Universal Emancipation

Ben Wright

Image © Ben Wright

Even today some forms of slavery remain in Britain. I am not concerned about the requirement to work for a living which would probably become even more important in a free society. Universal employment, although frequently difficult to implement even in modern society, is correctly a fundamental human right. I am concerned with forced servitude. There is some concern, for example, that Coalition policy may erode gender equality, aptly (although worryingly) expressed in the Fawcett Society’s ‘A Life Raft for Women’s Equality’.

Although women’s suffrage was an issue since at least the 18th century, even in Britain progress was relatively slow. When John Stuart Mill, elected to Parliament in 1865, advocated female suffrage he was shot down by the Conservative Party. Admittedly in those days the Party had not joined forces with Liberal Unionists. The movement towards universal suffrage was championed constitutionally by suffragists and more militantly by suffragettes. Women’s suffrage was granted in 1918, as male suffrage was extended following the Great War, and more equally in 1928 in the Representation of the People Act. Nevertheless, universal suffrage does not guarantee that males and females have an equal say in society.

In 2010 the Coalition Government, which arguably still lacks a mandate from British citizens, promised to make advances in gender equality. Given the Liberal Democrat Party’s record of appointing female Members of Parliament, currently 7/57 representatives, as Nick Clegg established in his comment that his Party is ‘too male and too pale’ this should have been an issue on which the Conservative and Unionist Party majority could appear more liberal. Yet as cuts continue to bite early indicators show that women are being disproportionately affected.

It is easy to appreciate that women have much to contribute to politics. Yet 90 years after women were enfranchised only one third of local councillors and 22% of Parliamentarians are women, the latter a portion which has only increased by 4% since 1997. Britain lags behind over 40 other countries in this respect. The Centre for Women and Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society, the Fawcett Society, the Hansard Society and Unlock Democracy started a new campaign, ‘Counting Women In’. The campaign aims to address gender equality in politics by moving towards 50:50 male:female representation.

Will I be forgiven for suggesting that we should attempt to understand why more women are not drawn towards politics, as if this is not largely a community-wide problem? Notwithstanding Nick Clegg’s comment that women are ‘too sensible’ to enjoy Prime Minister’s Questions, given the lack of childcare provision women may be put off by the long hours worked particularly if they remain more involved in childcare than their partners. The Conservative Party has established that women are almost half as likely as men to be engaged in entrepreneurial business activities. Yet, even in local politics, there are indications that many women are put off by sexist attitudes expressed by their male counterparts.

Finally, without intending to sound old-fashioned, can I establish that 50:50 may be a rather simplistic way of indicating equality when we want to avoid gender inequality in appointing the most appropriate candidates. Nevertheless it is a welcome move in a progressive direction. We should focus on opening up democracy so that every person in each community can become involved.

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