Universal suffrage & engaging in mainstream politics in the 21st Century


Some thoughts following social media activity commemorating Emily Davison & the fight for votes for women.

A number of people have been tweeting to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Davison, who died after walking in front of King George V’s horse at Epsom in 1913 – which I have only just found out was part of a wider campaign targeting all-male sporting events. There are still a small number of people alive today who can remember what life was like when women did not have the same voting rights as men. It was only the passing of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 that levelled that playing field. But not others. You only have to look at the sports pages in newspapers to see that coverage of mens’ sports still dominates.

OK, so we’ve got the vote. Job done?

Absolutely not.

I remember going to visit the offices of Stonewall back in 2007 while on a civil service training course. It was to introduce us to charities and pressure groups. The other organisation – which most other people went along to, was Liberty. I chose Stonewall because I wanted to find out how they managed to achieve what they did over such a short space of time, and what were their then next steps following achievement of their legislative goals. It’s in part through this context that this blogpost is being written in.

The barriers that Stonewall had to face were significant. If you remember during the late 1980s, institutionalised homophobia was on the rise – culminating in the passing of the Local Government Act 1988 – which outlawed the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools. (The result of which amongst other things was that teachers simply refused to talk to children about issues of sexuality for fear of breaking the law). Stonewall was founded in response to that piece of legislation. You had homosexuality outlawed in the military – I still remember regular newspaper reports from the early 1990s naming those military personnel that were kicked out of the military because of their sexuality. So to get  from that situation to where we are today in a couple of decades is quite something. Yet the votes in the House of Lords on equal marriage show that not everyone in the Establishment is comfortable with this progressive shift. I was saddened to see a former civil servant and ex Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler voting in favour of Lord Dear’s motion to throw out the Marriage (Same Sex) Couples Bill at Second Reading. Ditto former military chiefs Lord Dannatt, Lord Guthrie and Lord Inge.

‘Having achieved the legislative change, we have to achieve the cultural change – which is the harder bit’

Changing laws is one thing, changing mindsets is another. But changing mindsets is possible. Remember William Hague in 2000 on Section 28? Who’d have thought just over a decade later he would be voting for equal marriage to be passed into law.

One of the things that strikes me is that, 85 years since voting ages were equalised for men and women, the cultural battles are still having to be fought. Politics is one of those battle grounds…

Puffles outside Kings College with feminist activists from Cambridge University Students Union
Puffles outside Kings College with feminist activists from Cambridge University Students Union

…as Puffles demonstrated at a recent Cambridge University Students Union Women’s Campaign action. (The rest of the pictures of everyone else are on their Facebook page here.)

It’s this political battlefield that I want to explore in this blogpost, because it stems from a number of tweets from women MPs inviting people to register to vote via the About My Vote webpage. Understandable in encouraging people to register given what Emily Davison was fighting for, paying the ultimate price. Yet it was Ayça Çubukçu of the London School of Economics on Newsnight (3 June 2013) who got me thinking about what democracy actually is – i.e. it’s about far more than people trundling off to the polling station once every few years to cast their votes.

How do you get to the stage where people say “OK, I’m happy to register to vote and will go out and use my vote too!”???

Because the About My Vote website doesn’t really do it for me.

To get people in a mindset where they are prepared to go out and vote – and more importantly cast an informed vote – requires a huge amount of collective effort. Especially with the latter.

I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers. I don’t. All I have is a few observations to encourage people to think about stuff. And a dragon fairy that tweets.

Thinking outside the box that we’re put in

At a micro-grassroots level, this is where it all starts. The day-to-day stuff, or what some politicians refer to as “the real isshooze”. Now, what is day-to-day for one person won’t necessarily be a day-to-day issue for someone else. For example I don’t have to deal with sexual harassment on the street from men on a day-to-day basis, something that too many people – especially women – have to. Hence the Everyday Sexism project. If politics isn’t addressing social problems that are happening on a wide scale, what is the point of politics? I had no idea of the scale of abuse that women get until Everyday Sexism launched. The mind-numbing and soul-destroying impact of reading post-after-post-after-post-after-post really hit home. It also hit home about why diversity of backgrounds in politics and across the professions matters. If you do not have anyone who has ‘lived’ the problems, you increase the risk of your organisation being blind to them. (A problem of the professionalisation of politics?)

