Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The future of politics lies with women

The leaders are trying to charm us with vacuous words and meaningless policies
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The Independent Online

Women, we are told by clever psephologists, will put the next man in Downing street. It is futile to point out the irony, a tad sad, old feminist too. Forgive me if I do, just the same. All the leaders of the main political parties are male. We are the king makers and breakers but it still has to be a King.

Still, we have the power!!! More in this election than any which have gone before, because the result is so unpredictable with voters moving this way and that, sometimes it seems to me on a whim, just to scare the political classes. Yes I do rememberMrs Thatcher for whom equality was a Mephistophelean idea. During her brutish era the nation was vaccinated with the selfish gene, industrial workers were brought down, their spirits demolished and, if you were black or Asian, you feared the police more than the National Front. Not nice, not nice at all.

But the most misogynist reader could not reasonably argue that Thatcher has done it for women, forever and ever.

A Government survey in March found Britons, male and female, have had it with male dominance in our democratic institutions. Sixty-three percent thought there were too few women in the Commons, and 82 per cent thought women MPs more likely to prioritise issues like domestic violence and fairness. Beware though of political romanticism when campaigning for change.

Once voted in, women will not turn the Houses into temples of integrity and virtue. This weekend came shocking revelations about key Labour ex-cabinet ministers. Entrapped by an undercover reporter, Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt were allegedly offering companies their services to influence policies and laws. For a feminist, it is unbearable to witness a woman – also an avowed feminist – behaving like this.

In 1997 a large cohort of Labour MPs arrived in parliament carrying handbags and briefcases. Things could only get better, we sang. Some things did. The partial feminisation of parliament has helped get through some progressive ideas like Sure Start to support children with poor life chances. Female MPs like the gutsy Diane Abbott tirelessly fight for human rights, equality and freedom of information.

But there have been disappointments too. New Labour women allowed Blair to indulge the rich; they supported his disastrous war in Iraq and so on. Jeannette Rankin, the first ever woman elected to the US Congress in 1916 – a Republican – said: "As a woman I cannot go to war and I refuse to send anyone else."

Among our female MPs few took that moral stand. Clare Short did, but too late. And then again women have been chancing it with their expenses like the worst of men. These many failures do not weaken the argument for change. For half the population not to have fair representation means we have no real democracy. Not yet.

Our Mother of Parliaments adores boys. Only 20 per cent of MPs are female, far below the numbers reached in Rwanda, Argentina, Sweden and Belgium. Turkey gave women the right to vote ( 1926) before they had it in GB (1928). It is time to burn the Wonderbras, throw off all caution and take to the barricades.

In Central Hall in Westminster, I chaired a lively debate organised by Eaves Housing and Stylist magazine with Solicitor General Vera Baird, Tory Theresa May, the Lib Dems' Lynne Featherstone and leader of the Greens, Caroline Lucas. More than 900 women turned up.

When I asked how many of them were going to vote most hands went up. Only a handful had listened to Gordon Brown on Woman's Hour or watched the Cameron family with Trevor McDonald. This audience cared not only about childcare and work-life balance but also equality, wars, international human rights, domestic violence and most passionately of all, the pornification of our society.

They hate lads' mags, commercialised sex, the pressures on young girls to be sexual things. OBJECT, a campaigning organisation, has gathered massive support. Voting women are also worried about jobs, university fees, climate change, racism, caring for the elderly, financial vulnerability, the threatened welfare state and social services. None of this is soft cuddly stuff. These women aren't on mumsy websites moaning about breastfeeding or the cost of nannies. They don't care what biscuits are chewed by Gordon Brown (a question he fluffed on Mumsnet, imagine that!!!) or where Sam Cam bought her spotted frock. Most of all, they won't, as the Fawcett Society says, throw their vote to the most charming leader.

Yet the leaders are trying to charm us with vacuous words and policies that don't mean a bean really. Gordon will give us the legal right to home births. Dave will give us the right to open our own schools. And that's before watching Clegg's attempts to woo females.

Never mind the flannel and flummery. How will the parties stop us ever repeating the Iraq disaster, make the world a safer place? How will they tackle the businesses responsible for the degradation of girls and women? Will financial institutions be properly regulated now? Given the coming cuts, how will abused women and children be protected?

Equal societies are happier societies. How will the parties reduce the savage gap between those who have too much and those sunk in a hopeless ditch of poverty? Can we prepare British children for the fast-changing world of the future? Countless British women want more humane treatment for asylum seekers. The BNP is gaining more power but top women in that party are not comfortable with its messages. Lorraine Lee, for example, from Barnsley says repatriation is "dreadful – you can't just do that to people".

Anna, 28, ex-BNP now undecided and unemployed, said to me at the Eaves meeting: "I don't care about breastfeeding. How Brown and Cameron wash up or not. Tell me about high taxes for the fat cats, safe houses for beaten women and something I can do with my life. Hating immigrants ain't it."

Tell her then guys. Here's your chance. And don't patronise her or the rest of us.