Bristol mayoral election: what about women?

Bristol mayoral election is just round the corner but 14 out of 15 candidates standing are men. Will the election change anything for women? Megan Stodel finds out at Women's Question Time

Megan Stodel, 12 November 2012

Earlier this year, there were 10 referendums around the country, asking people whether they would like a directly elected Mayor to represent them. Nine cities said no, but Bristol voted yes and on 15 November, an election will be held for this brand new position.

Bristol City Council isn't fantastic in terms of representation; in fact, it's below average in the (not very representative) country. In Bristol Fawcett's thorough report, "The Right Man For Bristol": Gender, Representation and the Mayor of Bristol, they note that "Bristol is lagging behind the national average in all sectors when it comes to equality of representation." Of the Bristol City Councillors, 76% are male and 96% are white - though be assured that this isn't what Bristol looks like. Women actually make up a small majority of the population at 50.3% and 13.5% of people are black or from a minority ethnic group.

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At the close of nominations, this trend was in no danger of being subverted. 15 candidates are standing; of them, 14 are men.

With all this in mind, I was particularly interested to attend a Women's Question Time for the candidates, organised by Bristol Women's Voice. This organisation of women's groups has also asked candidates relevant questions separately and posted responses on their website. However, I was interested to see the candidates in action. I'm not connected to any political party and have voted for independent candidates and people representing various parties in the past, so this was genuine opportunity to work out which candidates will represent my interests.

There were eight candidates present, though all were invited; perhaps the others consider issues that interest women too niche to matter. Still, that was quite enough to try to keep track of! The ones present (in the order they were initially randomly assigned to speak) were:

- Marvin Rees (Labour)
- Geoff Gollop (Conservative)
- Neil Maggs (Respect)
- Daniella Radice (Green)
- Jon Rogers (Liberal Democrat)
- George Ferguson (Bristol 1st)
- Tim Collins (Independent)
- Tom Baldwin (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition)

The evening started with a question from the chair: how would the candidates support women's rights in office? A straightforward question, I would have thought, but the lack of detail in many of the candidates' responses was revealing. Although I found Daniella Radice's suggestion that as the only female candidate, she is the only viable option to truly support women's rights somewhat simplistic, she was at least able to highlight areas that are of genuine concern to many women, such as affordable childcare, an improved caring system and continued funding for groups tackling violence against women and girls.

Why can't men support women's rights because women are people, rather than because they're personally close to some?

A number of other candidates focused on getting women into positions of power; Marvin Rees mentioned Labour's all-women shortlists in upcoming council elections, whereas Tim Collins promised that the first three appointments to his cabinet will be women, including one with a specific remit for women's issues. George Ferguson also talked of the importance of women in positions of power, though his rhetoric suggesting that women would create a more peaceful, caring and calm world is essentialist. Indeed, a concern that crops up numerous times for me is how some male candidates seem to view women as different and separate from them. Neil Maggs told us he "approves" of women fighting for their rights, which underscores that his ability to judge the struggle for equality came from a place of privilege. Jon Rogers, too, fell into the trap of treating women as a separate, homogenous group by prefacing his first speech with a mention of his wife and daughters as the reason for his commitment to women's rights. Why can't men support women's rights because women are people, rather than because they're personally close to some? Would Rogers not be as bothered if he was the father of sons?

An audience member asked the candidates to commit to monitoring sexual violence towards women around pubs, clubs and entertainment venues and revoking licenses where incidences are increased by their presence. This question was revelatory: it appears that all the present candidates are committed to doing this! The chair wryly celebrated the imminent closure of all sexual entertainment venues, which is certainly an issue for Bristol, whether the discussion is around the Hooters that was open for a while despite objection from many women's groups in the city, or the very recent news that Spearmint Rhino plans to open a venue in the area. After the candidates had answered, the chair asked the room how many women feel unsafe walking in the city centre at night. There was a sea of hands.

A question regarding affordable childcare for lone and working parents received some considered responses. Ferguson, speaking first, listed a number of possibilities - childcare in the community, cooperatives, within companies, using the voluntary sector - though he was at pains not to commit funding that he was not sure will be available. Gollop broadly agreed, arguing that the Council cannot spend money it doesn't have. Baldwin, as a socialist, went down a different route, saying childcare should be provided by the Council. Rogers and Rees both gave strong responses stressing the importance of investing in childcare for long term economic and social gains. Radice and Collins, however, gave answers lacking in much substance. Meanwhile, Maggs went for a rather worrying approach: reducing costs associated with housing so that women aren't required to work.

