What will this election mean for you?

June 7th, 2017

Please click here to view Noreena’s article in Stlye, The Sunday Times.

style

My name is Noreena and I have election ennui. It’s not just that this is the third time I’ve been called to vote in 25 months. Even for a cheerleader for democracy like me, this is somewhat excessive. There’s also the feeling — we’ve all seen the polls — that whoever I support, the outcome of this election is already a done deal; an inevitability that, come Friday, the Tories will have won their third election in a row; that whether I’m Team Theresa or not, my single vote doesn’t really matter.

Except it does.

I’m not going to harp on here about the importance of respecting the history of women’s suffrage, although I do believe that glorious respect is due. It is that the purpose of voting is not just to help propel your own team to victory (not that I’m dismissing the pleasure of being on the winning side), it is to make damn certain that whichever party claims the keys to Downing Street is acutely aware that vast numbers of people think differently to them, believe different things, have different priorities.

For democracy to function effectively, diverse voices must be heard. Yet according to the Fawcett Society, some 8m women may not vote at this election. Imagine how things could be shaken up if they did. If we allow men to continue to dominate at the ballot box and in the debating chamber — 71% of MPs in the last parliament were men — it’s only natural that what matters most to men will still be prioritised.

It’s a message I heard loud and clear growing up. My late mother was a renowned feminist activist and champion of women in politics, who stood for parliament herself. “Noreena,” she’d tell me, when I was eight or nine, after I’d reported witnessing a kid being bullied at school or come to her in tears after watching a story about famine in Africa, “speak up for what you believe in. If you don’t, who will?”

Now, to be clear, I don’t believe that certain issues inherently matter more to women, that health and education are de facto female issues, while the more muscular concerns of the economy, taxation and our relationship with the EU are intrinsically male. I happen to care a lot about these, and am still surprised when people assume that the economics professor on the credit card must be my husband. But everyone is different. And women are no more different than men. How much you earn, your age, whether you have children, aged parents, are married, your ethnicity — these will all affect what matters most to you and who you vote for.

Yet if we think about women in the aggregate — the average Jane, so to speak — the reality is that her life is very different to the life of the average Joe. Bluntly speaking, women are less likely to be promoted and more likely to be paid less, to bear the brunt of caring responsibilities, whether for children or elderly parents, and be the greater victims of domestic abuse. This means that if it’s not only your own back you want to watch, but also those of your “sisters”, what each party has to say on these issues really matters.

Most parties, of course, acknowledge that targeting the female vote can pay off. So combing through this batch of election manifestos, I wasn’t surprised to see overt courting of women.

The Women’s Equality Party unsurprisingly leads the pack here, given that its female-focused agenda is written on the tin. Flagship policies include universal free childcare, “fully equal” parental leave, big bucks for social care and more protection for women against discrimination at work. It was heartening to read through 31 pages of policies targeted at women, even if I don’t agree with everything it proposes and recognise its chances of cutting through this election are extremely slim (the combination of a snap election, limited resources and bare-bones infrastructure means it is fielding only seven candidates). But their prospectus did make me wonder how much more women could be valued in our society if all parties had the imagination to think this differently and comprehensively.

The offerings from the three mainstream parties were considerably more femme-lite — paragraphs rather than pages. All three promise to provide some additional free childcare. All three promise to encourage some more paternity leave. All three address, in some way or other, the crisis in care. All three promise some progress on the gender pay gap. But there are significant differences when it comes to the how much, when and how.

As for which other women’s issues make the leading triumvirate’s shopping list, the parties diverge. Among the pledges from the Lib Dems are free sanitary products for girls at school. The Lib Dems are also offering more mental-health funding for pregnant women and mothers, and quotas for numbers of women on company boards. Having sat on corporate boards, I think it’s amazing how far we have to go to achieve gender parity. Among the Tories’ pledges is a commitment to ensure the civil service is more gender-balanced; overseas, a promise to lead on education of girls globally and to fight against the modern slave trade. I was at Davos this year when Theresa May shared, in a private session, her commitment to ending modern slavery. This is clearly an issue close to her heart. Labour’s proposals run the gamut from pledges to deliver a cabinet that is at least 50% female — Justin Trudeau made a similar promise in Canada and delivered — to extra money for female pensioners. It also commits to ensure that workers have equal rights from day one, whether part- or full-time — considering a lot of women work part-time, this could disproportionately benefit them.

These are the obvious hard sells. But how about the political choices that less obviously affect women differently to men? Policies on areas such as Brexit, austerity and the economy? We don’t typically think of these as being gendered. But they are.

Take austerity — it’s a double whammy for women. It hurts them disproportionately because they make up the bulk of the public-sector workforce and, therefore, suffer most when this sector is slashed — 77% of NHS workers are female. Cuts to welfare and benefits freezes also hurt women most because they are poorer in the first place and more likely to be affected by reductions in child benefits: 90% of single parents are mothers. The Lib Dems and Labour have committed to reversing some of the Tories’ welfare reforms.

As for Brexit, it clearly has the potential to create significant female collateral damage. The EU has long been a champion of gender equality and has played a key role in advancing maternal employment rights and ensuring that women are paid equally for work of equal value. It has also been a considerable funder of female causes. Without its pressure and euros, there is a real danger that women’s rights could be significantly eroded. I’ve spoken to many women’s organisations who are worried on this front. And then there’s the fact that women suffer disproportionately in downturns. Most economists believe that in the long-term, Brexit will come at a cost. Which party will minimise this? I’ll leave it to you to make that call.

These are some of the big issues and a few of the ways they affect us. But as we decide who to vote for on June 8 as women, is there something else we should be considering? What about the gender of the candidates on the ballot paper? Has the time come for us to only consider the women on the ballot slip? Or only candidates from parties that are led by a woman? Should gender trump policy and politics? This might sound extreme, but there’s a vast body of research that highlights how much better group decisions are when the group is made up more evenly of men and women; how problems are better solved and more innovative solutions reached when women are at the table, too. More women MPs isn’t just good for women, it’s good for men, too. But while the argument for “picking the woman” is strong, it’s not strong enough. Take it to its logical conclusion and you’d be voting for Marine Le Pen.

If you are choosing between similar candidates, go for the woman for sure, but chromosomes should not override politics and values combined. Especially not now. These are radically uncertain times, of great international instability, environmental peril and technological change. The right leadership matters now more than ever.

So, use your vote wisely, make your voice heard. And when casting your vote, don’t only think about what matters to you: remember there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.