IT was around 1am on polling night when I finally switched off the TV, disappointed and irritated that yet again, two men were arguing, loudly, irascibly.
I can’t recall who they were now, although odds-on Andrew Neil was involved, maybe still braying about making Paddy Ashdown eat his hat. He was still banging on about that hat when the TV went back on at breakfast-time.
This has been a campaign largely dominated by men, not just the main party leaders but also much of the commentary and coverage surrounding it – David Dimbleby, Jeremy Paxman, the pundits, the pollsters, the ringmasters and interviewers, the “characters”. Yes, there have been women in evidence, as candidates, reporters, interviewers, satirists and commentators, but they have increasingly seemed to play supporting roles. Except Nicola Sturgeon, of which more later.
It didn’t start off that way, far from it. The seven-way party leaders’ TV debate in early April seemed to set a new tone for politics. There were three women – nearly half – Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Ms Sturgeon standing alongside the far more familiar Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage. Not just holding their own, but setting new standards, openly supportive of each other, straightforward, fair, no bullying, no posturing.
Frankly, they made the men look uniformly grey, out of date, superficial, even trivial. On social media, women especially were buoyed and heartened. This is how it should be – a tantalising glimpse of how politics, government, the whole country, could look, with an (almost) equal number of women, speaking out and being listened to, making a real, tangible difference.
Barely a month later and business was returning to normal with no women grilled at the now notorious BBC Question Time Special in Leeds, just those three chaps in navy suits. But at least there were plenty of women represented in the plain-speaking audience, including marketing company boss Catherine Shuttleworth, who laid into Ed Miliband, demanding to know why she should trust a Chancellor who thought the “no money left” letter was a joke. She became an overnight celebrity as a result of her criticism of Ed Balls.
Maybe Ms Shuttleworth should consider standing herself next time. Perhaps politics needs more big female personalities if women are ever to reach parity of power. So high hopes for self-styled “strong, passionate Yorkshire lass”, Conservative soprano singer Andrea Jenkyns, who toppled Mr Balls in Morley and Outwood and caused the biggest election shock of them all.
She told how he gave up her job and sold her house, and how it was the death of her father, in 2011 after contracting a hospital infection, that had pushed her into standing for Parliament, campaigning ever since “to make the NHS a better place for all”. She knows first-hand how much the NHS matters. In this election, it has mattered especially to women, with poll after poll singling out the NHS as their top priority and main concern. Many will hope that Ms Jenkyns shares, and will get the chance to voice, their concerns about the future of the health service in the next Parliament.
There was victory too in Bradford West for Labour’s Naz Shah, the mental health campaigner who ousted George Galloway, another macho personality losing out to a woman with a personal tale to tell, this time of forced marriage and abusive relationships. These real women’s stories are important, especially if they lead to the larger story of change for the better in all women’s lives. But for this to happen, female voices have to get louder and stronger.
The good news, the best news, is that there are unmistakable signs that the political landscape has changed dramatically, as the number of women in Parliament has risen by about a third, with now roughly 30 per cent of all MPs female – up from 23 per cent before the election, the largest increase since 1997. Astonishingly, until 1987, women had never made up more than five per cent of MPs, so we’ve come a long way... but there’s a long way to go.
The biggest rise in female representation in the Commons comes in Scotland, from the Scottish National Party, which now has 20 female MPs, up from just one. Although she doesn’t have a seat at Westminster, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has helped change the face of UK politics, not just with actual seats, but also, crucially, by putting forth her agenda – one that by no means everyone agrees to – with professionalism, determination, straightforwardness and good humour. A big personality, a force to be reckoned with, but not domineering, bluff or bullying. Not one of the boys.
Sturgeon has inspired women and given them hope far beyond Scotland. Now, as both Labour and the Lib Dems have leaderships up for grabs and parties desperately in need of a rethink, there’s a real chance to reshape not just UK politics and future governments, but also society as a whole, so women achieve equal representation in all fields. Even hat eating, if we want. Although we’ll probably leave that to the boys.