Breastfeeding in public, more women in the boardroom, increasing levels of free childcare – these are some of the topics you hear bandied about when it comes to parties pulling in or putting off female voters.
And yet this implies that these topics are the only things women are interested in – not the economy, housing, the NHS or immigration. No, these issues are reserved for other voters (ie. men). But ‘wimmin’ are a special case. They need a pink bus, special ‘wimmin’s policies’, and politicians who stand up for their right to breastfeed in public, in order to guarantee their vote.
In 2010, 9.1 million women chose not to vote. The British Election Study, carried out by the House of Commons Library, found the number of absent female voters has risen by 79 per cent since 1992. While it is true that turnout has declined across the board, the number of women voters fell by 18 per cent between 1992 and 2010.
Clearly the approach political parties have been taking over the past two decades isn’t persuading them back to the voting polls. So what can parties do to encourage more women to vote, and furthermore, to get them to vote in their favour?
Well, I can tell you that scrapping VAT on sanitary towels is not likely to do it. This is UKIP’s latest brainchild, among a tranche of ideas designed to appeal to women, as apparently the party recognises the “huge contribution women now make to UK society”. Well thank you Nige for recognising my contribution to society. Only now. That’s big of you.
Among its other ‘women-wooing’ ideas, UKIP says it will keep maternity and paternity leave (how generous), increase levels of free childcare and address the problem of female genital mutilation. Uninspiring and unoriginal to say the least. (Needless to say, it was so important to Farage to win over half of the UK’s population that he didn’t even bother to turn up to the launch event.)
But it’s not just UKIP that gets it wrong. Earlier this year, Harriet Harman said Labour intends to win over Britain’s absent female voters by bringing politics to “the school gate and the shopping centre”, thus single-handedly reducing women to mothers or those who shop. David Cameron is no angel either. In an interview with a women’s magazine earlier this year, he talked about his love of cooking and what a fun guy he is. Yuk.
These approaches are highly reductive and herein lies the problem; the political parties are totally missing the point. There is no such thing as ‘women’s issues’. They are just issues. They are important to and affect some (but not all) women, but they also affect men. Childcare, for example, affects anyone who is a parent, male or female.
True, there is the occasional issue, such as the ‘tampon tax’, that is not likely to be of interest to men, but these are in the minority. The majority of issues are relevant to both sexes. Whether male or female, we are all individuals who care about different combinations of issues. While some women might cheer on policies that promise more maternity leave, others don’t give two hoots about it. And the electorate inevitably sees through these somewhat patronising and tokenistic tactics.
By branding certain issues as belonging to women, the parties are showing just how out of touch they are, perpetuating out-dated and chauvinistic views. They are effectively saying that every woman should be concerned about these issues, regardless of whether they are gay or straight, Christian or Muslim, have children or do not, are single or married, are black, Asian, white or are employed or a full time mother. Additionally, this approach implies that these are not topics that men should care about, discuss or wrestle with, thus also doing a disservice to men.
Instead of telling us what we ‘as women’ should be concerned about, they should listen to what is important to us as individuals. In no particular order, here are some of the issues I am concerned about:
- Our ageing population;
- Child poverty;
- Welfare cuts;
- The use of conflict minerals in our mobiles and computers;
- Paternity leave being insufficient;
- Funding cuts to the arts;
- National debt;
- The rise in cyber crime; and
- Many many more.
None of these are especially relevant to my gender. So politicians take note; simply taking a list of female-friendly ideas and throwing them at us, saying: “Here you go, this ought to satisfy you lipstick-wearing lot”, is unsurprisingly not likely to be terribly effective.
I am not against pink buses or the ‘tampon tax’ or indeed people who base their vote on the prevalence or lack of these; just don’t expect it to swing my vote. I’ll be basing my choice on the issues that matter to me as an individual, not on those issues that are (largely incorrectly) assigned to my gender.