Watching the recent series of political debates, there has been one thing that’s stood out—or rather, three. They are Leanne Wood, Natalie Bennett and Nicola Sturgeon, three women who have well and truly broken up the monopoly of the political boys club, something the Green Party played on in their ‘Change the Tune’ video campaign a few weeks ago. In fact, 26% of candidates standing for election this year are women, which may not sound like a lot, but it’s the biggest percentage there has ever been. Of course, no matter how refreshing the change is, their gender should not overshadow the parties they represent or the values they stand for. With this is mind, we’re going to take the debates out of it, and examine some of the policies outlined in each of the main party's manifestos, to see who really best represents women in the upcoming election.
Love them or hate them, the Tories have not been doing the greatest job at representing or protecting women these past five years. Over the course of the last government, they have systematically been destroying the network of Domestic Violence Refuges across the country; in an article published by The Guardian in August 2014, it was claimed this was because these centers do not offer support for male victims. Whilst no feminist should deny the importance of providing these services to men as well, women unfortunately experience the vast majority of “repeated and severe forms of violence, including sexual violence”—the drastic reduction in support services for our most vulnerable women is a crime we just can’t accept. On a wider scale, The Green Party manifesto claims that the hard fought progress achieved in advancing women’s equality has “been undermined and reversed” since 2010, and that women have paid for almost three quarters of the savings made by the coalition government (Labour claim that 85% of the cuts hit women) resulting in a less fair society with a far greater pay gap.
So, what does the 2015 Conservative manifesto offer women?
- They will “ensure that women have access to mental health support during and after pregnancy, while strengthening the health visiting program for new mothers” (p. 39)
- They will “work with local authorities, the NHS and Police and Crime Commissioners to ensure a secure future for specialist FGM and forced marriage units, refuges and rape crisis centers.” (p. 59)
- An offer to give "families where all parents are working an entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare for their three and four year-olds". (p. 27)
- A requirement for “companies with more than 250 employees to publish the difference between the average pay of their male and female employees.” (p. 19)
The Tories have been accused of having a “problem with women” in terms of a lack of equality in the party top spots, and efforts to fix this have been viewed as simply opportunistic. Furthermore, the childcare promise is very much last minute which raises questions of sincerity, and it may not be fully funded. Whilst the Tories seem to be saying the right things, it’s hard to ignore the evidence of their last term in office. Perhaps this is a case of too little, too late.
More women didn’t vote at the 2010 election than men, so we may hold the key this time around. It is said that Ed Miliband is on a mission to target the women who have “turned their backs on politics” –with this in mind, he’s given us our very own manifesto! Whether you think the move patronizing, as The Independent’s Jane Merrick does, there are still some very welcoming promises to be found in the Women’s Manifesto (WM), as well as in the main one—although the Conservative’s accuse some of them of being unfunded.
What have Labour promised?
- To “give parents a legal guarantee of access to childcare from 8am to 6pm, through their local primary school” and “extend free childcare from 15 to 25 hours for working parents of three and four year olds” (p. 10, WM)
To “double paid paternity leave to four weeks, and increase the level of paternity pay to over £260 a week.” (p.10, WM)
- To “Set a goal for fifty per cent of ministerial appointments to public boards to be women” (p. 15, WM)
Pledged to fund and recruit 3000 more midwives, “paid for by a Mansion Tax” (p.10)
To make the immigration and asylum system more humane, “ending detention for pregnant women and those who have been the victims of sexual abuse or trafficking”. (p. 50)
Whilst childcare is by no means of interest to women alone, the job of raising a family often falls on the shoulders of women; Labour’s commitment to changing the paternity laws must surely help ensure more equality in the workplace and the home. Historically, Labour have supported the progress of Women’s Rights far more than the Conservatives, and when last in government they claim to have closed the gender pay gap “by almost a third”, introduced paternity leave and opened thousands of Sure Start Centers. All pretty good stuff.
The Liberal Democrats
The Lib Dems have obviously had a lot of flack over the last five years. In fairness its kind of hard to figure out what exactly they’ve brought to the table, despite research indicating that up to 75% of their manifesto was in fact implemented by the coalition. If women have been hit hardest during austerity, however, does this mean the Lib Dems are just as to blame? Nevertheless, after conducting private constituency polls, the party believes they stand a good chance of participating in another coalition—all thanks to women and young people defecting from the Tories.
What are they offering us this year?
A focus on paternity leave, implementing “an additional ‘use it or lose it’ month to encourage fathers to take time off with young children.” (p. 47)
A promise to “ensure swift implementation of the new rules requiring companies with more than 250 employees to publish details of the different pay levels of men and women in their organisation.” (p. 47)
To "protect funding for tackling violence against women and girls and maintain the post of International Champion for preventing this violence.” (p. 121)
To extend the provision of 15 hours free childcare first to all two year olds, and then to working parents of children aged between nine months and two years. (p. 43)
The promises on paternity leave are fairly similar to Labour's and offer a step in the right direction. In general, the Lib Dems have pledged to "set an ambitious goal to see a million more women in work by 2020 thanks to more jobs, better childcare, and better back-to-work support" (p. 107). It does seem that their hearts are in the right place, but then again, students will tell you that Nick Clegg doesn't have the best track record when it comes to keeping promises...
UKIP is not very popular with women and they know it, although they don’t quite seem to understand why. With more ‘loose-cannonball’ candidates than any other party, Nigel Farage is forever having to distance himself from a barrage of derogatory statements, including ones pertaining to women—examples often include negative comments about the worth of women in the workplace, particularly in high-ranking positions. But lets try to forget that for the moment, and take a look at their policies.
