Register to vote: Helen Pankhurst explains why this general election is such a crucial one for women

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In a month that marks the 101st anniversary of women being allowed to stand for parliament in the UK, Helen Pankhurst is calling on all of us to do our bit and vote in the general election on 12 December.

There’s no denying that 2019 has been a pretty bad year for the UK’s political scene. Thanks to the continued presence of Brexit, the rise of far-right rhetoric at home and across the world and the looming threat of the climate crisis, there have been few more crucial moments for the future of our democratic system, especially when you consider the fact that female MPs are facing unprecedented levels of abuse – and leaving politics because of it.

All that considered, we should be more motivated than ever to make our voices heard in the general election on the 12 December – but that doesn’t seem to be the case. On the 19 November, 9.4 million eligible voters across the UK had not yet registered to vote in the upcoming general election. With less than one day left to register to vote (registration closes at 23:59 tonight, the 26 November), it’s more important than ever to stress the importance of having our say.

Because this month, as we celebrate the 101st anniversary since women first gained the right to stand in parliament, we are less than a month away from an election which could see the largest ever number of female MPs elected to Parliament, depending on what happens on 12 December.

“A lot of us – activists, academics, party members – will be watching the results of this election,” explains Sarah Childs, a professor of politics and gender at Birkbeck, University of London. “The fact that the last government failed to enact Section 106 (the publication of candidate diversity data) means that we cannot hold the parties to account for whom they select – and whether they are selected in winnable seats – until it is too late.”

The legislation that Childs is referring to – Section 106 – would require parties to reveal their diversity data from their candidate selection process, to ensure they are selecting a diverse range of candidates from those who would like to run. And when the most common first names of candidates in 2019’s general election are still David, John, James, Paul and Chris (despite the fact that record numbers of women are standing this year), it feels like diversity is more needed than ever. 

“Given the retoxification of British politics, it is critical that we see an increase in women at this GE,” Childs continues. “We know what works – quotas – and it’s time that all parties delivered on what is easily said, ‘we want more women’, and much harder to deliver.”

Speaking exclusively to Stylist on this important anniversary – and in the incredibly crucial lead-up to this general election – Helen Pankhurst (great granddaughter of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst) is urging all women to get out and vote on the 12 December. Here’s what she had to say. 

How alarming is it that we’re seeing female politicians pushed out of politics?

“I think it’s really troubling. It’s so hard for women to come into the system – there’s so many blockages, and reasons why they are less likely to even think of being candidates, they’re less likely to be selected as candidates, and they’re less likely to come through the system. So to then see so many move out of politics – when they’re relatively quite young – is really troubling. 

“And the other troubling thing is the difference between the reasons women give as to why they’re not continuing, and the reasons men give – for the women, it’s very much the way that they’re treated. It seems to me we still have a major problem if so many women are not going forward, because we’re going to continue to have this gap in terms of the number of men and women in parliament.”

Helen Pankhurst calls number of female MPs leaving politics as “really troubling”.
General Election 2019: Helen Pankhurst calls number of female MPs leaving politics as “really troubling”.

What kind of message does that send to the electorate?

“Fundamentally, I think the message is that we still live in a world in which women are told to go back home and not to try and get involved in the political space. And really, in the 21st century, is that the message we want to be sending? 

There’s so many studies which show us that if you have women in equal numbers on boards and in the wider economic sphere, there’s economic and political benefits to it. There’s direct benefits of having both men and women involved in politics, such as this sense that men tend to focus on physical infrastructure and women tend to focus on social infrastructure when it comes to policy making. And so if you don’t have enough women in politics, you continue to bias all policy decisions in ways that are not the way of the world and the way we want to move forward.

How hopeful are you that the largest ever number of female MPs will be elected on 12 December?

“It’s very difficult to predict – there are many women standing in areas where traditionally it would be unlikely for them to win, but you just don’t know, because what’s likely and what’s unlikely is slightly topsy turvy at the moment. I really hope that more women will be in parliament because I can’t bear the idea that we go backwards rather than forwards. We’re already low on the global ranking of female representation, (the UK currently sits at 39th in the world for percentage of women in parliament) so the idea that we go even lower really fills my heart with dismay. And I think if there’s one thing we can achieve in the middle of this mess – that we’ve got more women in parliament – then that would be a great positive. 

