Votes for Women 2: Electoral Boogaloo

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CW: FGM, sexual violence, violence against women, abortion

Or, ‘A feminist overview of England’s main political parties in light of the upcoming election’.

The 2015 General Election is fast approaching and it’s best that we take a look at the parties now, before they begin making promises with the same level of desperation as a boyfriend who hears  you’re “going stay at your Mum’s for a bit and have a think.” Studies have shown that young women are currently much less likely to vote than their male equivalents, and we have to take action if we want a government that strives for gender equality.

There are obviously all sorts of things to take into consideration when placing your vote (and I can’t recommend highly enough taking a look at each party’s 2015 manifesto yourself, once they’re all available) but I’m sure one of the things you’re concerned about is how each party approaches the gender imbalance in society. To save you time, and hopefully to make things easier to compare, I’m going to look at each of the five main parties of England. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough knowledge of UK parties outside of England such as SNP in order to include them here, but if someone wants to do a summary of each of those, I’d be happy to post it for further comparison.

I’ll also try to make this as unbiased as possible, which may be difficult at times. Politics is one of those areas where unbiased facts are incredibly valuable and also hard to come by, as it’s a topic which pushes most people’s buttons. While it’s easy to say that the general public is apathetic when it comes to politics, ask someone what they think about immigration, or benefit cuts, or train fares, and see how apathetic they sound. I’m notorious for my impassioned politics (read: I shout a lot after drinking too much wine and occasionally storm off from the dinner table, only to slink back in shamefaced for dessert) but I want this to be a valuable exercise so I’ll do my best to rein myself in. UKIP are up ahead, so I hope this is bloody appreciated.

I’ll also mention some basic facts about each party, including how many female members make up each. Why is this important?

“Men outnumber women 4 to 1 in parliament. Women make up just 22 per cent – or 1 in 5 – members of the Westminster Parliament and the number of women MPs has increased by only 4.6% in 10 years. Of 22 Cabinet Ministers, just 4 are women.”

Women and Power – Fawcett society website

“The overall number of women in the House of Commons after the 2010 general election rose to another historic high of 143 out of 650 seats … This has placed the UK slightly higher up the table of women’s representation in parliaments worldwide – 52nd place.”

“There were 877 women out of a total of 4,134 candidates in the 2010 general election. Although this figure was higher than in previous elections, it still only amounted to 21 per cent of the total number of candidates.”

The UK General Election 2010 In-depth

That sounds crap, doesn’t it? Representation is important to me and it should be to you.

So let’s begin.

The Conservative Party

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David Cameron at the International Women’s Day reception.

Quick summary: Centre-right party, currently in power (as part of a coalition with the Liberal Democrat party). Also known as the ‘Tories’. Founded in 1834 and gave us the first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Percentage of candidates selected so far for 2015 election that are female: 31%

Leader: White, middle aged, privately educated man; David Cameron. Currently Prime Minister.

Pros:

  • They’ve pledged to increase the income tax personal allowance from £10,000 to £12,500 by 2020. This would take another 430,000 people out of income tax, and almost two thirds of them will be women (women make up the majority of low earners in Britain).
  • During a 2014 Cabinet reshuffle, Cameron promoted 10 women, resulting in 5 of the 17 full Tory Cabinet members being women.
  • Education Secretary and Minister for Women, Nicky Morgan, has backed a factsheet for schools on violence against women and girls recently published by the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition.
  • 77% of NHS workers are women, and the Conservatives have promised to protect the NHS budget. I have to note that I’m incredibly sceptical of this one in light of their NHS cuts thus far, but there you have it.
  • They have guaranteed 15 hours of free childcare for all three and four year olds and the 40% of most disadvantaged two year olds as well.
  • They have created two new criminal offences to protect women for stalking and introduced a new law to tackle revenge porn.

Cons:

