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Where are the new suffragettes?

This year Wales secured the highest level of representation of women anywhere in the world. But women still have way to go say Mary Southcott.

75 years ago some may have thought that women winning the full vote would change women’s lives and the whole culture of adversarial politics. Certainly they would have expected, by three quarters of a century later, there would have been elected more than the paltry 173 women MPs, given that the parliament contains 659 MPs. There are 118 women MPs today.

The big improvement only came in 1997. After Labour adopted all-woman shortlists, 120 women MPs, mostly Labour, nearly one in five of the whole Commons, were elected. This was not a critical mass but the assumption must have been that there was no going back. Having established themselves, the number of women would go on increasing each election until, at some point, gender parity would be achieved.

When the great boredom set in, something to do with the huge majority and mainly because of the Conservative inability to break out of its anti European old-fashioned mindset, and Labour repeated its landslide, the 2001 general elections seemed to have changed nothing. The reduction in woman MPs however showed that in reality nothing had changed. The campaigns of the main parties showed Cherie and Ffion in traditional supportive roles, without giving a voice to them or leading women members of parliament.

Without a mechanism for selecting women, women were not chosen for safe seats when men or women retired. The opportunity to replace the MPs who had become members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly by equal numbers of men and women was also lost. Early retirements of women MPs, such as Mo Mowlam and Judith Church, left the incoming parliament worse not better off in terms of gender balance.

This should have sent shivers down the body politic but, apart from a Newsnight special by Naomi Woolf, complacency set in. Predictions about the death of feminism or accusations of political correctness probably silenced the rest of us. Nor did we want to be seen to criticise the women MPs who had begun to make a difference. They are best placed to know that we still have a long way to go. The new Suffragettes in the electoral reform movement were also unable to make the arguments because the assumed wisdom was that landslide victories would see change off for a long time to come.

Politics is still seen through the prism of predominantly male political journalists. Coverage of assemblies which had by 2000 been elected with higher percentages of women in Scotland, Wales and London, were often covered as male commentators would speak about women’s football. If they were mentioned at all, it was their clothes, their shape or their hormones rather the content and emphasis on policy.

Then in May 2003, and anyone who has been involved in Welsh politics may be surprised, the breakthrough happened. Suddenly there were an amazing 63 per cent Labour women AMs, and exactly half of the Welsh Assembly were women. This is the highest level of women’s representation in the world only marred by the complete absence of black or minority ethnic women or men AMs. Similarly in Scotland women improved on their 1999 position. There are now 50 woman MSPs, 39 per cent, up from 48. 56 per cent of Labour SMPs are women. None of this would have happened but for positive action within the Labour Party, all woman shortlists, twinning and zipping. These had been judged to be illegal but they have now been given the green light by the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act of 2002.

In New Zealand, women were the first to get the vote. On 19 September it will be 110 years since women were enfranchised there. Helen Clark, a woman prime minister, has managed to get reelected despite having to be elected under the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), a more proportional system than any used or likely to be used in the UK. The voters have choice and the New Zealand Labour Party has to campaign in every constituency not simply targeting the marginals and taking the rest for granted or ignoring them.

The first-wave suffragettes argued that having women voting would clean up politics. Electoral reformers use similar arguments. When votes for women were allowed in 1918 they were restricted to those over 30. When 10 years later it was clear that women voters did not upset ‘the male system’, the franchise was extended to those under 30. But today women remain less enamoured of the politics which fail to reflect their realities.

In June 2003, there occurred the most recent significant event in the third wave of suffrage, if we count first, the Chartists, then the Suffragettes and now the Electoral Reformers to make votes count. This was Roy Hattersley’s article ‘Maybe I was wrong after all’. He admitted to readers of the Guardian that he persuaded Raymond (now Lord) Plant, LCER’s President, to chair [the Commission] in the knowledge that he was fully in favour of ‘first past the post’. Unfortunately [Lord Plant] turned out to be so open-minded that, by the end of the inquiry, he had convinced himself of the need for change. Lord Hattersley concludes: ‘I want a system that puts a political premium on moving a moderate distance to the left. Proportional representation - not transferable votes, but real proportional representation - might just have that effect.’

Roy Hattersley argues that the outcome in the PR elected chambers was clearly better than under the present system. Actually FPTP elections in a devolved Scotland and Wales might have been even more old Labour, except that the referendums would not have been won. So the point is that when policies have to be argued across as well as inside parties and the political spectrum is extended beyond a political duopoly then policies are more radical and more reflective of the electorate they serve. PR will also make the relationship between tiers of multi-layered governance easier when opposing parties are in power, something which has not happened so far.

So what has Labour to fear by continuing to offer their 1990s promise ‘to let the people decide’? Letting the people decide, or people power, is a very good definition of democracy. It is one that politicians need to embrace if they are going to hold on to their jobs or their role as representative is to remain meaningful. If majorities are unassailable then no wonder the BBC casts itself in the role of the official opposition. If politics is to remain what many people ‘go into it for’, a way to change the world, electoral reform needs to be flagged up as a possibility.

Matthew Taylor, the IPPR director, has suggested that one way Tony Blair could flag up that he trusts the people and thereby deserve their trust, is to call a referendum on electoral reform. This should be made from the position of strength and no one would deny that Labour’s current majority is that. It should not be left until Labour is forced to hold the referendum because it has run out of its majority or looks likely to do so in the near future. This will just fuel cynicism.

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian on 1 August, the eve of Labour’s longest ever time ‘in power’ argues in ‘Away with these tribes’ that ‘strong government’ is mistrusted. Voters trust MPs more if they speak their minds honestly than admire them for silent party loyalty. She concludes that ‘PR may be untidy, but it is grown-up politics for a grown-up electorate.’ Only a complete change in how we elect our leaders will put the trust, and excitement, back into politics.

Labour electoral reformers are likely to recall that the Attlee government with which we are now comparing Labour’s puny six odd years, compared with the eleven years of Thatcher and 18 lost Conservative years, ended when Labour in 1951 won more votes than its Conservative opposition but lost the election. This seems unlikely to happen in the UK but only until after the next boundary commission changes are implemented.

75 years since women gained the vote on the same basis as men, and 85 years since women and many working men were franchised, it is surely time to look at the politics of the future, move away from the adversarial tribalism that reduces political engagement and let the people decide not only their politicians in their constituency but the voting system by which that choice is made.

Mary Southcott is parliamentary & political officer of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.