Guest post: The Lib Dems manifesto for ‘Real Women’

// 15 August 2009

In this guest post, Melanie Newman considers the Liberal Democrats’ ‘Real Women’ manifesto

The Liberal Democrats have produced a 42-point manifesto for women, which includes proposals on airbrushing in advertising, domestic violence, and 12 months’ parental leave for mothers and fathers.

It’s a shame that the presentation of the ‘Real Women’ manifesto is so patronising. There’s the headline for a start – imagine the scorn it would attract if it were titled ‘Real Men’. What’s with the Ribena colours and the women’s magazine sub-headers? (Want some “real confidence”, anyone?)

Behind the self-conscious girliness there are some good points (see below), including proposals to make equal pay claims easier to bring and to win, efforts to make late-night travel on public transport safer and more money for rape crisis centres. Other proposals include 20 hours’ free childcare per week for all children regardless of age or parental income, plans for thousands of extra midwives and health visitors and the right to request flexible working to be extended to all carers.

The paper, which is not yet policy and is to be debated at the Lib Dems’ annual conference in the autumn, doesn’t seem to have been discussed much in the national papers, though there is a Comment is Free post by the author, Jo Swinton MP. Jo comments on the manifesto’s pledge to make advertisers state when an image has been airbrushed.

The paper’s only policy on ‘sex encounter establishments’ (lap-dancing clubs) is a free-phone trafficking hotline, with advertising of the hotline to be a requirement for all those holding a lap-dancing licence.

The manifesto also wants an end to “the increasing criminalisation of non-coercive prostitution”, as well as increased efforts to help those wishing to leave the sex industry. Earlier this year, the party opposed the Government’s Policing and Crime Bill, which creates an offence of paying for a prostitute who is “controlled for gain with force, deception or threats”.

The Lib Dems’ Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Huhne, said the law would drive prostitution underground and that the “right way to protect vulnerable sex workers would be to regulate the sex industry so that brothels are places of safety”.

What would a feminist manifesto look like?

As a reference I’m including here the list of seven demands agreed on at the 1978 National Women’s Liberation Conference:

  1. Equal pay for equal work.
  2. Equal education and job opportunities.
  3. Free contraception and abortion on demand.
  4. Free 24-hour community-controlled childcare.
  5. Legal and financial independence for women.
  6. An end to discrimination against lesbians.
  7. Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of male violence. An end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and men’s aggression towards women.

Key points from the Liberal Democrat ‘Real Women’ paper:


  • 12 months’ parental leave for mothers and fathers
  • Thousands more health visitors and midwives
  • Up to 20 hours’ free quality childcare for all children
  • Encouraged mediation session for divorcing couples

Representation of women

  • Ban use of altered or enhanced images aimed at under 16s
  • Advertising using enhanced images to clearly state where digital retouching has been used
  • Cosmetic surgery advertising to carry information on “success rates”.

Equal pay

  • Allow “class actions” in equal pay. One woman could make a legal claim on behalf of a group rather than each woman having to make a claim individually.
  • Allow the use of “hypothetical comparators” in equal pay claims. When someone puts in a claim for equal pay, they need to compare their pay with that of someone else – the comparator. In sex discrimination claims, the claimant doesn’t have to produce a male employee who is in exactly the same position. So if she is an assistant manager she doesn’t have to find a male assistant manager who has been treated differently; she can point to evidence that a “hypothetical” male assistant manager would have been treated differently. In equal pay claims the claimant would currently have to find a male assistant manager who is receiving more pay. If there is no male assistant manager the claim fails.


  • Late night trains would have a “secure carriage” where a guard would sit.
  • Stopping on request between stops on late night buses to minimise the distances women have to walk

Violence against women

  • More rape crisis centres and sexual assault referral centres
  • Classes on rights and fair treatment in relationships in schools
  • Women in refuges to be allowed to continue to work
  • Improving systems to report abuse
  • Retaining services targeted at ethnic minority women
  • All women to have access to violence against women services
  • A free-phone trafficking “hotline”, with compulsory advertising of the hotline in sex trafficking clubs [ed: I think this was a typo, and meant lap-dancing clubs, as above]
  • Ending criminalisation of “non-coercive prostitution” and helping those who want to exit the sex industry

Comments From You

Ro-Ro // Posted 15 August 2009 at 9:53 pm

What’s a sex trafficking club?