  • Their planned tax cuts will not affect the 4 million poorest workers who pay no tax at all, 73% of whom are women. Tax cuts are also incredibly expensive and to pay for them we will see more welfare cuts – tax cuts for the highest earners (as proposed by the Tories) will benefit more men than women and, as explained below, welfare cuts will negatively affect more women than men.
  • Women have been hit much harder than men by tax and benefit changes made under the coalition so far. £22bn of the £26bn of the Treasury revenue raised from tax and benefit reforms since 2010 has been taken from women – 85% of the total, with only 15% contributed by men.
  • George Osborne, the Tory Chancellor, has pledged to reduce the annual benefits cap per family from £26k to £23k. The Chancellor’s own analysis shows that the poverty threshold for a family of four is £26,566, £566 above the cap. The Supreme Court also ruled last year that the benefit cap has ‘a disproportionate adverse impact on women.’ The proposed reduction is likely to increase child poverty and gender inequality.
  • They have pledged to freeze public sector pay until 2017. Women comprise the majority (65%) of public sector workers.
  • Cameron has made some poor choices for his cabinet ministry while in power. This has included making a man and woman share the Minister for Women & Equality post, as the woman voted against equal marriage and the man was…a man (introducing the theory that he was unable to find a single female Tory MP who are also pro-equal marriage), and choosing a Secretary of State for Health who wanted to halve the time limit on abortions from 24 weeks to 12 weeks. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) described Hunt’s comments as ‘insulting to women’ and said such a policy would cause serious harm.
  • They’ve dismissed suggestions of using all-women shortlists, despite their struggle to recruit female candidates.
  • Cameron promised to lead a cabinet that was at least 33% female. It’s only 22% female.
  • In April 2011, Cameron told a female Labour MP to “Calm down, dear” during a Commons clash. It was rather embarrassing.
  • The party tried to block the Liberal Democrat’s overhaul of the way parental leave works, which now allows for mothers and fathers to share leave equally. They successfully blocked an attempt to increase paternity leave.
  • If re-elected, the party will scrap the Human Rights Act which protects the vulnerable and powerless (including asylum seekers who are fleeing atrocities such as rape, torture and murder).
  • This year they banned pornography which featured sexually dominant female behaviour including facesitting and female ejaculation.
  • In October 2014, Cameron refused to wear a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt for Ellie magazine. Nick Clegg (Lib Dem) and Ed Miliband (Labour) both wore the t-shirt.

 

The Labour Party

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Ed Miliband posing rather beautifully in his feminist t-shirt.

Quick summary: Centre-left party, founded in 1900. The UK usually bounces around between this party and the Conservative party in terms of governance. Grew out of the trade union movement.

Percentage of candidates selected so far for 2015 election that are female: 39%

Leader: White, middle aged, state educated man; Ed Miliband.

Pros:

  • Miliband has pledged to ensure that any Cabinet he leads is 50 per cent female.
  • Labour plan to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour by the 2020 election, and 61% of the 6.3m people who would benefit from that are women. They also plan to promote the living wage.
  • They have pledged to abolish zero-hour contracts, which predominantly affect women (they make up 55% of those on the contracts).
  • They currently have the highest number of female MPs of all the parties.
  • They’ve pledged to give give working parents 25 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds per week.
  • Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, is an active campaigner for women’s rights. Read more here: https://thejarbelles.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/boob-free-page-three-featuring-stella-creasy/
  • They have effectively used all-female shortlists to increase their number of female MPs.
  • In 2010 activists Caroline Alabi, Mandy Richards & Florence Nosegbe co-founded the Labour Black Women’s Network (LBWN), a community collective established to encourage, assist and support black women of African and African-Caribbean origins within the Labour Party.
  • In 2012, they launched Labour’s Commission on Older Women, chaired by Harriet Harman, to  investigate older women’s experiences in three critical areas – in the workplace, in their caring responsibilities and in public life.
  • They introduced the 2010 Equality Act, which legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society.
  • Labour have also promised to instate section 78 of the 2010 Equality Act if elected, which will require large employers, including those such as Tesco and Amazon who employ many low paid women, to carry out and publish mandatory gender pay audits.
  • Labour appointed Seema Malhotra this year as shadow minister for preventing violence against women and girls. She is the first person to ever hold this title, and if Labour wins the general election, there will be a Home Office minister for preventing violence against women and girls. Malhotra is responsible for championing the needs of victims of rape, domestic and sexual violence, as well as female genital mutilation, forced marriage, trafficking and prostitution.

Cons:

  • In August 2014, Austin Mitchell, the Labour MP for Grimsby, said that the loss of older, more experienced men was “worrying” because the party will be full of “amenable and leadable” women.
  • They plan to cap child benefit 1% for a further two years. This, along with the many cuts and caps on child benefit over the past four years, will mean the value of the payment has decreased by 18% since 2010.
  • They plan to maintain the benefits cap, which as we all know, adversely affects women.
  • Last year a large child sexual exploitation scandal, and subsequent cover up, emerged. In Rotherham between 1997 and 2013, child sexual abuse was widespread – a report published in August 2013 conservatively estimated that 1,400 children had been sexually abused in the town, predominantly by gangs of British-Pakistani men. Abuses described by the report included abduction, rape, torture and sex trafficking of children. Shaun Wright, the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for South Yorkshire who had been a Labour councillor in charge of child safety at the council, stood down on 16 September, after initially refusing demands that he should do so and Denis MacShane, the former Labour MP for Rotherham during the period covered by the report, admitted that he had been “guilty of doing too little” to investigate the extent of the sex crimes being committed in his constituency.

