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A century of votes – but we have a long way to go

Tuesday (6 February) marks the 100th anniversary of some women being given the right to vote in parliamentary elections. In 1918 women had to be at least 30 years of age and meet other criteria. It was another ten years before all women and men over the age of 21 could vote. This year parliament is also marking the 60th anniversary of the first women taking their seats in the House of Lords.

Shadow secretary of state for women and equalities Dawn Butler speaks to Andrew Stone about the importance of equality


Giving women the right to vote shouldn’t have taken people dying

Why are this year’s anniversaries significant?

They are important because some people don’t realise that it was just 90 years ago that women’s voting rights came to be the same as men’s. We know people who are 100 years old, so we can look at them and realise that there was a time in their lifetime when women didn’t have equal rights with men. It shows how far we’ve come, but it also reminds us just how far we have to go.

The first women who were allowed to vote 100 years ago had to be very well connected. They had to be rate payers or own property or be married to a certain person. They were a privileged set of women. It highlights to me the structural inequalities that have always existed and how deep the roots of those inequalities are.

It is also 100 years since the first female MP was elected to the House of Commons. In the 2017 general election 208 women MPs were elected – a record number. But that’s just under a third of all MPs, while women outnumber men in the general population of the UK. All these decades on, why is the number of women Dawn Butler addresses a crowd in London MPs not proportional to the number of women in the country? A lot of changes have to happen to people’s mindsets. The Labour Party introduced all-women shortlists in the 1997 general election because it wanted to force the situation to ensure we had more women represented in parliament. That action took a committed will and a commitment to the cause. It takes more than words to see sustainable outcomes. Because of those all-women shortlists, the Labour Party greatly increased the number of women MPs and changed the way parliament looked and felt. Those changes opened the door to more women and showed that women could do the job and be effective – parliament is not the preserve of men.

The last election was called so quickly that there wasn’t time to implement all-women shortlists, but almost 50 per cent of Labour MPs are women. We need to get to a position where those shortlists are not needed any more because there are more women in the political process.  

We also need to look at other issues of how the political process is run and how parliament operates, which is archaic and non-sensible. But as a blunt tool with guaranteed results, allwomen shortlists worked.

Many schoolchildren will learn about the suffragettes and their campaign to give women the vote, including their use of civil disobedience. But some historians have suggested that their campaign may have set back the cause for women’s suffrage. How do you view the suffragettes? It’s a hypothetical conundrum. I view the situation this way: Everybody who fought for women’s suffrage had a rightful place in that battle.

Everyone had a role to play. The peaceful process was taking too long. It had been 82 years since the first women had the right to vote in local parishes when militancy began, and that was three years after a lot of peaceful protests. Giving women the right to vote shouldn’t have taken militancy, it shouldn’t have taken people dying or going on hunger strike. But it took that in order for it to happen.

The historians should be focusing on why women were not initially given equal rights to vote. Why were they seen as less important or less worthy? Why was it that when women did get the right to vote it was only some women of a certain stature? When we ask the uncomfortable questions about why women were thought of in that way, we are tackling sexism, racism and abuse of women. The suffragettes had to be militant to see change. Why was that?

Why does the gender of an MP matter? Diversity is paramount in good decisionmaking. If you don’t have diversity around the table, then your outcome will be blinkered and limited. No two people are the same. Nobody’s life experiences are exactly the same, so diversity is important.

It’s important to hear a variety of women’s voices as well. Originally there was only a certain class and type of woman in parliament. But we need women of different colours and classes, disabled women, women of different faiths and different cultures. It’s important that parliament looks like the country it represents. 

The UK’s population is made up of many ethnic groups, but that isn’t reflected in parliament, where only about 50 MPs are from ethnic minorities. Is addressing this situation as important as addressing the gender imbalance? Equality is equality. Fighting for the rights of representation for somebody who is black, Asian or minority ethnic doesn’t take away from the fight for a woman to be represented or a working class man to be represented. You have to remember that parliament was built by a privileged set of people who have always had the upper hand. What we’re trying to do is redress that and balance it out. I hope that we will see true equality in parliament in my lifetime.

What can be done to encourage people from a wider range of gender and ethnic groups to engage in the political process?Sometimes you have to see somebody like yourself in a position to realise that you can do the same. If someone doesn’t see people from their background and culture in parliament, it doesn’t encourage them, and we need to be encouraging them.

There are a number of suitable and capable people of colour who could be members of parliament. But there is still structural discrimination, such as being discriminated against because you’re a woman, then because you’re black and then because you’re working class. You also have people prejudging you. These discriminations affect people’s journeys. They affected my journey to parliament, and it can be quite exhausting constantly to have to battle against them. We have to break down all those barriers.

We also need to get people to register to vote and then vote. At the last election we saw a high percentage of people use their right to vote for the first time. We need to see more of that. I’d like to get to a stage where instead of 35 per cent of the public voting, 80 per cent vote. Then we can all say that this is democracy.

The media has a lot to do with disenfranchising people from the process. They can put barriers in the way and make people think that it’s not worth them voting because it’s not going to make a difference. I want to empower people and say: This is your voice, this is your vote. If you vote, you can make the change and see change.

People have died for the right to vote. Women went on hunger strike, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for black people to have the right to vote.

I tell people that these things were done for their right to vote and yet they are giving away PA that right by not voting, and I see the realisation dawn on their faces.

Do you think that discrimination is deliberate or is it just ingrained unknowingly in the mindsets of people who need to be educated to think differently? Everybody can benefit from understanding privilege. If we go back to the suffrage timeline, it was only privileged women who could vote, so how did that make other women feel? They were women but they were not good enough to vote.

Is it also important that parliament should reflect the faith profile of the country? In the past not everyone has talked about their faith. Visible minorities can be seen. I’m a very proud black woman and you can tell women from men, but, in the main, you can’t tell somebody’s faith just by looking at them. That’s a difficulty in ensuring that there is true representation. People are talking more about their faith now because they’re proud of it.

But I think people of faith are supposed to be open-minded and non-judgmental and looking after the welfare of others before themselves. That is the common denominator of all faiths, which is well suited for parliamentarians.

You have spoken publicly about your own Christian faith. How has it influenced your service as an MP? It means that I’m non-judgmental, accepting people for who they are. It makes me question myself harshly to ensure that I’m always making the right decision. I’m not saying that people without a faith don’t do the same as well, but this is what my faith brings to me.

And I pray all the time. It’s important. People talk about meditation and mindfulness, which are practised a lot. For me, praying is essentially mindfulness – being very mindful of the issue at hand.

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