women who all emulate the aggressiveness associated with male-dominated politics.

But despite being interesting and powerful figures, Thatcher, who only appointed one woman to her cabinet and couldn't survive without her handbag, and Widdecombe who converted to Catholicism after the Anglican Church began appointing women priests, are hardly feminist icons for today's young women.

Occasionally of course you do get 'villains' on the left as well. Jane Griffith, the ex-Labour MP for Reading East, appeared on breakfast television to call those who condemned the appointment of a gay bishop in Reading bigots, but ran to the notoriously illiberal Daily Mail when she was ousted from her seat by a gay man. Left or right, women in politics are either monsters or martyrs.

But the problem is deeper than simply a lack of inspirational individuals in politics, and the problem of women in government would not be solved simply by having the first Labour or Liberal PM. At the moment, Westminster politics is a man's game and it's very tempting to say "Look at the state it's in! We need more women!" But the so-called feminisation of politics espoused by some of the more prominent female members of Blair's cabinet is not the answer. Who wants a girlie government where everyone remembers each other's birthdays, phone calls double in length and the infamous red button has to be redesigned to match the curtains?

Tessa Jowell said, in an interview with the Guardian in 2002, "We are the most feminist government in history, but we still have to feminise the process of government. We have to engage better and more directly with people at home, abandoning some of the confrontational aggressive language of politics that turns people off."

But instead of feminising government, we should be politicising women in a radical and active way. Voting is a right and, as it is not a right that everybody in the world shares, it is a privilege. But that does not make it an obligation.

Women have a history of political activism outside the ballot box: the prison reform movement, the Greenham Common protests against nuclear weapons, Women Against Pit Closures, the wages for housework campaign, the English Collective of Prostitutes, the campaign against pornography. The list could go on. While men in suits have been dining in Westminster, women in cardigans have dominated non-governmental politics. But though often effective, these have been issue-based protests, which ended when the problem was either resolved or no longer the in-thing.

The separation of small women's issues from large men's politics, like the separation of Women's Hour and women's pages on the radio and in newspapers, reiterates the assumption that the hard stuff should be left to the boys. We need a change from big personalities, big policies and big parties to small politics, where local government of local people concerned with small-scale issues ? even if they are part of a much bigger picture, prevails.


Blogger Toller said...

Do you reckon Ruth Kelly will make it to cabinet one day or will become a scape-doe first?

2:01 PM  

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