 

The Liberal Democrat Party

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Nick Clegg dons his Fawcett society t-shirt over a long sleeve top like a character from The Big Bang Theory.

Quick summary: Centre-left party, currently in power (as part of a coalition with the Conservative party).  Formed in 1988 and also known as the ‘Lib Dems’. They’ve never actually been in power before.

Percentage of candidates selected so far for 2015 election that are female: 30%

Leader: White, middle aged, privately educated man; Nick Clegg. Currently Deputy Prime Minister.

Pros:

  • They have pledged to raise the income tax personal allowance to £12, 500 (like the Tories), but will raise it faster and pay for it by both increasing the capital gains tax (CGT) paid by the wealthy and cracking-down on tax avoidance.
  • They have announced a £1 billion investment in the NHS in 2016/7 and 2017/8.
  • Lib Dem Equalities Minister, Jo Swinson, introduced a change to the way maternity and paternity leave works. From April 2015, parents can share up to 50 weeks of parental leave. If they are elected in 2915, the party has also pledged to increase paternity leave from two weeks to six weeks. Swinson has also spoken out against the way men who take paternity leave are judged in society.
  • Swinson also spearheaded a government Body Confidence campaign. The campaign developed an industry award (the PPA Awards) with the Professional Publishers’ Association to reward the inclusion of diverse body images in magazines and launched a teaching pack for primary schools, and an accompanying parent pack, to help children understand how media images are doctored and the impact this can have on individuals.
  • Carers – the majority (58%) of whom are women – have been singled out for increased support with pledges to increase the earnings threshold for Carer’s Allowance to £110 (from £102 currently), a £250 annual bonus and extra support for returning to work.
  • When asked in an interview whether women in Westminster have anywhere near what men have, Clegg said, “No, clearly not. It’s still a very testosterone-driven, male-dominated environment. It’s one of the reasons why modern Britain is not adequately reflected in Westminster.” The absence of women, black and minority ethnic MPs, and people with disabilities in Parliament means, he claimed, “Westminster in my view is now dangerously out of touch with modern Britain.”
  • They brought Equal Marriage to Britain in 2014.
  • They refused to support the Conservatives’ attempt to scrap the Human Rights Act.
  • Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister Jo Swinson has called on the retail sector to ensure the greatest choice by marketing toys for all children, rather than for boys and girls separately.
  • They plan to promote apprenticeships to under-represented groups and will introduce ‘name blank’ applications to public sector jobs if elected (reducing discrimination against women and ethnic minorities).

Cons:

  • Lord Rennard, Chief Executive of the Lib Dems from 2003-2009, has a history of sexual harassment complaints. In 2008, Nick Clegg was approached with allegations of Lord Rennard’s sexual misconduct but after Rennard denied any wrongdoing, Clegg declined to investigate further. After various complaints about the lack of inquiry, and after an unsuccessful police inquiry into Rennard, the party finally investigated. In 2014, the Lib Dems stated that there was broadly credible evidence of “behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants.” Rennard was asked to make an apology (though presumably he asked if he could kiss and make up instead). After a seven month suspension beginning January 2014, Rennard was restored to full party membership. Four senior women quit due to Rennard’s behaviour.
  • In 2013, Mike Hancock MP and parliamentary whip, was accused of making repeated physical sexual advances towards a constituent – a young mother who had asked for help with noisy neighbours – despite being made aware that she suffered a mental health disorder and had been sexually abused as a child. The case was settled out of court and Hancock resigned from the Lib Dems. The party received criticism for the way they handled the scandal and a female Councillor Eleanor Scott also resigned due to the party’s conduct.
  • I could go on with the sexual scandals – the party has a history of sexual misconduct and harassment.
  • The party has the worst gender balance of the top three parties, with no women in Clegg’s cabinet and only three holding government jobs. They have only seven female MPs – in fact, the party has as many knights on its benches as women.
  • They have declined to use all-women shortlists to address their gender imbalance.
  • In 2002 the party’s spring conference approved calls for laws on pornography to be relaxed. The delegates voted in favour of allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to visit sex shops, and to act in hardcore pornography.
  • Lynne Featherstone, who was parliamentary under-secretary of state for women and equalities, fronted the 2006 proposal to grant anonymity for men accused of rape.
  • Joining the Conservatives in a coalition has resulted in an all-time lack of popularity for the party, meaning some may view them as a ‘wasted vote’.

