Election 2001

They seek her here, they seek her there. At last, the election is over. But where, oh where were the women?

, 16 June 2001

I know, I know, you’re sick to the back teeth of the election.

Just be grateful you don’t live in the USA, alright? But whether you

voted or not, it’s worth taking a quick look back at the election

campaign and results and asking the question, so what now for women in


The result

Well, I don’t think any of use can say we’re truly surprised that

Labour were voted back in. But what about the number of women MPs?

As predicted, they fell, so now 17% of MPs are women

(before the election it was 18%). This is mainly due to the fact that

a low number of female candidates were selected by parties to fight

seats, and very few women were allocated to safe seats. The fact

that Tony Blair gave a record number of women appointments to his

Cabinet still doesn’t make up for that.

The Campaign

As Ffion and Cherie dutifully followed their husbands around the

country, smiling for the cameras but never saying anything,

journalists began to notice that female MPs were rarely seen

campaigning and when they were at press conferences they

invariably did not get a chance to speak. Women in general seemed to

have a low profile, second-division role (not counting the page 3

model Jordan, who got a lot of publicity standing as a candidate,

apparently fighting on the key election issue of free breast


Gordon Brown interrupted the female MP who’s

been asked the question. Whoops![pulloutbox]

Anyway, this issue, and the issue of the

low number of women MPs in general, was given a little publicity when

a female journalist from the New Statesman (Jackie) broached the

question in a press conference, only to have Gordon Brown

embarassingly interrupt the female MP the question was aimed at.

Whoops! Interestingly, Jackie and other female journalists had been

trying to ask the question for several days, until the male

journalists made a pact not to raise their own hands for questions so

Gordon Brown had to speak to her – the only hand raised in

the room. Hah!

The issue was covered in some newspapers, and in

a Newsnight report (presented by the American feminist writer

Naomi Wolf, of all people!). But then the issue seemed to be

forgotten. Even so, it did seem to embarrass the parties, who all

vowed to improve the situation. Well, we’ll see. When the leader of

the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, lent his support to female

candidates, journalists dubbed them ‘Charlie’s Angels’ – his version

of the ‘Blair Babes.’ I bet someone had been waiting for ages to use

that soundbite.

[pulloutbox]Endless, tiresome debate about Europe and the


It’s no wonder women – and men – were fed up and bored, when all we

seemed to get was endless, tiresome debate about Europe and the Pound.

Groan. It took a very angry woman, Sharon Storrer, to bring

health back to the agenda when in front of the national media she

haranged Tony Blair, not letting him get a word in edgeways.

The Independent reported comments made by Radio 4

presenter John Humphries about the author Professor Lisa Jardine,

who’d been called in to the Today programme to comment on

election issues. First of all, asking her a question, he addressed her

as ‘the token woman… I mean, the only woman on this panel…’ One

assumes it was meant to be a joke. Apparently, she asked him why the

interview was not being conducted by a woman. His reply? ‘Because it’s

a serious political discussion, of course.’ Hmmmm!

[pulloutbox]No Kirsty Wark either – shame!

Election night coverage

On election night itself, the BBC had a hugely expensive

production, with it’s main presenters being David Dimbleby, Andrew

Marr, Peter Snow, and Jeremy Paxman. There was Fiona Bruce, supposedly

to add ‘glamour’ (as some newspapers patronisingly reported), but she

was stuck in the most pointless and boring part of the set: the

‘studio set cafe’ interviewing cartoonists and various random

celebrities. The only other woman in the studio was Alison Park from

the Centre for Statistics, offering comment to Dimbleby. No Kirsty

Wark either, as she was working in Scotland. Shame, shame! What

about ITV, you ask? Who cares!

At the 1997 election the Fawcett

Society calculated that in the media you would have to listen to 19

male commentators before hearing one woman’s voice. It didn’t seem to

get much better this time – and it will be interesting to see the new

statistics when they are released.


The main issue of concern was the very low turnout. At around 60%, it

was the worst turnout since 1918. Considering that women only got the

vote in 1928, this means it was the worst tunout in a UK truly

democratic election, ever. Something is obviously going wrong,

somewhere, and the government urgently needs to address this

disinterest in politics, preferably by looking at the issue of voting

reform. Which brings me nicely on to…

What now?

So after the historic election of 120 female MPs in 1997, the

situation has not improved but has got worse. So what on earth can we

do? Well, one suggestion is a change in the law to allow positive

discrimination for women. This occured in 1997 and directly led to a

huge increase in female MPs being elected. However, it was soon after

declared illegal.

Undoubtedly, positive discrimination does


Undoubtedly, positive discrimination does work. But is it

right? It is still a controversial issue, and despite strong

support by feminist organisations such as Fawcett, it appears to be

unpopular with the general public. It doesn’t help that there only

ever appears to be two sides: you are either in support of women’s

rights and strongly in favour of positive discrimination, OR you are

an evil anti-feminist who thinks women should have no special help,

ranting about positive discrimination being ‘patronising’ to women.

That’s the impression the media gives when it interviews women on the

issue. But of course there are other options to increase the number of

female MPs, such as changing the voting system to proportional

representation, something which has been successful in other


On the next page is the text of a briefing

on women and voting reform from the Fawcett Society. It

suggests why PR would be successful and improve the democratic

process in general.

How do you think we should increase the number of women

MPs? Are you in favour of positive discrimination or a change

in the voting system? What did you think about

the election campaign? Please contact us with your

opinions: we would love to hear what you think.

Have Your say

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