Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Fawcett Society election debate - what about women?

The Fawcett Society held its pre-election debate last night in London, as part of its 'What about Women' campaign ahead of this year's May 6 vote.

The auditorium at the London School of Economics, whose Gender Studies Institute jointly hosted the debate, was packed to the gills with women activists, students and the general public, and many of us from the Women's Resource Centre!

With the prospect of a hung parliament looming, women’s votes count more than ever, and those attending was keen to hear which party would deliver the goods so often promised.

Right from the start the women on the panel, chaired by Fawcett’s chief executive Ceri Goddard, were keen to get their message across that their party was the one for women.

Harriet Harman from the Labour party, Theresa May from the Conservatives and Lynne Featherstone from the Liberal Democrats all gave three minute briefings on their parties' agendas for women, and then the real debate began. (Incidentally, Fawcett is planning to put up a podcast later which we will link to on our @whywomen Twitter account).

By far the most contentious issue of the evening was the Conservatives plans for marriage tax breaks. May defended the proposals as a “recognition of commitment”, but both Harman and Featherstone dismissed the plans as “Victorian values” and “offensive” respectively.

On the issue of improving representation of women in politics, Theresa May said the Conservatives had worked to improve candidate selection processes, while Featherstone said the era of “gladiatorial” style politics had to end. Harman, meanwhile, said that all-women shortlists by Labour had changed the face of parliament.

One of the few questions where there appeared to be cross party consensus was the issue of violence against women. All stressed the importance of working in a non-partisan manner and the importance of education at a young age to prevent attitudes becoming entrenched.

May said women-only services and spaces remained crucial, while Harman said the issue of using DNA to improve conviction rates was important. Featherstone also reiterated the Liberal Democrat pledge to fund more rape crisis centres.

Questions on the Pope's proposed visit to the UK, concerns over the sexualisation of women, support for women's health, equal pay and other issues were also raised throughout the 90-minute session.

Perhaps most importantly, after the event, as attendees spilled out of the auditorium chatting excitedly, many noted now immensely gratifying it was to have such questions top of the agenda and to have key questions on jobs and the economy filtered through a women’s lens instead of being tacked on as afterthoughts.

The high level of interest on Twitter alone (and thanks to all of those who followed our tweets on the night!) showed that many women out there were extremely keen to know what was being set out for women by the parties.

Far too often in the current election campaign, despite all the talk of the "Mumsnet" election, women’s issues have been shunted aside. So it was gratifying to see a robust debate on core electoral issues both by us, for us, and about us.

Developing and nurturing that inspiration is so important not just for us but for future generations of women who want to enter public life. Let’s hope we in the women’s sector will see more of such events to keep the pressure on those who represent us. A big thanks to Fawcett for kickstarting that process.