Women's suffrage centenary will be 'missed opportunity unless action taken to increase political participation'

Ashley Cowburn
Labour MP Jess Phillips has joined calls from the Centenary Action Group remove barriers to female political participation: PA

A coalition of campaigners and politicians have warned that the centenary of women’s suffrage in Britain could be a “missed opportunity” unless barriers to political participation are removed.

The newly-formed Centenary Action Group said that increasing the number of women in Parliament is “not only a basic human right” but also “necessary at a time when voter participation is low”.

The coalition of nearly 30 organisations, MPs and activists includes the Fawcett Society, the Electoral Reform Society, Jess Phillips, who chairs the women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, politicians from the SNP and Green Party, and Amnesty International UK.

Last year the Women and Equalities Committee in Parliament highlighted the glaring lack of representation in politics, adding that the UK has dropped to 48th place – from 25th in 1999 – in the global rankings of the representation of women in a country’s legislative chamber.

At the time, the committee chair and Conservative MP Maria Miller, said that political parties that fail to take steps to ensure that at least 45 per cent of all representatives in Parliament are women should be forced to do so through legislation.

In a statement, the newly-formed Centenary Action Group said: “Women in politics face an extraordinary amount of abuse, especially on social media, partly because they speak up but also simply because they are women,” the statement from the Centenary Action Group adds.

“This discourages women from participating in political debate.

“From the work undertaken towards women’s political participation the world over, there is clear evidence that the more diverse the decision makers are, the more widely power is spread – and less room there is for abuse and discrimination. It also makes it more likely that decision made will benefit everyone, including the most marginalised women and girls in the UK and beyond.

“Increasing women’s participation in politics is critical. It is a central tenant of the UN Global Goals. All countries are aiming for these goals, but most countries, including the UK, are still falling short. In the centenary year of women winning the right to vote, it’s time for action."

Sam Smethers, the chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said that system and cultures have to change, warning: “Unless they do, we risk the 2018 centenary being a missed opportunity. Our system of politics is failing to be relevant to women’s lives, actively putting them off.

“We know now that sexual harassment is commonplace in local and national politics; we see sexist attitudes driving the way women are treated in the council chamber and in the House of Commons. Lack of entitlement to maternity or paternity leave, means our elected representatives are far from being offered a modern workplace.”­

The chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, Darren Hughes, added that for democracy to be effective in the UK it “needs political institutions which are representative of all its citizens.

"Currently, there are still too many barriers to women's political participation, from institutional sexism and misogyny to a lack of support within parties themselves,” he added. “The fact that fewer than a third of Members of Parliament and councilors are women is holding back our progress. We need widescale reform of our political institutions to change that. The problems of under-representation stem from factors which can be fixed – if there is the will to change.

“Parties and politicians must urgently commit to removing barriers to participation. But more than that – they should be taking immediate action to ensure we have a truly representative democracy. In the centenary of the first votes for women, this is an opportunity that must not be missed.”

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