The Green Party of England and Wales

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Natalie Bennett at the UK Feminista 2011 Mayoral Debate.

Quick summary: Left-wing party, usually just known as ‘the Green party’ or the ‘Greens’. Founded in 1990. They’ve never been in power.

Percentage of candidates selected so far for 2015 election that are female: 37%

Leader: White, middle aged, privately educated on scholarship, woman; Natalie Bennett.

Pros:

  • They are the only party with a female leader. Their last leader was also female (Caroline Lucas) and is their sole MP.
  • Their leader, Natalie Bennett, was a trustee of the Fawcett Society, Britain’s leading women’s issues group, was the founder of the blog Carnival of Feminists and is an active campaigner on women’s issues.
  • They had the highest percentage of female candidates across all of the parties in the 2010 election.
  • They openly support the No More Page Three campaign. Read more about the campaign (and our support for it) here: https://thejarbelles.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/boob-free-page-three-an-introduction/
  • Natalie Bennett, Caroline Lucas, and Green peer Jenny Jones are amongst 15 women on the Green Party’s list of 27 Official Spokespeople.
  • Two out of the three Green MEPs elected to the European Parliament were women (compared to 55 per cent of Labour’s, 32 per cent of the Conservatives’ and 29 per cent of Ukip’s.)
  • If elected, they would follow the ‘Norwegian model’ of a minimum quota of 40 per cent women on major company boards.
  • They have announced plans to introduce a citizens’ income and a citizens’ pension for all. This would significantly reduce poverty and particularly women’s poverty, ending the traps that can make returning to paid work, or doing part-time work, currently unsustainable or financially impossible.
  • The party plans to insist that all large and medium-size companies carry out equal pay audits and redress any inequalities and change the law so that joint suits for unequal pay cases are easier to bring.
  • They have pledged to introduce shared maternity and paternity leave for the first month after birth or adoption, then provide for 22 months of leave – shared so that the parent taking less time takes a minimum of six months – except for single parents. This would be paid at 90% of salary up to a reasonable level.
  • Their manifesto lists the introduction of significant penalties for harassment to ensure mothers are protected when breast-feeding their children in public.
  • If elected, they plan to remove the law requiring the consent of two doctors for an abortion and allow midwives and nurses who are appropriately qualified to perform abortions, with the aim of improving access to NHS abortions.
  • They have promised to ensure that rape crisis centres and domestic violence centres receive guaranteed funding from core budgets.
  • They pledge to institute an asylum policy that in particular recognises the potential risks to, and needs of, women seeking asylum, including forced marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, rape and other sexual assault.
  • They openly support the following organisations: Abortion Rights, Centre for Women and Democracy, Fawcett Society, For Our Daughters, Pink Stinks, Women’s Aid, Women’s Environmental Network, Women’s Resource Centre
  • They oppose austerity and would scrap the cuts associated with it, instead investing in a low carbon economy. They would also move towards reducing the gap between those at the top (overwhelmingly male) and bottom (overwhelmingly female).
  • They would increase the minimum wage to living wage levels.
  • Brighton Green city councillor Simon Williams, campaigns against homophobic and anti-women lyrics in popular music.

Cons:

  • The party had better gender balance four years ago, when it had close to equal numbers of men and women.
  • They are widely considered to be a ‘wasted vote’, as they are unlikely to win the majority of UK votes. However, the Greens’ standing in the polls has trebled since the beginning of the year – from two to six per cent according to YouGov – and they have occasionally beaten the Lib Dems.
  • They have been accused of being a predominantly middle class party that ignores working class issues and concerns.
  • Representation of people from ethnic minorities is low.

 

The UK Independence Party

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I couldn’t even find a picture of Nigel Farage standing near some women. Perhaps he is allergic.

Quick summary: Right-wing party, founded in 1993. Usually just known as ‘UKIP’. They’ve never been in power.

Percentage of candidates selected so far for 2015 election that are female: 12%

Leader: White, middle aged, privately educated, man; Nigel Farage.

