spiked-geist: Day 22

Stop treating women like dummies; Creating communities; Foot-and-mouth; School's out?

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Topics Politics

Stop treating women like dummies

Launching the Liberal Democrats’ Manifesto for Women today, Baroness Shirley Williams, deputy leader in the House of Lords, called for ‘fairer representation at Westminster’. She didn’t need to add – and more women at press conferences, on TV and radio shows, and featured in photocalls. The media had already done that for her.

As politicians and the media spiral into self-obsession, desperately seeking something to say about the election that doesn’t involve too much politics, the scandal of the invisible political women has come to the fore. The media runs detailed analyses to show how male-dominated the election coverage has been and organises Ladies’ Days at press conferences (1), while politicians make questionable proposals about how to boost the number of female MPs. All this is assumed to be good for women, and good for politics.

But how patronising is it to be taken to speak at a press conference just because you wear lipstick? How sexist is it – in a real sense – to demand more political women in the public eye, just because they are women, and regardless of what they have to say? Why is the relative invisibility of women in this campaign assumed to be proof of their exclusion from political life? After all, in an election which everybody recognises as being dull as dishwater, maybe women have decided that they have better things to do than clean up.

Within this debate is an assumption that a greater representation of women in politics is inherently good for democracy, as it gives women – and their issues – a fairer say. But women are voters, with exactly the same democratic rights as men; and the main parties already pay plenty of lip-service to so-called ‘women’s issues’. Meanwhile, the measures proposed to give political women more of a voice are anti-democratic to the core.

There are New Labour’s women-only shortlists, which the party is still committed to – despite the fact that they were ruled illegal after the 1997 election. What kind of a democracy is it in which party members have to select a candidate on the basis of her sex rather than her merits, and voters have to accept that decision?

Then there are the calls to have more prominent political women in the media. Assuming that political women are quite capable of making their voices heard if they have something to say and can shout loud enough (look at Ann Widdecombe), such a gesture can only mean that women are set up, Ffion-style, as the ventriloquists’ dummies for the genuine politicians.

Why is it that male politicians get the most airtime, and male political journalists get to ask the questions at press conferences? Because they have more to say for themselves. Yes, this is the consequence of past inequalities – today’s big hitters are from a generation in which women were effectively excluded from political life. But you can’t alter the past through present-day tokenism, pushing women just because they are women. In fact, the ‘leg-up’ approach to women in politics could make things even worse.

One of the most popular explanations for the absence of women in politics is that parliamentary politics is too confrontational, too ‘masculine’, to appeal to the fairer sex. How anybody could still argue this about Tony ‘I’m listening’ Blair’s government is a mystery – but they do. In the name of involving women, political life has been pushed away from the adversarial towards the consensual – fewer big debates, more consensus-forming committees, less talking, more listening.

Even leaving aside the questionable assumption that women really are more attracted to politics without the rows, it should be no surprise that, come election time, women schooled in this apparently feminised form of political life should disappear from view. At least John ‘Two Jabs’ Prescott can liven things up with a punch; at least Ann ‘Old School’ Widdecombe can make suitably outrageous remarks about locking up asylum seekers (and everybody else). The furthest New Labour’s women MPs can get to confrontation is in their private lives – as demonstrated by ex-Blair’s Babe Helen Brinton, castigated by the noise police after a domestic row with her partner.

If there is a problem with women in politics today, it is not the lack of women, but the absence of politics. That’s why people aren’t voting; that’s why TV news viewing figures have plummeted over election time (despite a conscious attempt by the TV channels to up-front more women). If politicians could only bring the life back into politics, they might just get the girls. JB

(1) See BBC News Online, Friday 25 May

Read on:

‘Men have made politics a combative sport’, by Sally Millard

Creating communities

Culture secretary Chris Smith announced on Monday a £150million ‘Community First Fund’, to give lottery money to deprived communities. But if you are thinking of making an application to fund your local drama group, think again. New Labour might talk about the importance of cultural projects for the community, but it doesn’t mean culture. It means social welfare.

In New Labour’s eyes, every social activity, from fine art to the Olympics, is seen as a way to make people feel better and to create new moments of social bonding. So the 50 new local lottery funds, from start to finish, are promoted in these terms. Making the application for funds apparently encourages individual initiative, and ‘capacity building’ training (for filling in application forms, etc) can improve the skills of the local people involved in the project.

At Monday’s press conference, where these proposals were announced, Labour’s local government minister Hilary Armstrong argued that these ‘small-scale, lottery-funded projects’ can supposedly be ‘the catalyst for turning around local neighbourhoods, bringing people together, improving their local environment, celebrating local talent, helping to build a stronger sense of community’. Gordon Brown went further to say that these projects represent a new relationship between citizens, communities and state, and they ’embody new Labour’s new vision of a strong civil society for twenty-first century Britain’.

What New Labour consistently fails to grasp is that, when everything from WI coffee mornings to local art exhibitions become steps on the road to its vision of a strong civil society, they lose their reason for existing in the first place. People do not organise a local football club to solve crime or to increase community bonding. For the club to work, people have to want to play football, and focus their attention on winning.

When will New Labour realise that communities cannot be engineered into existence by politicians? When will it realise that civil society is, by its very nature, supposed to be something that is not run by the government? JA

Foot-and-mouth

As we witness another small-scale outbreak of foot-and-mouth panic, read the Foot-and-mouth issue

School’s out?

Read Mick Hume in The Times (London):

‘In the holy war over school holidays, Labour gets Easter egg on its face’

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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