Josie Hill, who works for local charity One25, asked how the candidates plan to tackle street sex work in Bristol. Most candidates said they would demur to local groups' expertise, which on the one hand is probably the right thing to do, yet I would have liked them to give more indication that they have actually researched the topic. After all, they were all aware they were attending a hustings focused on gender issues.

My heart sank when Radice echoed the Green Party line of legalising prostitution, yet in the same breath admitted she doesn't know a lot about the issue. How is it possible to have such a stance on a controversial, deeply challenging issue without having personally looked into it? However, this doesn't compare to Ferguson, whose claims that prostitution is "inevitable" led to cries of "shame" from the audience. An audience member spoke, asking us to imagine a world where we actually act about prostitution without taking an apologist or defeatist stance. Although the opinion of the room was not uniform, it seemed to me that many supported this sentiment. Of the candidates, Rees seemed to have the most insight, recognising that many sex workers have been abused, a disproportionate number have been through the care system and that many are trapped by drug addictions, meaning that a holistic approach is required right from the start (by addressing the care system, for example).

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This sense that few of the candidates were offering solutions rather than platitudes was a theme of the evening. Asking the candidates how they would support women over 50 who are facing rising unemployment did not generate many answers and though most said they were committed to looking into it, this obviously doesn't give the older women of Bristol much reassurance of action. Similarly, a carer related question had the candidates expressing support without enough substance. This is a pity, since the closure of eight care homes is due to displace almost 200 people. Radice and Rees expressed better knowledge and assurance of action in this area than the others, but it surprised me that this issue hadn't been more carefully considered overall.

A question on transport suddenly inspired confidence in the candidates as they were able to discuss an issue that is central in most of their debates, hustings and manifestos. This contrast somewhat saddens me. Of course, the Mayor won't have unlimited power over every aspect of living in Bristol, and transport is a major headache for many, but the fact that the candidates seemed uncertain or unable to give concrete suggestions for many of the previous questions underlines the fact that gender issues are taking a back seat in this election. That isn't to say that transport isn't a gender issue, but most candidates took the opportunity to express their general transport policies, not how they would specifically help women.

Radice gave a coherent, clear pitch of transport changes, many of which would make a difference to women, such as cross-city coverage, cheaper fares, a metro system, reorganised routes and free travel for under 16s. However, most others were mainly concerned with the lowering of fares and challenging the domination of First Group. An audience member contested that the candidates needed to engage with women more to actually understand the specific transport issues that might face them (such as radial travel for dropping kids at school on the way to work rather than only into and out of the centre). Collins pointed out that his deputy mayor is going to be a woman and, as she'll be in charge of transport, she'll be able to see it from a woman's perspective. Again, as with much of the discussion, I felt the candidates were relying on outsourcing women's issues rather than having any expertise themselves.

Women behind me kept whispering, "They just don't get it, do they?" It appears that many do not

This was all followed by an engaged discussion on the representation of women in politics. This helped to more precisely gauge the candidates' understanding of representation and societal barriers to women standing for political positions. Rees highlighted the commitment of the Labour party to an all-woman shortlist in the council elections, and bemoaned a system that prevents good people going up because bad people don't go down. Both the Green Party and Respect already have many women involved, as Radice and Maggs pointed out. Several others missed the point. Gollop called out for women from the audience to stand but as a member of the audience pointed out, it is hard to stand if you think the working environment will be hostile to your childcare responsibilities. Rogers figured that politics isn't an attractive place to be for anybody so he understands why women wouldn't want to stand (while ignoring the fact that men still seem to like it). Women behind me kept whispering, "They just don't get it, do they?" It appears that many do not.

It was a frustrating evening. I did not leave the event feeling that any one candidate had stood out, and far too many of them made gaffes or showed themselves to be unaware of serious issues for Bristolian women. It seems unlikely that the election of a Mayor will make a large difference to unrepresented women of the city. However, the event was certainly worthwhile, and Bristol Women's Voice has forced these candidates to at least recognise that gender issues exist. It may have even opened their eyes to some of the actions women are crying out for to make the city a better place.

The election for the Mayor of Bristol will be held on 15 November. The Council website has more information.

Photos have been kindly provided by Bristol Women's Voice.

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Megan Stodel

Megan Stodel is the theatre and arts editor of The F-Word.

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