Does the system, structure, process and/or individuals/group behaviours enable or block new entrants from joining in and making positive contributions?

That goes across the piece – not just in politics. What are the things that are putting off not just women, but people from lots of different backgrounds and lots of different talents from engaging in politics? It could be something as simple as the seating arrangements in a council chamber. In Cambridge’s Guildhall and Cambridgeshire’s Shire Hall, most of the councillors sit with their backs to the public gallery – addressing the chairperson rather than ‘the people’ – not that huge numbers of us are there regularly, but you get my point.

It could be the nature of the debate – in the House of Commons it can get very testosterone-fuelled. Prime Minister’s Questions may make for great panto, but does it make the best type of forum for trying to resolve problems? This was something I looked at in Can we do better than confrontational parliamentary politics? which refers to a number of interesting articles from some good female bloggers.

At a grassroots/hyperlocal level, what are the things that stop people from getting involved? In some cases, it might be that people simply don’t have the time – spending every hour trying to make ends meet. In others, it might be a case of turning up and feeling that the people there just … are not the sort of people you can engage with. Making a transition from getting involved to standing for election then getting elected isn’t an easy or straight-forward one. The likes of the LGA have their Be a councillor campaign, along with this intriguing ‘talent spotters guide‘. For those of you who are passionate about politics but don’t like party politics, what do you think of that guide? Are they looking for the right skills sets?

Democracy is dead without engagement – and that means listening too

As I touched on in my previous blogpost about Ed Balls, social media has made previous broadcast models of politics obsolete. Big poster campaigns are defaced, spoofed, turned around and lampooned within minutes of them being released – often trending on social media more highly than the original. Lines to take are quickly shredded by a hostile and increasingly savvy public. People know when politicians are trying their hardest not to answer awkward questions – rather than either admitting something straight off or saying “Actually, I don’t know the answer to that.”

Putting a cross in a box is a very blunt instrument of seeking the consent of the people

I looked at this in one of my earliest blogposts. How many Conservative and Labour voters voted for the party in spite of, not because of the leaders of their parties? How many people voted because of their trust in a local candidate? How many people voted because they had read the manifestos and went for the one that they liked? How many voted for someone because they had the best chance of keeping out someone else who you really did not like?

We draw far too many conclusions from the crosses, that’s for sure. The 2010 general election spoke volumes for me when someone was quoted as saying:

“The people have spoken. We’ve just got to work out what it is that they have said!”

By all means vote – lots of people across the world are still fighting for that right. But remember that your vote is not your only voice. The challenge for parties and institutions is to improve their structures to allow more people to have their voice, and to listen and learn from what they are saying – even if it means you don’t agree with it – in which case have the debate.

Food for thought?


One thought on “Universal suffrage & engaging in mainstream politics in the 21st Century

  1. Thanks for this, a lot of good points and I decided to take your challenge on the LGA booklet. I am not persuaded that any political party has sufficient wisdom or truth for me to join it over and against some of the others. My experience of the LGA was limited to attending some meetings held by the Independent group when I was preparing for the PCC elections (I came third, closely behind Labour). At the first meeting it was clear that the expectation of at least one of the Independent Cllrs who was there to advise us, was that Independence was largely the domain of those who have fallen out with the party that first got them into politics. Not a terribly inspiring perspective. The booklet as your question implies says nothing about standing as an Independent. Thank goodness the LGA use their own money, and not public money to design these guides! LOL Clearly Independents do need a different set of skills and attitudes to those who are part of a large machine.

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