When I was first elected as your Member of Parliament for Bristol South in 1987 I was one of just 41 women in the House of Commons, just 6% of all MPs. This changed dramatically 10 years later when, in the Labour landslide of 1997, and because of new candidate selection procedures using all women shortlists, over 100 Labour women were elected to Parliament, seeing the total jump to nearly 20% of all MPs. However, it is worrying that since then there has been only a tiny further increase in the number of women Members of Parliament, to 22% at the current time.
Of the sixteen directly elected mayors in Britain, just three are women.
The reason why this underrepresentation of women is important can be clearly seen in the recently published, and excellent, Bristol Fawcett report into the impact on women of the cuts in our city.
Women in Bristol are paid significantly less, and depend on social security and tax credits more, than men. They are also are more likely to need support for their housing costs, use public transport and be primary carers. Overwhelmingly it is women who contact my constituency office for help with their housing, social security or concerns about their children’s education.
In their study, “Cutting Women Out”, Bristol Fawcett looked at nine broad areas where funding cuts have occurred including housing, education and health. The conclusions are stark – “that many of the spending cuts underway in Bristol have a disproportionate impact on women”. Examples include the pay freeze on public sector workers – 62% of Council staff are women - and cuts to social care, where women are the majority both receiving and providing care.
By contrast, services for victims of domestic and sexual violence have to some extent been protected, perhaps because of the high profile support of the female Police and Crime Commissioner.
Even though public authorities like Bristol City Council are under a legal obligation to promote equality it is clear that through some of their actions it is very likely that inequality will have increased.
Labour is taking the lead on this issue, publishing a separate Manifesto for Women ahead of this year’s General Election, which will include pledges on childcare, help for older women who have to work as well as juggling childcare duties as grandparents, domestic violence, equal pay, and women’s representation in areas such as public life and business.
Public sector finances will remain under pressure, therefore it is essential that policy makers both locally and nationally ensure that their spending priorities reflect the needs of the whole community. One way to make sure that women’s voices are heard in that important debate is to elect more women to both Parliament and Bristol City Council in May.
This article appears in the February 2015 edition of The Pigeon magazine