General Election 2015: Female audacity has made the male leaders – all of them – look cowardly

The NHS is talked about incessantly by the men, but women voters don’t seem to trust any of them

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Sunday 19 April 2015 17:41 BST
Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon embrace at the end of the debate
Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon embrace at the end of the debate (PA)

The world did not end last Thursday. The BBC challengers’ debate had more women than men on the podium and God did not send down punishing earthquakes. In truth, for millions of us, it felt like a new dawn. OK, the line-up was all-white and did not reflect the colours of our nation. That unending battle carries on. But in this election, masculine politicking has been kneecapped, one hopes for ever.

Female audacity and imagination have made the male leaders – all of them – look cowardly and deeply unimaginative. Nicola Sturgeon is the most popular speaker, Leanne Wood has made socialism respectable and Natalie Bennett, a poor communicator, still comes across as tenacious and true. (I think I have a homoerotic crush on Sturgeon.) The three of them hugged at the end of the debate, an affirmation, a ritual circle marking the end of old power games and obsolete traditions. This triumvirate means business. For the first time ever, Nigel Farage shuffled his papers as this tableau played out and looked like the last remaining dinosaur on earth. When they recover, the blokes will fight back, try to retake territory by any means. But for now they lick their wounds and smile falsely. Warning: male trolls and other misogynists should avoid reading this column. It may cause apoplexy.

More good news: 53 per cent of Labour candidates are women, one in four Tories, too. The Lib Dems have 26 per cent and Ukip has 12 per cent. This is encouraging. But we do start from a low base. Margaret Thatcher’s multiple victories and dominatrix style, in my view, held back the progress we should have made. She did not support female parity and gave reactionaries a perfect alibi – a female PM was elected, therefore there is no sexism in our democratic system. Rubbish, of course, but the story sounded good, and left the Establishment intact. Even more disgraceful is the way women were and are treated when they pluck up courage, stand for election and get into Parliament. Too many men in the Commons behave like coarse schoolboys or bullies. I have seen it myself, the leers and sniggers in some of the bars when young female colleagues walk in. A critical mass would make a difference, but that will take a few more elections.

In February, a list of women in national parliaments was published. Looking at it, Britain does not look great. Rwanda has 63.8 per cent women in parliament, Bolivia 53.1 per cent, Cuba 48.6 per cent, South Africa 41.5 per cent. We managed 22.8 per cent in the last election and the US was worse still at 19.4 per cent. Even Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan were higher up the league table. Still, we can be proud that we are better than Eritrea and Albania. Admittedly, in many of the societies that score highly, the lives of women are abysmal. We are better off here. But remember: domestic violence, poverty, joblessness and hopelessness disproportionately afflict more females in Britain and, anyway, proper representation in parliament is a fundamental right in a democracy worthy of its name. It is not only about numbers. As Harriet Harman said recently: “Too often, women feel politics is just a group of men shouting at each other, who don’t understand their lives.”

But we have the Queen, don’t we? She, who we are supposed to pray will rule over us for ever, the true symbol of this nation? Yes, she wears couture and crowns, but is, like Thatcher, determinedly protective of the status quo. Or worse. Last week a photograph was published of her with those to whom she has personally awarded the Order of Merit. Of the 23 chosen ones, only one, Baroness Boothroyd, was female. No other was deemed worthy. Doesn’t that make you mad? We should matter more than this.

Two years ago, I was invited by Harman to join a non-partisan group of older women to find out what policies would help women, particularly those over fifty. Nationwide conversations were held and we discovered new struggles and dilemmas. Fiftysomething women in work are often low paid or on zero-hours contracts. They are also unpaid carers of their own ageing parents, because daughters are expected to take up this role. These days, many give up jobs to look after grandchildren because mums are made to go out to work and can’t afford childcare. One in three parents relies on grandparent care. The women end up exhausted and poorer than before. Labour has, thanks to the indefatigable Harman, now pledged to give grandparents childcare breaks (though, unpaid, which is not good).

Other policies need to be promoted, and are, by female politicians. Lone mothers are finding it impossible in our times. With savage cuts in disability benefits, again, the care falls on mothers. Two have written to me recently saying that they want to kill themselves because they can’t bear the way their kids are being punished for being disabled. All three female leaders boldly spoke out against such austerity measures.

Sex discrimination in jobs and promotion has returned with a vengeance. None of the male leaders has addressed this issue or the growing problem of male violence against women. This is a problem of distorted masculinity, but they would rather not talk about it. So much more important to discuss the economy. The NHS is talked about incessantly by the men, but women voters don’t seem to trust any of them.

My mum always said I thought like a man. But I feel like a woman and never before have I felt so energised. Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett have proved politicians are not all the same. Sisters, please turn out to vote. It really is worth it. You really are worth it.

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