Any woman who has ever tried to buy car insurance has noticed it. Search the internet and every website is pink, with references to shopping or diamonds, never aimed at women but “the girls” or “ladies”. And it’s not just insurance. Marketers around the globe, tasked with selling to women, lazily coat products in a saccharine candy floss glow.
So I wasn’t entirely surprised that last month the Labour Party ditched Socialist red for a bright pink colour scheme when it decided the best way to appeal to women voters was to make Harriet Harman tour the country in a transit van. The Pink Bus, as it was quickly nicknamed, was widely derided by media and the general public. Labour was accused of being patronising and out of touch with its “Woman to Woman” campaign promising to listen to women at school gates, in workplaces and shopping centres.
But in the scramble to score cheap points against Harman, the important point was lost: for the first time in its history the Labour Party was directly targeting women in the lead up to an election. And it was the only political party doing so.
I’m not going to congratulate Labour for noticing that women’s voices matter 100 years after women – well, property-owning ones over 30 – were given the right to vote. The party already leads the way in terms of representation within its ranks: 33% of Labour MPs are female, while its Shadow Cabinet is 44% women. So they should be able to tap into what makes women tick, right? Not quite.
You see, Labour’s own stats say that more than 9 million women failed to vote in the last general election. These votes can change our political landscape. They’ve obviously recognised this, but where was the outreach to these disenfranchised women between 2010 and now? It seems deeply cynical to do this weeks before the general election. What happens afterward?
Of course Labour aren’t the only ones who recognise that they have to attract the women’s vote with targeted policy. Conservative Women promises to give women “real choice over their own lives”. The Lib Dems go further, pledging to “eliminate all inequality based upon gender”.
(The Greens’ approach is sensible, making links between the party and women’s organisations, such as Fawcett Society and Women’s Aid. I also checked the UKIP website so you don’t have to: no specific women’s policies but we do know from recent comments that Farage thinks workplace inequality is a “fact of life”. Cheers.)
Across the board, the same themes come up: policies centred on work (flexible working, childcare, equal pay), health (maternity rights, abortion), education and domestic violence.
It’s a bit of a problem, isn’t it, branding a policy for women only? The above is surely a list of social issues that affect everyone and should form part of the mainstream political agenda. For example, solving the problem of the cost of childcare could get more women back into work or education, which has an impact on all of us.
You could also argue that the Pink Bus serves to further separate and marginalise women by reducing their participation in the political process around an approved list of acceptable issues. Aren’t women interested in crime or the economy or foreign policy? But that approach ignores the fact of specific challenges faced by women that are informed by gender.
And we must demand these challenges are debated by our MPs. There are currently 148 female MPs, out of a total 650 members of parliament. Eight women from BAME backgrounds were elected five years ago, including the first Black women to represent the Tories and the first Muslim woman to gain a seat.
Yet when you look at women’s policy, what’s missing from all parties is a thorough analysis of gender-specific issues intersected by race, save a few cursory lines about immigration and asylum. While political representation by BAME women is increasing, we are still not seeing their influence trickle down to the policy makers. It’s all well and good demanding equal pay, but the gap is narrowing for full-time workers as men’s salaries are brought in line with women’s. What about looking at why women are more likely to be employed on zero hours contracts and the impact this can have on family and finances? Or why not examine and challenge the ways BAME women are specifically affected by workplace discrimination?
Unfortunately, it does feel a bit like the Pink Bus and its party political equivalents represent a last-minute box ticking exercise. The solution isn’t just about getting a few more crosses in boxes come 7th May any more than having women – any women – in Parliament come 8th May. What is instead required from all political parties is a permanent commitment to engaging with disenfranchised female voices at grassroots level all the way to the top.
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Anouchka Burton is a writer, mentor and Black Londoner. She is also Associate Director of a public relations agency in The City of London. A media commentator, she is regularly found writing essays on Twitter @AnouchkaBurton for anyone who will listen.
‘The Other Political Series’ curated by journalist Kiri Kankhwende is your go to alternative to the colourless mainstream commentary ahead of the General Election in May 2015. #OtherPolitics highlights issues and perspectives that are being overlooked in the election debate and presents different angles on some well-trodden issues.
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