The battle for women’s vote in the UK

As the general elections approach, the battle for women’s votes between the parties has begun. Yesterday, the leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg launched his campaign by seeking women’s support.

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Despite their low opinion polls ratings, the Lib Dem believe women’s vote will be crucial for success in their party’s must-win constituencies. They say young women especially like the party’s policy on shared parental leave, while headline plans to prioritise mental health, raise tax thresholds and cut the deficit have been shown to be popular among women generally.

The battle for women’s vote began at the beginning of the year, when a new study commissioned by Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman revealed that the gender turnout gap is widening, with women voting less than men in general elections. The study shows that 9.1 million women did not vote in 2010, confirming the trend that has seen the number falling since 1992. Following the announcement of the study’s findings labour launched a “Missing Millions” campaign aimed at encouraging those 9.1 million women to vote and, obviously, to vote Labour.

Yet, Labour’s strategy to win women’s support has not gone too well so far. In February, Labourites were strongly criticized when Herman toured more than 70 seats on the country in a bright pink bus. The tour was part of Herman’s “woman-to-woman” initiative and it aimed at appealing to women voters by talking to them about issues that matter to them. The party said it wanted to “have a conversation about the kitchen table and around the kitchen table” rather than having an “economy that just reaches the boardroom table”. Herman wanted to show that politics is not a “man-only activity” but the responses were fierce: the bus was soon renamed the “Barbie bus” and the party was accused of trying to patronize women (for a hilarious account of the facts see what comedian John Oliver’s thinks of it. Spoiler alert: ponies are involved). Labour is now to launch its first separate “women’s manifesto” in April.

While many women are not voting, after the general elections parliament could see its biggest ever cohort of female MPs, with the Guardian claiming that “Even if Ed Miliband’s party does not win the election outright, it will break its record for female representation and stretch its gender equality lead over the Tories in the Commons.” Predictions are that Labour is likely to have 114 women MPs after the election, up from 86 now, while the Tories will probably increase their number by 11 to just 59.

On International Women’s day, UK Feminista has launched a “Vote Feminist” campaign aiming at encouraging women to vote so that they can be engaged in the process of holding politicians accountable for issues affecting them. Two of the key initiatives are making it easier to contact local candidates and to register online to vote. The campaigners say it is time for women’s inequality to stop being a side issue.

Efforts by parties to increase women’s representation are welcomed, but politicians will have to work hard to show that gender inequality issues are truly on the agenda and that it is not only a matter of winning votes.

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