Whatever the outcome of May’s general election, parliament could see its biggest ever cohort of female MPs – led by Labour, which is poised to break the record set by the 101 who came in with Tony Blair after the party’s landslide victory in 1997.
It comes as a major campaign is launched to mobilise women not only to vote but to “vote feminist” – and to push for the issues that they care about and demand an end to the country’s entrenched gender inequality.
Women are far less likely to vote than men and the gender gap is widening, with the numbers of “missing voters” rising by 79% since 1992.
Between 1992 and 2010 the number of women voting in general elections fell by 18%, and in the last poll in 2010 more than 9.1 million women failed to vote, compared with almost 8 million men. The problem was even worse among younger women, with only 39% using their ballot paper, compared with 50% of men in the same 18-to-24 age group. Last year, a study by the Girl Guides found that only 21% of young women had any interest in politics at all.
Led by UK Feminista and launching on International Women’s Day, the campaign aims to increase political accountability on issues affecting women by getting female voters more engaged with the process. Making it easy to talk to candidates who might come to their door, and making it a simple online task to register to vote, are two of the key measures.
Sophie Bennett, co-director of UK Feminista, said: “For too long, women’s inequality has been treated as a side issue, not the business of mainstream politics. But sexism in this country is a national scandal. Over 85,000 women are raped every year, the gender pay gap stands at 16% and women are the majority of low-paid workers. In a parliament whose membership is currently 77% male, parties will need to work hard to prove women’s inequality is even on their agenda, let alone a priority.”
As part of a national registration drive, the campaign will enable women to register to vote directly through the Vote Feminist website. Activist election packs, which include #VoteFeminist doorstep cards, so people feel confident to ask questions of canvassers on their doorstep, will be available from the campaign website, helping people organise their own local hustings and to lobby their candidates directly.
One boost to the campaign will be the latest Electoral Reform Society (ERS) analysis, based on current polling and the number of female candidates standing, which predicts there will be 192 women in parliament after 7 May, up from 148 now, accounting for 29.5% of all MPs. This would move the UK from a lowly 56th to a less embarrassing 36th in the world rankings for female political representation.
Even if Ed Miliband’s party does not win the election outright, it will break its record for female representation and stretch its gender equality lead over the Tories in the Commons. The ERS figures suggest that Labour – partly by fielding far more female candidates in its top 100 targets seats – is likely to have 114 female Labour MPs after the election – up from 86 now – while the Tories are on course to increase their number by 11 to just 59.
Caroline Flint, one of the 1997 intake who has been behind Labour’s campaign to win female votes and boost equality, said she was confident the record would be broken because her party was more associated in the public mind with issues that women cared about.
“If you are committed to equality, to social justice, and concerned about the many and not the few, it is understandable that our policies should reflect the concerns of women,” she said. “As a party, the more women we have had involved in politics, the more the language used is more in tune with the kitchen tables than the boardrooms.”
Labour now believe that the votes of women and the under-25s could be key. David Cameron has come under regular fire for having a “women problem” – failing to promote enough female MPs to top jobs and surrounding himself with a coterie of male advisers – while Labour’s frontbench has held more than double the number of women than the Tories.
In their respective top 100 target seats – those they do not currently hold but hope to win – the Conservatives have 29 female candidates selected compared with Labour’s 54.
After 2010 the Tories had 49 female MPs, Labour 81, the Liberal Democrats seven and the SNP one. Using current polling projections, the ERS predicts Labour will end up with 114 female MPs, the Tories 59, the SNP 13, and the Lib Dems one.
Darren Hughes, the ERS’s deputy chief executive, said: “Britain is well behind where it should be in terms of female representation in parliament, so it’s heartening to see that we may take some steps in the right direction after this election. But we would still be looking at fewer than one in three female MPs. That’s no cause for celebration, and we have a long way to go before our politics resembles a 21st-century democracy.
“At this rate of change, fair representation of women is still a long way off.”
UK Feminista also welcomed a move towards better representation for women but believe the numbers can rise still further if women hold the parties accountable at the ballot box.
The campaign will also call on people to challenge their candidates to commit to tackling sexism and inequality. UK Feminista spends a lot of time running workshops in schools, for boys, girls and teachers, encouraging the country’s young people to stand up against gender inequality and to recognise sexism when they see it. This new move to get women engaged in politics is backed by Dr Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline, and granddaughter of activist Sylvia.
“I don’t want to tell women what to do, and say my grandmother nearly died for you to vote,” Pankhurst said recently. “But I want to say: you have an opportunity women didn’t have in the past and still don’t have elsewhere.
“Being cynical about politics and abdicating responsibility seems such a waste. If only women understood the power they have.”
Emmeline Pankhurst led the Women’s Social and Political Union from 1903, heckling politicians, going on hunger strike and committing acts of arson to fight against the government’s refusal to let women vote. Many suffragettes were imprisoned, shunned and abused.
Bennett added: “It’s nearly 100 years since suffragists secured the vote for women, yet today women are increasingly turning away from the polling booths. The next government will have a critical role to play in closing the inequality gap between women and men. Political parties should be vying for votes on the basis of who’s got the best plan to tackle women’s inequality. And it’s up to us to hold them to account at the ballot box and vote feminist on 7 May.”
WHAT THE NEXT GENERATION THINKS
TASNIM CHOUDHURY, 16
I’m put off politics because there isn’t enough equality between men and women and most MPs are male. I care about the gender pay gap and violence against women and don’t think these are being addressed. A female leader would help get women to vote more. All I see is men on TV shouting at each other.
HANANE BOUDALI, 16
Young people think politicians are all liars. Look at prime minister’s questions, no young person is going to watch that. It’s a turnoff. I’ve only got into politics recently, but women’s issues aren’t brought up enough. It’s all about taxes and hedge funds. Even when they talk about the NHS, it’s about pensioners.
IFUNANYA ONYEKWELU, 16
School issues affect me, but most politicians don’t talk about things that matter to teenagers. If I could vote now it would be for Labour, because I’ve seen the Tories cut education maintenance allowance, which really helped my age-group. Ukip talk about “sending people home” and I don’t like that.
CANER AKSU, 16
I became interested in feminism in my sociology class. I’m interested in politics, but I think the majority of MPs are men and it should be 50-50. Women aren’t respected as much as they should be. If the parties want to appeal to younger people, they should be bringing up stuff teenagers care about. Harassment at school and online is a big issue.
EBRU CALARSOY, 16
We’re too young for politics, we can’t even focus on our exams. I’m more interested in feminism. It concerns me that it’s often men in the top jobs and there’s still a gender pay gap. I don’t watch the news and, apart from in class, never speak about politics. I associate it with older people.
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