The closest-run election in years is practically upon us, and what with Gordon, Dave and Nick all over our TV screens and billboards, and dominating newspapers from biscuit- to bigotgate, this has been, yet again, a very male affair.
To redress the balance the Fawcett Society has been running the What About Women campaign, and I went along to the flagship debate on Tuesday (27th), with Conservative shadow minister for women Theresa May, deputy leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman and Liberal Democrat Hornsey & Wood Green candidate Lynne Featherstone running the gauntlet of a packed auditorium at the LSE.
The atmosphere was expectant. Harman seemed the most forceful, frequently over-running her allotted times, while May stood her ground, at times seeming almost folded up with dislike of her Labour competitor. Both were bold, passionate and knowledgeable. Unfortunately, Featherstone, while equally heartfelt, often came across as rather feeble and underprepared, at one point cringemakingly bringing up her husband leaving her for “a younger more attractive woman”.
All three women were given a brief slot to put their case across. Featherstone’s main point was that: “Inequality boils down to money in essence. Our key manifesto – no one will pay income tax on first £10k”.
May argued that the “Conservative Party has changed”, and among many pledges, announced that a Tory win would mean 55 women MPs.
Harman’s pledges included a “fair deal at work” and support for a UN agency for women.
The rest of the evening was dedicated to answering questions from the floor, most of which had been submitted earlier and were addressed to all three candidates. All very civilised.
There were a few sticky points however. When one woman asked what issues the candidates would raise if they met the Pope on his forthcoming visit, all three said they would welcome him, but had no specific questions to ask. Harman said “you don’t need me to suggest questions” while Featherstone said the reports of systemic child abuse would be “the elephant in the room”. And while May said she would raise that issue, I couldn’t help but think about the effects of the Church’s opinions on, say, contraception on millions of women, not least those affected by Aids.
Hmm. Another tricky question was on ridding the nation of the anachronism that is Page 3, with only Featherstone saying she would “love ” to take it on.
However all three agreed on tackling another relic—inequal pay, which currently stands at women earning 16% less than men when in full-time employment, and 35% less when part time. Harman said that parity was “mandatory”, proposing forcing companies with over 250 employees to step in line, with smaller companies to follow suit at a later date. She also championed trade union equality reps. May wants to force a mandatory pay audit on companies found to be misbehaving, while Featherstone said it should be mandatory for companies to reveal their pay.
What women want?
It seemed to me that Harman won the crowd over from the beginning, regularly attracting bouts of applause. In any case it was refreshing to see female politicians discussing policies rather than kissing babies or planting trees (or harassed for their dress sense), although the event attracted barely a smidge of attention compared to poor old Gordon’s “gaffe” yesterday. The occasional shouts of “we can do it sisters” felt a bit fist-bitingly earnest at first . . . It’s something you’d never hear in the televised bear pit that is the House of Commons. And more’s the pity.
The candidates on violence against women . . .
May suggested relationship education in schools, plus funding for 15 rape crisis centres, and more guidance for local authorities.
Harman wants to keep DNA records on file because sexual offending is a “repeat crime”; she also challenged the Lib Dems’ proposal of banning prison sentences shorter than six months, as these tend to be used against male perpetrators of such crimes.
Featherstone shot back that sentences should be “longer” for domestic violence, and that the Libs are against increased prison sizes where crime tends to be cyclical, with older prisoners teaching the young; she also pledged rape crisis centres and stated: “so-called honour killing is murder”.
On tax breaks for married couples/civil partnerships . . .
As for the Tories’ proposed tax breaks for married couples and civil partners, May’s defence was brisk: “It’s a recognition of marriage and civil partnership, not about telling people how to live their lives.” She pointed out that one in four unmarried relationships break up before the child is five years old. This drops to one in 12 among married couples.
Harman said that “public money should not go to tax relief for marital status” while Featherstone rather ickily suggested that it was “the wrong message to people who may not be that lucky.”