Jayne Dowle: Don't forget women voters as EU debate becomes stale gentlemen's club

GOOD old Shirley Williams. It has taken this veteran politician, battle-scared from many a Parliamentary joust in the 1970s and 1980s, to bring some sense to the EU referendum. The Lib Dem grandee '“ now Baroness Williams of Crosby '“ is complaining that the debate has been dominated by men.

Baroness Shirley Williams says the EU referendum debate is bypassing women.

The 85-year-old says that the lack of female voices is “appalling”. I agree with her. I am heartily sick of hearing George Osborne and Boris Johnson going at it hammer and tongs, weary of David Cameron’s plaintive tones and disenchanted by Jeremy Corbyn’s self-protective “socialist” stance.

I reckon US President Barack Obama should keep his nose out of European affairs, and I don’t much care what former Conservative minister John Redwood thinks about why we should leave Europe and go it alone.

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And there was me thinking that a public referendum was just that – a chance for the public to express their views. In a speech at the National Liberal Club, Baroness Williams summed it up: “The EU debate has turned into a conversation between two white middle-aged gentlemen on one side and two white middle-aged gentlemen on the other. It is a very private debate.”

How ironic that a vote which was billed as the most democratic process of our time should turn into such a closed shop. And how unengaging it has become. Statistic after statistic. Point-scoring after point-scoring. Scare-monger after scare-monger.

When the campaign was launched, it was about what makes the UK special and how we define ourselves as a nation.

Now, as Baroness Williams says, we have descended into a set of middle-aged men arguing about one set of figures versus another set of figures. And half the population – the female half – are wondering whether it’s worth even voting at all.

We don’t want an agenda devoted only to our concerns, but we would like to know that our issues and anxieties are being addressed. Of course we care about the economy, exports and imports and the international standing of our country.

However, as women, we also care about a lot more: our equal rights, healthcare, education, consumer matters, the chances for our children to travel and work abroad. And let’s not forget security, terrorism and the reassurance that we can live in peace, without threat of war, invasion or nuclear proliferation.

Sorry if this sounds a bit too wet for the likes of Boris Johnson. Apologies if it’s not hard-line enough for the Chancellor. I have plenty of questions and issues I would like raised, but I suspect that the Europe-related matters which concern people like me don’t even register on their radar, so tied up have they become in their own political ambitions.

That’s why I would like to help Baroness Williams. She needs women to back her, and put our views out there. There are notable female politicians in the fray. Earlier this week, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and Brighton’s Green MP Caroline Lucas – held a joint press conference where they said the EU had been vital in securing maternity and paternity rights as well as protecting people at work. Too often though, these prominent women are sidelined and patronised. We need the widest possible public airing of the things that matter.

Here goes then. A few to get us started. What I really want to know is whether EU membership would mean that my son and daughter will grow up with better life chances?

Will they be able to travel freely across the European continent and choose to work or study in Barcelona or Brussels, should they wish to? There are two sides to the immigration debate. Pity that we only ever seem to hear the one.

Furthermore, would leaving the EU really mean that the cost of my shopping will rocket? How do the subsidies that politicians argue about actually translate into the prices of the items I put into the trolley at the supermarket? If Brexit comes to pass, does this mean that the international forces which work together, united in the face of terrorism, will be fractured, leaving British towns and cities even more vulnerable to attack?

If the UK goes it alone, what will it be like visiting cities such as Paris and Rome? Will we British forever be pariahs, even more embarrassed by our lack of savior-faire and language skills than we are already? Instead of embracing the world and all it has to offer, will we turn in on ourselves and become the bitter epitome of a paranoid island race? I hope this never happens, whatever the result.

There is less than a month to go before the referendum. Time to redress the balance and help Baroness Williams steer the debate away from the politicians and back to the people. Whether men or women, it is our lives which will be affected indelibly by the decision on June 23. Let’s ask our leaders to remember that.