And I thought that being a prostitute was already decriminalised, it was just men who used trafficked or coerced women who had been criminalised by that new bill? Which is a good thing surely?

I completely agree with the well funded exit services but don’t really get this hotline thing. Would a woman really call that if she was being kept against her will?

Karen // Posted 15 August 2009 at 11:44 pm

I somehow think the typo is probably the more accurate description!

As it goes, I think that compared with some political ideas we’ve seen from certain right wing parties lately, at least the ideas above (if not presented in an adult female glossy-mag-proof manner) are a step in the right direction for acknowledging the needs of half the population when childcare and personal safety are considered. The lib dems are at least raising the above issues if nothing else but I know a lot of news hacks have picked up on the airbrushing point lately and have been telling us how selfish we are to even worry about the mental health of young women being manipulated by airbrushers when there are cases like those in Afghanistan going on. Yes straight white posh men, you keep telling us selfish people how it is whilst pointing the finger and doing sod all about it because you wouldnt know the truth about womens issues if they came with flashing lights, a siren and a 50ft sign (rant!). I feel a personal swing to the lib dems coming on but I noticed that no mention is made of gay and trans issues, hopefully that is because they just haven’t been mentioned here rather than forgotten by the lib dems. Generally, I think this is a reasonably positive (wo)manifesto that should be encouraged.

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 16 August 2009 at 2:56 am


The law in Britain, while not specifically outlawing prostitution, is so framed as to make it virtually impossible to do it legally.

The Policing and Crime Bill gave police extra powers to shut down brothels (any establishment where two or more sex workers work together is defined as a brothel, and is illegal); it made it harder for street sex workers to conduct business with a number of measures. Organisations representing actual sex workers (including prostitutes) are unanimously of the same opinion as that expressed by Chris Huhne and the LibDem manifesto.

One final thing – because the measure to create an offence of paying for a prostitute who is “controlled for gain with force, deception or threats” was a strict liability offence, it is a realistic concern that the aim of the bill was to create a “freezing” effect so that customers would be afraid to buy services from ANY sex worker, because even if he was absolutely certain she wasn’t coerced, if it turned out she was then he would still be found guilty. Of course, it would only be law-abiding customers who would be scared away; abusive ones would then be the only possible source of income…

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 16 August 2009 at 2:59 am

Sorry, I’ve just realised I contributed a thread derail there. Sex workers’ rights issues are my particular thing, but that’s no excuse.

More on-topic: Karen, maybe the Lib Dems don’t see LGBT issues as specifically women’s issues, and so wouldn’t include them in this document but elsewhere in their policy documents?

Jennifer Drew // Posted 16 August 2009 at 11:01 am

Zeron points to LibDems because their manifesto is mere window dressing and does not go to the root of the issue. I refer to the 1978 Women’s Liberation Manifesto which succinctly goes right to the heart of the issue – male power and domination over women as a group.

But then Lib Dems are a ‘liberal party’ hence their attempt to placate both right and left views which result in just more ‘window dressing.’

‘End to criminalisation of non-coercive prostitution’ – more libertarian rhetoric which neatly avoids addressing the real issue – namely demanding criminalisation of men who demand and expect women to be made available for them to sexually exploit and abuse. See website Demand Change for more details.

Laura // Posted 16 August 2009 at 11:50 am

Most of this sounds really positive, though it’s unfortunate they’ve fallen into the trap of portraying women as most at risk when travelling at night, when in fact young men are statistically most likely to be attacked when walking home: the bus policy would help everyone, not just women.

sarahcl // Posted 16 August 2009 at 7:09 pm

What I don’t understand about this ‘driving prostitution further under-ground and into the hands of criminals’ argument, is that the sex industry is already partially underground and in the hands of criminals. But if sex industry advocates are to be believed, the current batch of criminals are entirely benign. So any change in the law would push women into the hands of a completely different set of criminals, who are currently unconnected to the sex industry?

