Written by Jackie Longworth, Chair of Fair Play South West.
Fair Play South West, the women’s equality network, has started a new project to explore ways in which UK democracy could be improved to ensure that the views and voices of women and women’s organisations are heard and influence policy and practice. Several recent trends and events have caused a growing concern that hate, misogyny, and populism are pushing back on progress on women’s equality – hard won by the suffrage and feminist movements of the 20th century.
The 2016 referendum has been seen almost as an over-riding part of our democracy, with Parliament being cast as the bad guy when it sought to ensure that women’s rights, minorities, workers and the vulnerable were protected in the legislative process. That is in fact a fundamental role of Parliament within our democracy with referenda as advisory not supreme. Furthermore, during the run up to the referendum there was a notable absence of women’s voices in the mainstream media or political sphere, despite the fact that most women’s organisations were saying that the consequences of leaving would be gendered with grave risks for equality developments in both employment and services. This absence of any notice being taken of women’s perspectives has continued in the subsequent negotiations and debates, despite them being strongly articulated by well-respected organisations such as the Women’s Budget Group. This mirrored the lack of notice taken by government of women’s perspectives during the austerity years.
There is a real risk that the move towards decision by referenda and majority opinions heralds a rise in populist extremism as has been seen in other countries. It is exacerbated by the election of a Parliament with a huge majority supporting an Executive bent on changing the constitution to restrict the powers of the Courts and possibly of Parliament itself. Their aim, driven by the Supreme Court’s ruling on proroguing parliament, is to enable the Executive to act outside the Law as determined by previous Parliaments, including that which establishes the supremacy of Parliament over the ‘Crown’ and its Ministers. This way lies dictatorship.
There are also fears that the Government intends to withdraw from the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights and replace it with a weaker Bill of Rights, as mentioned in their manifesto. These fears arise from the absence of any HR commitments in their negotiating position paper with the EU. A further step towards dictatorship?Within this context, the Government is setting up a ‘Constitutional Commission’. It is not clear how or even whether the general public will have any input to this, but Fair Play South West is keen to ensure that women and women’s organisations are influential. The risk is the commission will be a cover for implementing dictatorial changes. The opportunity for us may be to change the system to make it more responsive to all diverse needs and opinions. Our project aims to ensure the latter.
The views in this article are those of the author.
Dr Longworth received an Honorary Doctorate from Uiniversity of the West of England for her work on women's equality. Her working history as an engineer gave her experience of a woman in a male dominated environment. She has been active in her Trade Union and the TUC, the Women's Engineering Society and the Women's Budget Group amongst others.