UKIP have pledged to:
End the tampon tax—but only if we leave the EU, mind. (p. 7)
"Introduce a statutory duty for all primary schools to offer before and after school care from 8am to 6pm during term time, with the option to extend this to all day provision throughout the school holidays." (p. 26)
- "Introduce a mandatory reporting requirement for suspected cases of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) for front-line professionals such as teachers, social services, GPs, nurses and police. This will be supported by the inclusion of FGM awareness into safeguarding training for teachers, school staff and governors". (p. 61)
Whilst these look good, policies directly referencing women are few and far between. In their ‘Believing in Britain’s Women’ section, they actually have to resort to promoting the abolition of the TV license as a women’s issue—simply because 69% of people fined for non-payment are female. We also shouldn’t forget that in 2006, Nigel Farage and seven other UKIP MEPS’s were among only 14 to vote against an EU bill to combat violence against women, and there is a lack of information on their approach to combating domestic violence in the manifesto. Although the pledge to cut the tampon tax is admirable, its highly likely it was a cheap attempt to woo more women voters in the face of their un-female-friendly image, as well as promoting their views on the EU.
The Green Party
Whilst other parties focus mostly on implementing changes at a government level, the Green’s unsurprisingly take a more holistic approach, with a commitment to tackling attitudes towards women in society. As with their approach to many other issues, they are about getting to the route of the cause of inequality, rather than simply addressing the symptoms—arguably this is more in touch with the sentiment of many feminist issues today.
If elected, The Green’s would:
“Require 40% of all members of public company and public sector boards to be women” (p. 27)
“Listen to girls and young women about relationships education and about sexism in the media and make personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) a compulsory part of the school curriculum”. (p. 27)
“Follow Scotland’s lead and make it illegal to stop nursing mothers feeding their babies in a public place”. (p. 27)
“Ensure consistent long-term funding for a national network of Rape Crisis Centres, spending up to £100 million on the network over the course of the Parliament.” (p. 27)
“Implement a UK-wide strategy to tackle violence against women, including domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse, female genital mutilation and trafficking.” (p. 25)
The Green’s also have policies that allow the equal sharing of maternity and paternity leave, banning Lad’s Mags from supermarkets, and on addressing the unfair restrictions placed on women in Northern Ireland seeking abortions. All in all, The Green’s seem to have the most modern approach to helping women, whether they are likely to win many seats or not.
Nicola Sturgeon has a pretty good record when it comes to fair representation of women. As their manifesto points out, “the Scottish Cabinet is one of only three cabinets in the developed world to have an equal number of men and women,” something Sturgeon achieved in her first week as First Minister. Simply having women in positions of power does not necessarily translate into great policies though, nor does it guarantee female votes—The Guardian pointed this out when ridiculing Farage’s futile attempts to make his party more female friendly.
If elected, The SNP will:
- "push for 50:50 representation on public and private boards". (p. 10)
"support the abolition of VAT on sanitary products." (p. 6)
"support an increase in free childcare to 30 hours per week by 2020." (p. 8)
"vigorously oppose plans for further cuts in Child Benefit and Tax Credits." (p. 8)
"bring forward an Equal Pay (Scotland) Bill to finally deliver equal pay law that works for women in Scotland." (p. 23)
Whilst the manifesto talks a great deal about reforms to ensure equality, there is a lack of information regarding women in their social lives—such as combating sexism, or details on their approach towards ending violence towards women and the provision of women’s shelters—which can be found in other party manifestos, such as The Green’s or the Liberal Democrats.
Much of Plaid Cymru’s manifesto is devoted to promoting the interests of Welsh citizens, but it is interesting to see how women have been affected by some of their achievements in Westminster—their manifesto claims that they “successfully fought for new laws to protect women from stalking and domestic violence, in the Protection of Freedom Act in 2012 and this year’s Serious Crime Act.”
This election, Plaid Cymru promise to:
"aim to provide additional support for young women to enter the job market at an appropriate level through our Welsh JobCentre Plus proposals, especially helping young or single mothers to access work and reach their potential." (p. 58)
"provide an extra year of early-years education which will allow parents to choose to work and provide financially accessible child care in order to enable women to work." (p. 58)
"insist that further cuts include equality impact assessments to prevent disproportionate disadvantage falling upon any particular groups." (p. 59)
"ensure that all substantially government funded bodies or agencies include at least 40% membership of both men and women on their management board." (p. 59)
"remove VAT from women’s sanitary protection products, making the argument for this in Westminster and in Europe." (p. 59)
The Tampon Tax is a tricky one, as Nigel Farage has said that no party can offer that if we are still in the EU, as they set the rules for what is exempt or not—whilst Plaid Cymru probably recognise that, as they are promising to lobby in Europe, I’d be nervous about taking the promise to remove the tax as a guarantee. In a similar manner to the other minor parties, the party aim to help women through tackling and reversing much of the austerity cuts that, as discussed, unfairly impact upon the lives of women.
What’s the verdict?
Since achieving the women’s vote was so hard fought for, many women feel the responsibility deeply. A friend of mine recently said she may vote for The Conservatives, but only because she doesn’t want to vote Labour. When asked why she wouldn’t consider voting for a smaller party, her answer was “because women died to get the vote, so I’m not going to waste mine”. The thing is, the women who came before us, that fought and died for our right to vote, did so because they weren’t prepared to accept things the way they were—using their sacrifice to excuse participating in a two party system regardless of whether you truly believe in what they stand for is a shoddy way to honour them. The only way to show how seriously you take your right to express your values and opinion, is to vote with your heart—so go out and have your say!