What about women?

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:15 pm by rachel

Not long now until 6th May. I for one will be glad when this Mexican standoff is over, but I’m not exactly filled with hope for what comes after. This has been the most masculine election that I can remember. Three men slugging it out over who should be President – sorry, Prime Minister. There has hardly been a woman in sight.

No, that’s not fair. There have been a few baubles tossed in the direction of women over recent weeks. The parties have run important decisions like biscuit preferences by Mumsnet when they wanted to appeal to women. They have rolled out their Boden-clad wives to make them look… I don’t know how it is supposed to make them look. Married? Co-dependent? Human. That’s it. The doe-eyed wife gazing adoringly at her husband is supposed to tell the female half of the electorate, I love him, you should too. I know you aren’t sure about him, and I’ll admit that he’s not perfect – he’s messy and occasionally a bit grumpy, perhaps a bit like your husband – but if he can convince me, with my lovely hair and wardrobe, then you should vote for him. In this most American of elections, some of the political spouses are apeing Michelle Obama’s role, but without the off-message opinions and the daring cardigans.

I met quite a few intelligent, articulate women who also happened to be MPs or Ministers when I worked in London. There has not been a peep out of them. They have been sidelined by all the parties and it is atrocious. Yvette Cooper, holding one of the most senior roles in Government, was moved to scribble to a colleague that they were second division, based on the press contingent at their meeting; and the story was her scribble, disdainful as it was, not her proposals for benefit reform. Harriet Harmon gets an interview or two with the glossy magazines, but it’s window dressing. Peter Mandelson is blamed for this from Labour’s point of view – apparently the campaign is now in his iron grip.

The Liberal Democrats don’t have many women to wheel out, and one less as Miriam Gonzales has refused to fulfil the patronising role of leader’s spouse. This is to her credit, but it makes for an even more white, middle-aged bunch of middle of the road men. Meanwhile, the Observer reports today that the Tories will introduce top-up fees for nursery schools; this will encourage more women to give up their jobs and stay at home, if the entire second wage in the household is going to pay those bills. Very progressive guys. Up there with your stupid, retrograde policies of reducing the abortion time limit and bringing in marriage tax credits. That’s right Dave, abandonned wives, single mothers and widows don’t need help from the state.

Here in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has been quite prominent when the SNP has managed to get a bit of coverage, but that has been rare – that party has been well and truly sidelined. Scotland currently sends 8 women to Westminster, and 51 men. Hopefully there will be a few more this time, but new MPs of any party tend to be hidden from view for at least the first few years.

In Northern Ireland, there are few female politicians. Lady Sylvia Herman is going it alone in North Down, having left the UUP when they compacted with the Tories. She should romp home, especially now Cameron has said that the public sector in Northern Ireland, the employer of about 75% of the working population, will have to be drastically cut. The UUP could be wiped out if the electorate decide to punish them in advance. So that is one female MP. Michelle Gildernew will lose her seat if there is a joint unionist candidate. The other female possibility is South Down, but as Catriona Ruane is from Sinn Fein, that seat will be empty in the House of Commons. Hardly a great leap forward for 51% of the population.

So what do women want from our future leaders? Well, it would be nice if we were treated like grown ups, who aren’t just obsessed with fashion, babies or which leader is the most attractive. It would be nice to see and hear from competant female politicians about how they would sort out the deficit, the banks who won’t lend money to people who need it, the pension crisis, the lack of equality on women’s pay, the dearth of female leaders in the public, private and voluntary sectors. It would be nice to hear about how the parties are going to tackle climate change, poverty, substance misuse, overcrowded prisons, adult education, the lack of affordable housing. It would be nice to hear human rights being discussed in a positive way.

And what about carers? Five million carers in the UK, and at least 75% of them are women. Most of them cannot work because of this responsibility. Yet Carer’s allowance is £53 / week, and you can only access this pittance if you care for more than 35 hours a week, and don’t work. That’s £1.50 an hour. It is shameful, and for the most part, it is impacting on women. None of the parties have mentioned it other than saying, yes, we think carers are brilliant, we’ll give them a whole week off a year. No more money to lift them out of poverty though, while their physical and mental health deteriorates in the service of a loved one. If all the carers walked away, it would cost this country tens of billions.

It would be good to hear what the parties are going to do about the UK’s appalling conviction rate for rape, still the lowest in Europe at 6.5%. In Scotland, it is only 2.9%. I’ve scoured the manifestoes, but I must have missed the section about violence against women.

It would be refreshing to hear some pledges of support for beleaguered rape crisis centres and women’s hostels, which are being shut down across the country as a consequence of councils having less money for such trivialities. Women are underrepresented in business, science and engineering – what will the parties do to encourage young women into these fields? How they are going to build up self-esteem and resilience in our young people, since PSHE was destroyed in the last Parliament’s disgraceful washup?

We need a Parliament which is reflective and representative of our country, with minority ethnic communities, people with disabilities, people who are gay, lesbian and bisexual all in place, and equally encompassing women and men. We need our politicians to treat us like adults, talk to us properly – neither jargonise their way out of answering a question, nor resort to condescending cliches about what women want. The Parliament elected in 2010 will be overwhelmingly white, male, middle-aged. We have come a long way, yes, but based on the patronising tone and message of this election campaign, there is even further to go.

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