Ed Miliband being patronised by Harriet Harman's pink sign. Photo: Getty
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Beyond the pink bus: why we still need to talk about "women's issues"

The Labour women's campaign launch has been obscured by criticism of their pink bus. But ask yourself: would you rather be mildly patronised - or totally ignored?

The moment I saw the picture of the pink bus I knew Labour's women launch was doomed. I've been to enough vaguely feminist events to know that two questions inevitably crop up. First, why aren't any men involved with this? Second, isn't pointing out that women are disadvantaged in any way deeply patronising, because it paints them as helpless victims? To this, there has recently been added a third query: are there any women's issues at all, any more?

This challenge comes from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Libertarians assert that the pay gap exists because women "choose" to have children and damage their careers; and in any case shouldn't we be talking about parents' issues? Variations of "what about the men" ring through this argument: what about the men who look after children? What about male rape victims? What about male victims of domestic violence? What about male circumcision? From people who are in most other ways their polar opposites comes a similar challenge: not all women are biologically female, so isn't it exclusionary to mark childcare and vaginal rape and abortion out as women's issues?

My answer to both is the same. Yes, we often talk about "women" in ways which do not do justice to the variety and complexity of women's experiences. But to abandon the idea of "women's issues" entirely is to give up our ability to construct a coherent argument about the way that one section of society is silenced and discriminated against. If we refuse to acknowledge the existence of a system, we deprive ourselves of the way to make any kind of alliance to fight it. We are left like David Cameron, urging individual business leaders to pay their workers more while refusing to acknowledge the system that makes any rational economic actor exploit a disposable workforce with zero-hour contracts and attrition of their labour rights. 

Childcare should be a parenting issue - but it's not. More women than men stay home to look after children. More women than men face the inevitable setback in status and salary that this entails. Caring more generally follows the same pattern: 75 per cent of those who claim a carer's allowance are women. The vast majority of nurses are women. The vast majority of primary school teachers are women. In our culture, caring overwhelmingly means women's care. I would like this to change, but until it does, robbing us of the right to call it a "women's issue" is robbing us of the right to speak at all.

I also feel a touch of nausea about the way in which issues of "low salience" - things that it is impossible normally to get people to talk about - suddenly become vital. Male rape victims face just as much trauma as female ones, and they have to navigate a system which regards them as the exception (something women have had to do for decades in other areas). It is hugely disrespectful to their suffering to invoke it only to shut a feminist up. Similarly, if you've spent the last two years gaily ignoring the Let Toys Be Toys campaign don't have a Damascene conversion to the fact that pink for girls is patronising just because Harriet Harman annoys you.

So, back to the Labour women's launch. The first thing to note is that they had one at all - and not some grudging, shame-faced sop, either. Actual money has been spent on this, and it was symbolically held in Labour HQ at Brewers Green in Westminster. As Harman noted, "I've had to get to 64 before I can do this." My prospective colleague Stephen Bush notes that you could fit every female MP the Liberal Democrats have ever had into Labour's 16-seater Pink Bus. (They also missed the opportunity to have a women's campaign fronted by Lady Garden, which is a travesty.) You could fit all the Tories' female full Cabinet ministers into a family pedalo, or even a bobsled if one of them sprained an ankle and had to sit the excitement out.

That's unlikely to change in the next parliament. Labour's research shows that 24 per cent of the Conservative's candidates (both existing MPs and new entrants) are women. There are only 10 women standing in the 56 seats currently held by the Liberal Democrats. Eleven per cent of Ukip's candidates are women. For the Greens, it's 39 per cent and for the Scottish National Party (which also uses all-women shortlists) it's 37 per cent.

Much as it pains me to defend a party stupid enough to have a pink women's campaign bus, the only reason that female representation in parliament has reached its current dizzying heights - 22 per cent! - is because of Labour. And at least the party is trying to talk about the burden of care, equal pay, rape and domestic violence during the election campaign instead of repeating "long term economic plan" like their lives depend on it.

The pink bus was a terrible idea. But still, on balance, I'd rather be mildly patronised than totally ignored.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.