AS we mark this week’s centenary of women gaining the right to vote in Great Britain and Ireland, it is worth reflecting on how the Yorkshire devolution debate might frame the participation of women in our region’s politics going forwards.
On February 6, 1918, the Representation of the People Act was given Royal Assent by George V, enabling approximately 8.4 million women the vote. The 1918 Act, championed by suffrage pioneer Millicent Fawcett and suffragette leaders the Pankhursts, is considered a pivotal moment for women’s rights and helped lay the foundations for progress towards greater political, social and economic equality.
A century later, however, women still face gender equality barriers and prejudice, as highlighted by the recent exposure of the gender pay gap in the BBC. Sadly, I am not confident that the devolution opportunities in Yorkshire will change this.
The long-awaited devolution deal for Yorkshire will hopefully be an opportunity to give local communities a voice in decision-making, but if previous devolution deals are anything to go by that will not correspond to a greater role for women if the Government’s preferred option of metro-mayors is enforced.
All the evidence says that electing metro-mayors does not encourage women’s participation into politics. The Combined Authority mayors in the English regions of Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Tees Valley and West Midlands are all men – there is no female metro-mayor.
We can contrast the situation in the English regions with Scotland and Wales which have legislatures elected by fair votes. In Scotland, until recently, three of the main parties were led by women and, of course, the First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon) is a woman.
Wales enjoys a good proportion of female representation in its Assembly (close to 45 per cent) as a result of being elected through a proportional voting system. The progress was achieved by parties such as Plaid Cymru prioritising women on regional lists and by incorporating the promotion of equality into devolution legislation.
Undoubtedly, devolution has improved the lives of women in Wales and the evidence shows that women help address a wider range of issues, encourage a different style of debate and bring different experiences to the table.
A proportional voting system for any future Yorkshire assembly (or parliament) would allow for greater gender diversity in the same way it can provide political, geographic and ethnic diversity to be represented.
A first-rate devolution similar to Scotland and Wales should allow our county to have greater control over the economy, health and infrastructure. At the same time, only a Yorkshire assembly will give women a voice by increasing women’s representation as is already the case in various legislatures around the world.
The UK is ranked 56th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) 148, meaning only 148 of 650 elected members of parliament are women, thus placing the UK well below some African countries like Rwanda. Figures provided by consultants Ernst & Young on the G20 countries have shown that countries with the highest number of female public leaders in the world have a long history of taking positive action to promote under-represented groups in public services.
As we are stuck at only one in three of our MPs being women, all political parties must set out clear action plans to get more women in politics and that includes clear ideas for Yorkshire devolution. The current metro-mayors model has sidelined women and does not represent the diversity of our communities.
It is not just the governance structures. A problem also lies partly in the way in which the levers of gender equality have been devolved. The marriage and divorce laws, tax and employment legislation will remain at Westminster, which could constrain devolution potential in achieving greater equality.
I was delighted to be a Yorkshire Party candidate at last year’s General Election and that experience only encouraged me to get even more involved with politics. However, I am so disappointed by the lack of ambition of our council leaders (some of them women) and of the Government. Devolution in Yorkshire can bring about not just a economic and social renewal but a democratic one too. We can use this as an opportunity to move away from stale, tribal and male-dominated politics towards something much more diverse if we seize this opportunity.
Greater diversity will bring about a social and democratic renewal of our county and we cannot afford to miss out on the energy and ideas of women as they represent half of our population. This year as we celebrate women’s history and equal rights in Britain, we should not let women’s voices go unheard in the devolution outcomes.
So let us rightly celebrate the first British women who risked their lives and freedom to get the vote. But let us remember, too, that our fight for equality goes on.
Bikatshi Katenga was the Yorkshire Party candidate in Huddersfield in last year’s General Election.