1918 was a good year for women and democracy. The Representation of the People Act was passed in February enabling some women (over the age of 30) and all men to have the vote for the first time. Later on that year, parliament voted to allow women to stand as candidates and be elected as MPs. Women had been able to stand as candidates for Borough and County Councils as well as mayors following the 1907 Qualification of Women Act but this was the first time that they could be represented in parliament. One of the first women in the North of England to be elected as an MP was Ellen Wilkinson, known as ‘Red Ellen’ who was first elected in 1924 for Middlesbrough East. She famously led the march of 200 workers from Jarrow to London and also was behind the introduction of free milk for school children.
It took another ten years for women to hold the same voting rights as men with the Equal Franchise Act in 1928. Like with so much political change, these events represent the culmination of many years of effort on the part of brave women campaigners, many of whom hailed from the North such as Emmeline Pankhurst from Moss Side and Annie Kenney from, Oldham.
100 years on from the Representation of the People Act, whilst much progress has been made, an equal representation of women in politics is still some way off.
Indeed, more than 100 years since the election of the first female directly elected mayor, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, it seems hard to believe that the entire batch of ‘metro mayors’ elected in 2017 to preside over the six new combined authorities were men. This trend seems set to continue with the announcement that all of the candidates emerging for the Sheffield Mayoral contest to be held later in 2018, are also all men.
However, not only are the mayors predominantly male, so too are their cabinets. The mayor’s cabinet in each of the six areas with combined authorities comprises the leaders from each of the constituent councils. In May 2017, 38 of these constituent councils were led by a man, with just 1 by a woman (Oldham).
IPPR’s 2017 report into tackling gender imbalance within the new combined authorities highlighted the importance of local government as a ‘pipeline’ for women into politics providing a means for women to gain political experience and offering opportunities for advancement into devolved structures and the selection process for MPs. If representation of women is low in local government, then this unevenness will be reflected across the political spectrum.
So why do women not run for political office? What are the barriers or deterrents which stand in their way? IPPR’s research suggested a number of factors at work. In particular, the difficulties with being a women councillor emerged as recurring theme. For example, the lack of statutory requirement for councils to permit maternity leave which actively discouraged potential candidates from standing.
Negative experiences of political culture were also an issue, for example, 38% of women councillors report experiencing some form of sexism whilst working on local party issues. As recent news headlines have shown, sexism, both directly and indirectly can have a very damaging impact on women’s’ confidence and their ability to take up leadership positions within political parties. Women need to be able to have confidence in the structures and institutions within society which claim to work in their interest. It isn’t good enough that the politics of influence in the UK continues to depend upon networks which are predominantly privileged, male and pale.
If political parties are serious about wanting to see a shift in gender balance, they need to actively encourage and support women to enter politics, particularly given the fact that women are much less likely to be members of a political party in the first place. There is also much that can be done on a cross party basis to recruit more women into politics, for example, the 50:50 ‘ask her to stand’ initiative is actively supporting this agenda in the UK. There is also much inspiration from other parts of Europe, for example, in Germany, there is very strong institutionalised support for gender balance in politics, for example, the Helene Weber Kolleg (HWK), a cross-party initiative designed to encourage more women into local politics.
The Representation of the People’s Act in 1918 signalled the start of a much more politically equal future for UK politics and its legacy is evident in the improved status of women during the last 100 years. However, it is clear that there is still much work still to do.
For the North, as we move through these early years of devolution, surely the onus upon us to make sure that the legacy of devolved power in the North is gender as well spatial rebalancing. In doing so, we might actually be able to use devolution as a means to help encourage and inspire a new generation of women into northern politics.
Senior Research Fellow