Cast your mind back, if you can, to a few weeks ago. This election was going to be about women. Women's votes were to decide its results. The gender gap recognised by the Clinton campaign was to be addressed. All those female floating voters, the twitchy switchers, were to be wooed ceaselessly in terms of policies and presentation. So what has happened?
A very simple but effective piece of research called Watching Women, published yesterday by The Fawcett Society, shows exactly what has happened. It is basically a head count of the women who have appeared during the election news coverage. The week monitored was 4-10 April, and the programmes studied were the daily election output of all four terrestrial channels. A record was made of the number of appearances of those contributing to, presenting, commenting on or reporting the election news, whether they were Michael Buerk, or a vox-popped woman in the street. The aim was to see how comprehensive this coverage was in reflecting the population with regard to gender.
During the period monitored women made up only 16 per cent of appearances in the election news coverage, and only 20 per cent of election news items were covered by female journalists. Female politicians hardly made it on to the screen at all, with eight appearances compared with 127 appearances by male politicians. Seventeen male academics were consulted during that week and not one female one. The Fawcett Society points out that, contrary to popular opinion, women watch just as much news as men.
In fact they watch the main television news programmes in slightly higher numbers. As Shelagh Diplock, director of the society, says, "Women's votes will decide the result of the next election but women are almost invisible in the election news coverage. With a week to go before polling day, broadcasters would need to use wall-to-wall women to get anywhere near restoring the balance."
Now, one might argue that even wall-to-wall women might not impress female voters, that it is a nonsense to suggest that women can only be governed by women, that it does not matter that much of what we are watching, listening to and reading is dominated by men. Yet the overwhelming feeling this produces is a mixture of tiredness and boredom and - if you can be bothered - anger. If men cannot make the effort now, during this supposedly crucial time, when can they?
If the spin doctors on all sides feel that their female politicians are not an asset, if all the experts just happen to be male, if serious interviews can be left only to the Paxman/ Dimbleby brotherhood, if when "ordinary women" are interviewed they are captioned as "mothers", "single parents" or "widows", what hope is there?
The big Es - Europe, the economy, employment, are, we are told by men, what this election is about. But employment seems to refer only to male employment, and the economy and Europe are presumed too complicated for those of us sadly born without penises to comprehend. What we end up with is patronising little bundles of issues that are aimed at women, but assume women's only interest is the family. Yet the issues that relate the domestic sphere to the public world of work - parental leave, child care, the rights of part-time workers, the minimum wage, child benefit, pensions - have been completely overshadowed.
I do not expect much from the Tories, but I was led to expect more from Labour. What a shower of arrogance has rained upon us. If spin doctors took any notice of their own focus groups, these men would not hide away the dishevelled and disarming women politicians such as Clare Short and Mo Mowlam in favour of the acceptable clones, such as Harman and Jowell. They would not have turned Cherie into a Stepford wife whom one expects to malfunction at any minute. "You must give me that recipe, you must give me that recipe ..." The theory that Cherie is in fact an alien - "Just look at the eyes" - was put to me fairly persuasively the other day by a man who appeared otherwise fairly sane.
Perhaps, though, it is all our fault. Perhaps we just don't try hard enough. Perhaps we are just not hard enough for the ballsy world of press conferences and high jinks on the back of the bus. Shirley Williams says that at press conferences the female journalists are not the ones asking the questions. The cliche is that women just do not function well in these adversarial situations, but that is not the whole story. The point-scoring, the hinted-at, behind-the-scenes intimacy, the social lubricants that make the whole machinery run, were designed by men for men. It is not that women are somehow superior. We can be as awful, as arrogant, as obtuse, as any man. All we are after is what men take for granted: that our gender is not constantly noted - and that can be achieved only by a more equal balance.
We have, I fear, been too reasonable for too long. We have tried to seduce men into thinking we can enter into their system without disrupting it, that we can slip in quietly through the back door. The result, as the Fawcett research so clearly shows, is that nothing much changes; that politics lags behind the real world, where women are achieving.
Of course, the great unmentionable, the thing we keep to ourselves, is the idea that we want power. Oh no, we don't want power, we say, batting our eyelashes; just equality, a fairer system. Fakers that we are, we lull men into thinking they can carry on as normal, that there will just be a bit more skirt around. The truth is that more women would mean fewer men. In terms of this election it would have meant that the boys would not have been interviewed by the other boys quite so often; it would have meant that a whole raft of issues from gay rights (remember them?) to nursery education to the feminisation of poverty would have been taken more seriously. It would have meant fewer women being observed through two-way mirrors by researchers, and more women observing. It would have meant that the gap between the views of middle-aged men and the views of vast swaths of the population who do not need to be told that family and unemployment structures have changed radically would begin to be addressed. Who knows, it might even have meant that more of us felt that the election had something to do with us.
A week to go, and we are still expected to be grateful for crumbs from the high table. But we are not; we are hungry for change, a change that means more than a change of government. Why should we support a system that makes us invisible? If those who would govern us can't even see us, why on earth should we see any of their points of view? It's not the switchers that should make the politicians so nervous, it's the switched off.Reuse content