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Letters • February 22 2004

Women in politics

Thalia D Campbell
St Julians

Malta has problems when sending representatives to international bodies, because so few women take an active part in public life.
In the UK we have been through the entire cycle from no women, through token women, to the present, sidelined women.
After the Suffragettes women were used to organising separately, and were thus represented in the early Labour Party and trade unions. When they amalgamated with the men, women’s voices were lost so they set up the women’s sections in the Labour Party. Later on the Women’s sections had the right to send resolutions to the National Conference which, if passed, became party policy.
At the 1981 Labour Party conference Dora Russell read out the resolutions of the first conference she had attended 50 years before, asking for the same rights. For years the women’s debates were held on a Thursday afternoon and the unions used this time to hold their receptions – piss ups – leaving only one lonely delegate to hold the card to vote everything down.
We decided to change this and photographed the vacant numbered seats and wrote a letter to all the unions telling them we would send the photos to their women members. The Conference then timetabled the womens debates throughout the week, and the unions held their receptions in the evenings.
In the 1980s Labour Councils set up Womens Committees with real budgets. These recruited many women into active politics but Mrs Thatcher started and then Tony Blair continued to shut them down. Women also had the right to send resolutions to the Labour Conference taken away by Blair.
Neil Kinnock encouraged women by positive discrimination in the party by adopting women as of right on the short list for selection. The unions adopted a policy of proportional gender representation, the Party then had a policy of alternate and equal, so if a male delegate was sent, the next year it had to be a woman.
Women’s voices were heard, it worked.
Blair took over the party machine and in the name of equality selected naïve biddable women, Blair’s babes to replace his male opponents in the Party.
This went slightly wrong because he did not expect a landslide and some good women came through, even if these have been completely sidelined in Parliament and have not been seen or heard in government.
Blair’s government has the largest number of women in Parliament ever, but is run by the laddish tendency, young men who discount women, men who see a woman’s agenda as irrelevant.
Women have more rights in the EU, but relatively few are in positions of power. With enlargement and the defeat of communism women are even more marginalised, heard but then ignored.
You do have active women in Malta and I can remember a Woman’s Day activity where there was a stall at City Gate, but most women hastened past with averted eyes.
I can even remember a Women’s Day in Malta with a priest on the platform. In the UK no man would dare to presume to be prominent at such an event.
It would be wonderful to hear a woman speaker on the platform at the political rallies in Malta talking about the concerns of over half the electorate.
In the women’s story since the Suffragettes men have never given power away, women have always had to fight for it.

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