Pros:

Cons:

  • They have consistently had the lowest levels of female representation across the parties. There are actually more men called David (15) or Steven (14) standing for the party in next year’s election than there are women (26).
  • Since the 2009 European Election UKIP’s only two female MEPs, Nikki Sinclaire and Marta Andreasen, have both left the party. Andreason said Farage doesn’t try to involve intelligent professional women in positions of responsibility in the party. He thinks women should be in the kitchen or in the bedroom”. Nikki Sinclaire won an Employment Tribunal claim for sex discrimination against the party.
  • If elected, they will scrap paid maternity leave.
  • They will also make it legal for employers to discriminate on the basis of gender (as well as race). This would also entail the scrapping of employment regulations against sexual harassment and safeguards for part time and irregular workers, the majority of which are women.
  • If elected, they plan to keep the benefit cap and to further cap child benefits to two children.
  • Their chosen method of tackling extremism is “by banning the burqa or veiled niqab in public buildings and certain private buildings”.
  • UKIP’s MEPs have consistently failed to represent the interests of women. They have voted against or simply not turned up to key votes in the European Parliament on ensuring equal pay, combating violence against women and ruling out FGM, to name but a few.
  • Olly Neville, the former UKIP Youth Chairman, was sacked for supporting same-sex marriage.
  • They have pledged to cut £9 billion of foreign aid should they gain power. A large amount of women in impoverished countries benefit from foreign aid.
  • Everyone knows about the huge array of sexist, racist and homophobic remarks stated by various members of the party (including the leader). I’ve listed some of the ones directed at women below, starting with the man of the hour:
  • When asked about UKIP’s problem with women, Farage said his ‘blokeish’ image might put women off. He then added,‘“What do you want me to do? Go sell flowers?” I don’t know about you, but as a woman I only vote for florists.
  • During a radio interview, Nigel Farage said that women should be careful not to make others uncomfortable when breastfeeding and should perhaps “sit in the corner”.
  • On another occasion, Nigel Farage said,“Godfrey’s [Bloom, former UKIP MEP] comment that ‘no employer with a brain in the right place would employ a young, single, free woman‘ has been proved so right. With this lunacy, that if you have children you get three months paid leave off work, or six months paid leave off work – he absolutely got it spot on.”
  • In an interview with Radio Times, Farage said, “Lap dancing? Don’t have the time these days, but I used to go to them. Like it or not, they are a fact of life. You are talking about normal behaviour there. Everyone does it.”
  • Patrick O’Flynn, MEP Candidate, said that pregnant women in the workplace are a “disaster”.
  • Roger Helmer, UKIP MEP and candidate in the Newark by-election, said, Rape is always wrong, but not always equally culpable.”
  • UKIP council candidate Geoffrey Clark listed in his manifesto, ‘Compulsory abortion when the foetus is detected as having Down’s, spina bifida or similar syndrome which, if it is born, could render the child a burden on the state as well as on the family’. He has been suspended.
  • Godfrey Bloom, a former UKIP MEP, was not reprimanded for hugely sexist statements such as, “[feminists are] shrill, bored, middle-class women of a certain physical genre” and, “Women, in spite of years of training in art and music – and significant leisure time in the 18th and 19th Centuries – have produced few great works”
  • Stuart Wheeler, the party’s treasurer, said that women were “absolutely nowhere” when they compete with men in sports where they are not physically disadvantaged. He said, “I would just like to challenge the idea that it is necessary to have a lot of women or a particular number on a board… Business is very, very competitive and you should take the performance of women in another competitive area, which is sport where [men] have no strength advantage.”
  • In November 2013, UKIP MEP, Stuart Agnew said (in a debate on women in the boardroom) that Women don’t have the ambition to get to the top, something gets in the way. It’s called a baby… Those females who really want to get to the top do so”.
  • In January 2014, Farage argued that women are able to do as well – if not better – than men but only if they are prepared to sacrifice family life. He added that there is no longer discrimination against women in financial institutions and suggested gender imbalances are caused by female employees making “different choices” for “biological reasons”.
  • David Chalice , a senior party official in Exeter, has voiced his belief that women should stay at home and that “cash-strapped Moslems” should have multiple wives.
  • Demetri Marchessini, the party’s sixth-largest individual donor in 2013, said there was no such thing as marital rape, arguing: “If you make love on Friday and make love Sunday, you can’t say Saturday is rape.” He also claimed women should be banned from wearing trousers because they “discourage love-making”.

 

There we have it. It’s a lot to take on board, but I hope it helps. I know that researching each party’s stance on women has been illuminating for me – I didn’t realise how much the Labour party had to offer women and I was genuinely shocked and horrified by what I found on UKIP. Please let me know if there’s something I’ve missed, or something you’d like to know more on – I’ve tried to cite my sources so that you can do more research if you like but I may have missed the odd one.

Viva a democracia!

–  Jade Slaughter is editor of The Jar Belles and has written for The F Word, Parallel and Litro magazines. Follow her on Twitter: @msjadeslaughter.

Edit: Writing the UKIP section was additionally challenging because as I was writing it, they were removing some of their most offensive stuff from their website and/or re-wording it. I removed some things as I noticed them, but I’ll leave it as it stands now so that evidence remains of their craziness.

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