Also, how far underground can it go, if the johns still have to be able to find it?

I do not believe that the sex industry can ever be made ‘nice’. Lap dance clubs are legal and above ground, and the women who work there can join the GMB if they want, but it is still incredibly exploitative (the women having to pay to work, unreasonable fines, having to break the ‘no touching’ rules in order to make any money), and the owners want to keep it that way.

Why should we believe any other areas of the sex industry could be any better?

Katie Edge // Posted 16 August 2009 at 10:57 pm

There seems to be quite a lot of criticism of this manifesto in the article and comments, and while I acknowledge that intellectual criticism is always good, can I just point out that this manifesto is EXACTLY the kind of move in the direction of the loathsomely titled “women’s issues” that we’ve surely all been waiting decades for? Yes, it has some issues, but shouldn’t we be supporting and promoting it as much as humanly possible, as a significant move in the right direction? I for one would be DELIGHTED to see most of the policies therein enacted in this country, and indeed any country in the world.

sianmarie // Posted 17 August 2009 at 8:58 am

katie edge – i agree. yes there are creases that need ironing out but at least a political party is actually starting to talk about women’s issues unapologetically and say they exist.

i for one am very pleased with these moves and hope that the press don’t jump on this in a negative way (which no doubt they will) as it really is about time a political party stands up and says we need to take women’s rights seriously.

Ruairidh // Posted 17 August 2009 at 10:36 am

Well said Laura,

Many of these points can be portrayed as of benefit to everyone. The childcare issue while being of greater impact on women than men is one for families. It certainly has a big impact on me and I’m a man.

As a man I’d also like to quibble with the 1978 manifesto held up as an example; specifically point 7 wanting an end to ‘male violence’. I realise it is a catch all final point and ‘male violence’ was perhaps an appropriate phrasing in 1978 but it seems unnecessarily divisive in modern politics, especially in the context of domestic violence. Between 20% and 50% of domestic violence victims are men (depends on the survey you pick) and domestic violence rates in lesbian couples are comparable (30% over lifetime) to heterosexual ones. The number of female victims do outnumber the male ones but this issue is another one that affects us all. (That said if it’s talking about rape and sexual violence I’ll shut up and get my coat)

Source of stats:

On a final point and to misquote Voltaire I’d say some of you are in danger of making the perfect the enemy of the best. Progress needs to be incremental and that means not getting it 100% first time so if you support the direction of the Lib Dems go easy on them on the detail, for now anyway. That said I think the styling of the manifesto is patronising in the extreme. It looks like their trying to engage teenagers with ADHD.

Talitha // Posted 17 August 2009 at 3:10 pm

“So if she is an assistant manager she doesn’t have to find a male assistant manager who has been treated differently; she can point to evidence that a “hypothetical” male assistant manager would have been treated differently.”

How would such a case be argued/proven? I’m curious.

Troika21 // Posted 17 August 2009 at 3:35 pm

How can the manifesto claim to want “the increasing criminalisation of non-coercive prostitution” to end, yet suggest that many workers in lap-dancing clubs are trafficked?

In the 1978 NWLC demands you mention, I’m interested in knowing what 1, 2, and 5 would actually mean in terms of policy. Otherwise they are just slogans to me.

@ sarahcl: The sex sector is only “partially underground and in the hands of criminals” because of confused policy on the issue. The are plenty of ways the whole thing could be made safe and legal.

Wisrutta Atthakor // Posted 17 August 2009 at 3:51 pm

I too agree with Katie Edge. I think people are being too harsh on the manifesto. At least they are trying to do something about the very things we complain about here every day.

