Last night I spoke as part of a panel in a question and answer session in Parliament, organised by Leadarise London. Leadarise is a network of young professional women, and the event gave those with an interest in a political career the opportunity to question women MPs from four political parties on their personal experiences.
It was also an opportunity for us to compare and contrast the records of the different parties when it comes to improving women’s participation and representation in the political process.
I believe there’s a direct link between the number of women in Parliament and the likelihood of solutions being brought forward to address the issues women face. Labour proved that in 1997, when 101 new Labour women MPs came to Parliament and helped establish a progressive record that doubled maternity pay, increased paid maternity leave from 18 weeks to nine months, opened more than 3,500 sure start centres, toughened the law on domestic violence and introduced free breast cancer screening for all women between the ages of 50 and 70 among many other changes.
But there’s still a long way to go – demonstrated by the fact that, 45 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, women still earn on average almost 10% less than men for full time work. It’s no wonder that women are so often turned off politics, especially with a Tory/Lib Dem cabinet that has as many men educated at Eton and Westminster as it has women.
We now know that 9.1 million women didn’t turn up to vote at the last general election in 2010. That’s 64% of women compared with 67% of men. And among 18-24 year olds, the gap is much bigger, with 50% of men voting compared to just 39% of women.
At the Q&A session I explained that Labour is determined to ensure that, at least within our own party, we reflect the population we serve. We have made a strong push to promote women candidates, with a woman as the Labour candidate in 53% of our target seats and 62% of seats where sitting Labour MPs are retiring. We believe therefore that we have a realistic chance of setting a new record after the election, with about 43% of our MPs being women.
Unfortunately, with more than 70% of Tory and Lib Dem candidates for the upcoming election being men, it’s clear that other parties aren’t pulling their weight when it comes to efforts to improve women’s representation.
The 9.1 million women who didn’t vote in 2010 need to know that their concerns are being understood and listened to in Westminster, and Labour’s women MPs and candidates are leading the way in making sure that they do.