Natalie Bennett: Equal rights for women should also mean equal votes

Suffragettes during a mass meeting at the Royal Albert Hall in 1913. Now the centenary of the Representation of People Act will see the launch of a new campaign for electoral reform.
Suffragettes during a mass meeting at the Royal Albert Hall in 1913. Now the centenary of the Representation of People Act will see the launch of a new campaign for electoral reform.
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ONE hundred years ago today, a law was enacted giving some women the vote. It had taken 67 years from the founding of the first women’s suffrage society in Britain, in Sheffield, to achieving that breakthrough.

Yet in the century since that breakthrough, progress on making Britain a democracy has stopped. The Representation of People Act 1918 was the last significant change in Westminster.

In the 2017 election, 68 per cent of the votes of women and men didn’t count: 22 million voters were disenfranchised. The first-past-the-post electoral system fails to deliver a parliament in which seats match votes and in three successive elections it has failed to deliver its 
often-claimed virtue, to deliver a conclusive result.

Turnout in elections is low – as it tends to be in the remaining first-past-the-post systems around the world, while it is higher in nations where all votes count.

And that’s without even starting on our House of Lords, still created through medieval-style accident of birth and 18th-century-style patronage.

In homage to the long, brave struggles of the women of Yorkshire and the nation for suffrage, and to demand that their work be completed by making Britain a democracy, I will be spending today outside Sheffield Town Hall for Make Votes Matter North.

From 8.30am I’ll be joining others in a vigil, part of a 24-hour fast. For this is a campaign that we need to step up – progress on genuinely representative democracy has been even slower than achieving the vote for women.

It is now 140 years since Sir John Lubbock, one of the founders of what would become the Electoral Reform Society in 1884, said Britain should be “securing for herself a House of Commons which shall really represent the nation”. That’s something we’ve still yet to do.

And Britain is now in a state of crisis in significant part because of that lack of democracy. The biggest reason given for voting for Brexit was a desire to “take back control” – and I’d say people wanting to do that are absolutely right. But the problem of lack of control is centred on Westminster, not Brussels.

Millions of households are struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads, particularly in the North, which has suffered from a heavily centralised system of government that has chosen to privilege the financial sector over manufacturing and to invest in infrastructure in London and the South-East rather than the region.

Our NHS is being privatised 
and our railways run for shareholders 
not passengers.

Our tax, economic and planning systems have been rigged to the advantage of big multinational companies over small, independent businesses and strong local economies. Our schools have been privatised and handed over to those who would make profits from our children’s education, with local democratic oversight removed. None of this is what people want – yet they have it imposed on them by MPs all too often in safe seats who can ignore the wishes of their voters.

The Parliaments and assemblies created in recent decades in the UK – in Scotland, Wales and London – are all elected through proportional representation. To suggest a new first-past-the-post system now would be laughable.

Hardly any of the brave Yorkshire women who, on February 26, 1851, met at the Democratic Temperance Hotel in Queen Street, Sheffield, to found the Sheffield Women’s Political Association could have lived to see women winning the vote.

None of the founders of the Electoral Reform Society are here today. But we owe it to them – and the suffragettes who gave their lives to winning the vote – to ensure that their great-great-great-granddaughters have a vote that counts, a vote that makes an equal contribution to everyone else’s in electing representatives to Parliament.

Yorkshire led in winning women’s votes. Now it is leading again in working for a full democracy. Please join Make Votes Matter North today if you can – all supporters are welcome.

Natalie Bennett is the former leader of the Green Party. She lives in Sheffield.