“And then as soon as the elections are over, the issue is deciding what we need to do to make sure that we don’t have this concern about the number of women in parliament in the future. There’s one thing all parties can do in particular, which is follow section 106 of the equality act, which demands that all parties share transparency information on their candidate list. It would require parties to shine a light on the constituencies where there’s never been a woman or a person of colour stand, and that data would be a really great way ensuring that we get better representation down the line.”

Many people are feeling (perhaps justifiably) angry at the state of UK politics at the moment. How should they channel that anger?

“For me, it’s really simple – if you don’t vote, your interests are not taken into account. If you vote, people know what you think. So either you completely abdicate responsibility and say ‘I’m disillusioned I don’t care’, in which case you’re perpetuating a poor democracy. And to those people who say they’re fed up with the system – all the more reason to vote and to at least have a little bit of power! We have so little power as citizens – the system is flawed with the first past the post system, it’s flawed because so many people feel that their vote doesn’t count because they live in constituencies where they know year after year, election after election that their vote doesn’t make a difference. Nevertheless, they are part of a national story and those votes tell us something, and it’s critical that they use them.

“We know that we live in a split society right now. We know that things are really complicated. And as politicians make their decisions in the future, they can argue much better if they know what people have voted rather than if there’s this complete blank, because then people can go ‘oh well they would have voted for us’. In a fragmented and difficult time it’s particularly important that we hear the voice of as many people as possible.”

What do you think about tactical voting as an approach?

“I think it’s critical because of the system that we have. Because we have a first past the post system where you only get one stab at it and where your vote is so narrow, I think it’s critical that we do tactical voting.”

What message do you have for someone who is planning not to vote?

“They should vote because it’s the one moment in their life as a citizen when they become part of the jigsaw puzzle of the whole of the nation and the whole democratic system. If you don’t vote we have these gaps – and gaps are dangerous. They’re trouble. So put your piece of the jigsaw puzzle in and be part of the nation however frustrated you are, because it tells us something, and together we’ll have a better understanding of where we’re at. Just saying I can’t be bothered is irresponsible – however small that little voice you have, it is a voice. It’s one moment and it’s irresponsible not to use it.”

General Election 2019: 9.4 million people have yet to register to vote in the UK.
General Election 2019: 9.4 million people have yet to register to vote in the UK.

A lot of us feel very overwhelmed by politics right now – how can we engage in a mentally healthy way?

“I would say the minimum is to go and vote – just set yourself that as the minimum. If you’re so irritated with the whole system, do a spoilt ballot. Just spoil the ballot. 

“If you’re undecided, say to yourself – ‘what am I interested in?’ Are you interested primarily in left or right, Brexit or not Brexit, green versus conventional politics, or gender issues for example. Then just go for the best that you can. It’s not an exact science, but just abdicating responsibility doesn’t help, because it’s not like the problem will go away, but going ‘I might not be perfect but I’ll do my best’ is a much more positive way of addressing the problem than closing your eyes.”

What steps can we take to encourage the people around us to vote?

“I think make a fun thing of it – do it together. I’ve always gone with my family when there’s been any voting. Take your children with you so they get used to it – even the ones that can’t vote. Discuss it as a family so that it becomes a moment. It’s one moment that we all have these strings attached to our country. 

“It’s such a critical moment, so make it a moment. Honour it – remember those people who fought for us to have this in the past, and think about those countries where they don’t have the vote. We need to do it with fun and purpose, because it’s important.”

What’s one thing Stylist readers should make sure to do after they read this article?

“Number one, the deadline to register to vote is the 26 November, so register. Number two, on the day, vote. But don’t just do it on your own, go with friends, go with colleagues – keep talking about it and make sure you do it. Having the intentions and not doing is also no good. And then number three: it’s one moment, it’s a really important moment, so be part of the conversation, and who knows what could happen down the line. Don’t think ‘that’s it’ after 12 December – once you vote it’s not done. There’s so much that you can do to get involved in politics in other ways, especially if you feel your vote hasn’t counted.”

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To register to vote, visit www.gov.uk/register-to-vote before 26 November. The registration process usually takes around five minutes – you’ll need to register if you’ve changed address, name or nationality since you last registered or if you haven’t renewed your overseas registration. 

Images: Getty

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