Also, with regards to the ‘Safety’ bit (point 33), it actually says “Develop a ‘stopping on request’ element to night bus services so that women and men can

get off the bus in between bus-stops, to minimise the distance they need to walk on their own”. So, in fact, they have not fallen into the trap of portraying only women of being most at risk when travelling at night since they mention both women and men. In fact, they are well aware that young men are more at risk of being victims of crime, as they quoted on the same page (pg 9): “Women should be free to

live, work and travel in confidence and

without fear of harassment or attack.

This fear is currently a real problem

and although young men are more at

risk of being victims of crime than

women, women still perceive that they

are most at risk.”

Instead of being so quick to criticise, I would suggest people actually read the manifesto first! And yes, they are a ‘liberal party’ and they can’t please everyone – no party will be able to please everyone – but give me that than right wing any day!

sianmarie // Posted 17 August 2009 at 4:06 pm


Between 20% and 50% of domestic violence victims are men (depends on the survey you pick)

have you got a link to this survey(s)? the stats on male victims of DV seem to vary wildly and i am curious where you found these ones, as they are different to ones i have heard before. also, does the survey detail which male victims are the victims of violence within heterosexual or homosexual relationships? i’m just curious as obviously this is an important issue and i have often been confused by the variations in stats!

PC // Posted 17 August 2009 at 4:20 pm

In addition, we need to remember that stats for male victims of DV also includes male on male violence not only involving homosexual relationships but family relations such as father/ son/ brother/ uncles and so forth. All these incidents of violence within the domestic settings are classed as DV.

Ruairidh // Posted 17 August 2009 at 4:20 pm

Sianmarie: I gave the URLs for the sites I took the numbers from in my post.

I’m sure you could google more and find something more authorative for the lesbian data.

There is a massive difference in the % of male victims. Small sample sizes seem part of the issue but I imagine definitions & perceptions will play a part as well. For example it probably wont surprise you to know that I’ve been slapped a couple of times and in one more serious incident had a selection of crockery thrown at my head, all by the same (now ex) girlfriend. Does this constitue domestic violence? I’d probably say in the circumstances ‘no’ (I didn’t at any point seriously fear for my safety and I’d feel counting it as DV as rather belittling genuine DV) but it depends how the question is phrased really as to whether I’d answer ‘yes’ in a survey.

No the % for men didn’t indicate the difference between heterosexual and homosexual couples.

Laura // Posted 17 August 2009 at 4:31 pm

Thanks for the clarification, Wisrutta, I was just going on what the above article says. I agree that the manifesto is an excellent bit of forward thinking – it is really positive that at least some lib dem MPs are taking women’s rights seriously; let’s just hope the manifesto is approved by the party as a whole. In the past, it’s seemed like the lib dems take the “everyone’s equal so we should treat everyone the same and not look at minority issues” stance.

Wisrutta Atthakor // Posted 17 August 2009 at 4:34 pm

Another thing about the manifesto: Yes, there are points which could benefit not just women but men as well, and some of them are indeed included in their general policies also. For example, Point 7 – scrap tuition fees. While it is in this manifesto, it is also in their education policies also … as is the point about childcare. And there are others. So while this manifesto targets policies for women, they do overlap.

Ruairidh // Posted 17 August 2009 at 4:37 pm

Sorry PC but the statistics I quoted and linked to regarding % of male victims refers to actions by ‘partners’ only and not other family members.

Sianmarie: reading it again I can see another factor in the big 20-50% range is on what you count. If you count the number of victims you get a higher male % if you count the number of incidents you get a lower figure. Indicating that a female victim of DV is more likely to be assualted more often.

Melanie // Posted 17 August 2009 at 8:18 pm


As I understand it, for sex discrimination you just need to prove you were treated differently because of your sex, to your disadvantage.

So for instance if lots of work social evenings go on in a male-only drinking club, you can argue that you are excluded as a woman. You don’t have to find a man doing exactly your job to prove discrimination. You would be able to argue that if there were a hypothetical man doing your job, he would be invited to the club. It would then be up to the employer to argue that not going to the social evenings didn’t disadvantage you or that you were excluded for some other reason than your sex.

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