Stop ignoring us: what women really, really want

Politicians are scrabbling after female votes while offering a solidly male world view. Louise Jury reports
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The Independent Online
None of the three main political parties reflects the priorities and perspectives of women, according to a report to be published tomorrow. Yet with 1.5 million more women voters than men, women hold the potential to decide the outcome of the election, the authors claim.

What Women Want on Politics took the views of nearly 10,000 women and compared them with the stated commitments of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

It found that not only are "women's issues" marginalised but the general concerns of most women do not tally with the policies on offer.

The Liberal Democrats lead the way in speaking the language of equality and Labour, too, makes efforts. The Conservatives fare badly by frequently refusing to admit that women's lives might be different from men's.

Yet Sue Tibballs, who is director of the Women's Communication Centre and edited the research, said none of the parties puts women's concerns at the heart of their plans.

"They do acknowledge women's issues, but they don't do much about it," she said. "Things like addressing the question of childcare is so overdue, yet there are no commitments.

"Women do not want a battle of the sexes, but they do want their share of power and an opportunity to play an equal part in deciding future social and political priorities. What Women Want on Politics suggests that including women would lead to a radical shift in political priorities and political culture."

It was bizarre, she added, that the parties were all carrying out market research to understand voters, yet the evidenceshowed they were not succeeding. "None of them is willing to admit that women's lives are different and what is needed is radical change."

The report identifies "women's issues," such as domestic violence, breast cancer research and removing VAT on sanitary protection, which are connected either to women's biology or areas of life overwhelmingly dominated by women.

It says these are marginalised in mainstream campaign documents, which "raises the question of how strongly committed the parties are to acting on them".

But even within the mainstream policy areas, women's priorities are often different from the politicians'. The report found many women are willing to see higher taxes, for example, to fund education, health, pensions and environmental protection, despite Labour and Tory opposition to raising taxes.

On education, while Conservatives emphasise choice and diversity, very few of the women who responded to the survey used the phrase "more choice".

They want quality education for all and would like gender and parenting issues included in the national curriculum, as a way to increase sexual equality.

In health, many are concerned about the National Health Service and want better healthcare for women. Yet the Tories make only two references to women's health in their campaign guide, and Labour highlights them in its strategy for women but not in its draft manifesto. The Liberal Democrats have a range of policies in a policy paper but not in their election briefing.

On employment, the issue is not so much being in or out of work, but equal pay, childcare, low wages, flexible hours and maternity rights.

While the family has become a subject of great political posturing, women have a "back to basics" idea of their own - widening the responsibility. They want a "more balanced approach to family life" with not only their partners but employers and the community sharing the burden. "They want employers and the government to take action. They are angry that childcare in the UK is considered a private rather than a social concern."

The report concludes: "At the moment, we have a situation of political double-think. All the parties propose strategies for women and propose machinery to represent women... Yet on central platforms, women disappear and so do their issues."

The failure to recognise the difference between issues that specifically affect women and women's perspectives on all issues is at the root of the parties' difficulty in addressing women's concerns, it says.

The findings come as women are becoming increasingly prominent in alternative political campaigns, such as the anti-roads protester known as Animal and Ann Pearston of the Dunblane Snowdrop anti-gun campaign.

The research, carried out by Charlotte Adcock, a former journalist now writing her PhD on how women are represented in the news, follows previous findings by MORI for the Fawcett Society which showed a clear gender gap in voting patterns.

An NOP survey last month reported that seven out of 10 women do not feel the political parties pay enough attention to the things that matter to them.

The Women's Communication Centre, a voluntary organisation that promotes female perspectives in public debate, is sending copies of the 80-page briefing to every MP and candidates in marginal seats. Sue Tibballs said they would use the research to influence the parties' approach to women voters.

The report expands on Values and Visions, published by the centre last summer, in which women listed what they wanted on everything from politics and the economy to good sex.

n 'What Women Want on Politics', available from the Women's Communication Centre, 3 Albion Place, London W6 OLT, pounds 7.50.

Election 1997: pages 21-24

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