There are important elections coming up in both the UK and the US. And while some of us feel apathy, others are more politically charged than ever. Whatever your mindset, Sophie Walker, former leader of the Women’s Equality Party, implores us to make our voices heard.
The prime minister says he doesn’t want this election. MPs have been quitting in droves rather than have to contest it. Parliamentary candidates have been deselected as sexist and racist comments have emerged.
Many of those still campaigning seem as sick of their colleagues as they are frustrated by opponents, prompting one pained Question Time audience member in Glasgow to ask recently: “How can we trust you if you can’t trust each other?”
If you’re a female voter there’s another level of frustration. Brexit looms over everything, yet its likely impact on women still hasn’t made it to top-line policy responses. This despite the fact that sectors like services, clothing and textiles – where women in particular work – are vulnerable to higher trade barriers; while stepping out of the European Union framework of workers’ rights could be a backward step for pregnancy protection and the rights of part-time workers.
There are lots of reasons to dismiss this election as being too rubbish to bother getting involved. Conversations with friends have involved a lot of screwed-up faces as they contemplate the policies on offer: the spin and cynicism of the campaigns and the first- past-the-post voting system that insists we vote against what we don’t want, rather than for what we really do.
However – as your daily doormat leaflet count reveals – there are people out there who have found just cause to participate, to doorstep and campaign and make a stand. And so, remembering what’s at stake, we must and can find compelling reasons why it’s never been more important, particularly for women, to vote the hell out of the 2019 general election.
In an unequal UK, there’s one place women have equality: the ballot box. Pre-election surveys consistently show that women take longer than men to make up their minds about how they will vote – perhaps in the face of party political manifestos that frequently relegate us to a page at the back on health or childcare, as though ‘women’ are a special interest group. But we are 51% of the population and make up just over half of the 45 million registered voters across the UK. We women can swing it.
In a populist UK, where those purporting to speak ‘for the people’ broadcast to millions via media that makes money from showing allegiance or stirring up fights, there is one place where your voice is heard as clearly as someone with their own radio show. And that’s the ballot box.
In a world where speaking out too often has consequences for women, you can use the ballot box to cast your vote for respect and inclusivity. The recent sight of principled women leaving politics because of the barrage of violent threats against them should have you running to the polling station to cast a vote for better politics. It is an act of faith and trust.
At the last general election, I was a parliamentary candidate and leader of the Women’s Equality Party and was barraged with online abuse, threats of violence and face-to-face vitriol, yet still I can’t imagine the pain of Grenfell survivors hearing Jacob Rees-Mogg suggest that it would have been “common sense” to ignore fire brigade advice and flee. Or the pain of Labour’s official Jewish affiliate announcing it will not support the party’s general election campaign because of Jeremy Corbyn’s “failure of leadership” over anti-Semitism. Or the distrust and hurt of people of colour who – among daily insults and rising anti-migrant hate speech post-referendum – heard Angela Smith, a current Liberal Democrat candidate, describe them as having a “funny tinge”. Nonetheless, you will find people standing for election with the right motives and honest hearts. Find them, support them, and build new rules of engagement with them.
And if you’re thinking that voting is pointless because of the number of boorish, nationalistic men running UK politics, look around you. The world may be enduring an explosion of populist politics – from President Trump in the United States to the so-called ‘Trump of the Tropics’, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (who described having a daughter as a “weakness”) and to far-right former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini whose coalition just swept to power in traditionally left-wing Umbria.
But pockets of resistance where opposition parties have united show that an alternative is possible. Just last month Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban – who offered tax breaks to women who stayed home and had babies – saw his first political defeat for 10 years when his party lost control of Budapest. Also in October, Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party – which has targeted women’s rights groups through raids and denial of funding – lost control of the senate. Voting can make change happen.
If you don’t vote, you don’t get a say in otherwise unfair decisions. And women are being hit by some very unfair decisions. We have to pay taxes so we should have a say in who sets them.
Official data shows that more than 9,000 of the richest people in the UK – and the richest are disproportionately men – paid an average tax rate of 14.8%, lower than the basic rate income tax of 20% payable on a £12,501 salary. Yet women – who are more likely than men to live in poverty as a result of the pay gap, disproportionately shouldering unpaid care work and experiencing pension poverty and depending on welfare as a result – paid 86% of the austerity bill through government changes to taxes and benefits between 2010 and 2017.
Vote for change
We have to obey the law so we should have a say in who sets the rules and how well they work. Right now, the UK stands accused of effectively decriminalising rape. Government figures show only 1.4% of reported attacks are prosecuted in England and Wales, leading to almost half of rape victims giving up and dropping out of increasingly invasive investigations.
Two years on from the #MeToo movement, Young Women’s Trust (the charity that supports young women aged 18-30 and of which I am chief executive) found that one in four young women fear they’ll be fired for reporting sexual harassment. It is still not mandatory for employers to protect their workers from this.
So, in the place where decisions about your life are made, you need to be represented by someone whose experiences are like yours. Your vote can get more women into parliament (where men currently outnumber women by two to one) to the benefit of everyone in your community.
US political scientists Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt recently found that women politicians are more effective than male colleagues because they serve on committees for issues that are of the most interest to their constituents and are more likely to co-sponsor legislation that helps their voters. When political science professor Cindy Simon Rosenthal surveyed female legislators, they said they’d run for office in order to create social change. Male elected officials said it was just something that they had always wanted to do.
If all that still doesn’t stir you, consider the actions women took (and what they endured) 101 years ago to win the right to vote – from imprisonment and hunger strike, to force-feeding, police brutality, having their children taken away and being disowned by their husbands, parents and relatives. And now also consider the arguments put forward by men 101 years ago as to why women shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
According to Frederick Banbury, MP for City of London between 1906 and 1924: “Women are likely to be affected by gusts and waves of sentiment. Those are not the people to be entrusted with the immense power this bill gives them.”
Interestingly Arthur Beck, MP for Saffron Waldon from 1910 to 1922, thought women were too clever to vote and would ruin everything: “The idealism of the feminine mind and its deadly logic, which we have all experienced in private life, are qualities superior to those of men, but in governing a great country such qualities are not valuable, but destructive.” On 12 December, remember Arthur Beck. Because right now politics isn’t working. Your vote can bring down a broken system and help us all start again.
Sophie Walker is chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust and former leader of the Women’s Equality Party.
My initiative Eighteen x 18 (eighteenx18.com) is really important to me. I want to engage our generation to get active and vote. I want to uplift and encourage people to take action on the things that impact us. It has never been more important.
Photography: Getty Images
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