Votes for women… and seats, parliaments, and politics for women

100 years ago, women first gained the right to vote with the passing of the Representation of the People Act. Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender at Birkbeck, celebrates the centenary and looks at what still needs to change.

The celebrations and commemorations are well underway: there are numerous seminars, conferences and workshops; #Votes100 is trending on Twitter; and many of us are donning the colours of the suffragettes (purple, white and green) or the suffragists (green, white and red), and proudly displaying button pins and necklaces.

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act is 6 February 2018. The Act granted the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification and gave the vote to all men over the age of 21. Whilst we must wait until 2028 to celebrate women getting the vote on the same terms as men, it is definitely time to party – and drink our ‘Equaliteas’.

Perhaps a lesser known fact is that November will mark the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, which gave women over 21 the right to stand for election as an MP. Again, we should celebrate (and who would object to another party?), but here we will need to be more circumspect. If democracy demands women’s enfranchisement there remains more to be done in respect of ‘Seats for Women’. The same is true in terms of realizing ‘Parliaments for Women’ and ‘Politics for Women’.

Seats for Women
The 2017 general election saw 208 women MPs elected to the UK House of Commons, the highest number ever. At 32% of all MPs, Westminster remains far from parity – and the 2% increase last year was paltry: 45% of all Labour MPs are women (119 of 262); the Conservatives saw fall-back, from 70 to 67, flat-lining at 21%. The Liberal Democrats have four women (33%) and the SNP 12 (34%). With political parties acting as the gatekeepers to Westminster, all must do more – political recruitment is best understood as a verb – and some should do more than others. Until then the ‘champagne should be left on ice’.

The most effective strategy to increase the numbers of women MPs is quotas. They may not be to everyone’s taste but follow the evidence: quotas deliver women into political office. The success of Labour’s All Women Shortlists and the Republic of Ireland’s quotas demonstrate this. In the Irish case, as Fiona Buckley has shown, the number of women candidates increased by 90% and the number of TDs elected – 35 (22%) – represents a 40% increase on the previous election.

As one of the two main political parties in the UK, the Conservatives have repeatedly resisted the logic of quotas and chosen not to make use of the legislation that permits their use until 2030. In Government, they have also rejected the quota recommendations of the Good Parliament Report and the 2016 Women and Equalities Committee Report on Women in Parliament. This isn’t good enough: the Conservatives saw a decline in their number of women MPs in 2017 and stood still in percentage terms. Political change – the upward trajectory of more women in Parliament – does not just happen. Quotas have to be put back on the table in 2018; and at the very least, the Government should commence Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 so that public can hold the parties to account vis-a-vis the selection of parliamentary candidates. Let’s see which MPs sign Bernard Jenkin’s Early Day Motion, and which MPs choose to ignore the most minimal of requirements, namely, candidate diversity data transparency.

Professor Sarah Childs

Parliament for Women
No-one, following the expose of sexual harassment at Westminster, can be under any illusion that Parliament is a gender-equal institution. The Good Parliament Report documented its diversity insensitivities and made 43 recommendations. The Commons Reference Group on Representation Inclusion, established and chaired by Mr Speaker, has been working since autumn 2016 on taking this agenda forward. Only last week the House agreed to the ‘Mother of the House’, Harriet Harman’s motion on baby leave. The Procedure Committee will now undertake an inquiry into how to best implement this. Securing leave for new parent MPs would be a belated, but nonetheless symbolic and substantive rule change that really would be something new to celebrate in 2018. ‘Anti’ mutterings have already been heard, and so attention must be given to the possibility of backlash.

Politics for Women
Our politics should address the concerns and views of women as well as men. Questions of who can act for women, and what acting for women means, is, however, contested in academic circles and amongst MPs. For some, good substantive representation (acting for women) means feminist substantive representation. For some, it means representation by women. But beware not to confuse women’s bodies with feminist minds; women do not come in one political hue; and men make representative claims ‘for women’. Political debate over the ‘good substantive representation’ is to be welcomed. It helps identify what is in the interests of women, has the potential to re-gender parties’ political programmes, and to deliver a better politics for all.

Politics should be something that ordinary women think about and do, ordinarily, as part of their everyday lives. Votes for women in 1918, and more so in 1928, redressed a basic political inequality. Redressing the gendered democratic deficits in respect of seats, political institutions and politics should be the ‘deeds’ of 2018; nice ‘words’ by political parties and by the Government will not suffice. Both should act, and it is not as if there isn’t a ‘shopping bag’ of reforms out there, ready to be picked up…and acted upon.

Share
. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , , , ,

ICC drops its Kenyatta case, leaving culture of impunity intact

This article was contributed by Frederick Cowell of Birkbeck’s School of Law. It was originally published on The Conversation.

“One down, two to go,“ was how Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta reacted to the International Criminal Court’s decision to drop its case against him.

Kenyatta had faced charges of being an indirect co-perpetrator of crimes against humanity after post-election violence in Kenya. On 5 December, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, announced that she was discontinuing the case against him.

The cases against Kenyatta’s two Kenyan co-accused, including Vice President William Ruto, have not yet been dropped – but as his reaction showed, they now have reason to be hopeful.

This is a major blow to the ICC’s credibility, and it’s likely to have implications for its ability to prosecute political leaders.

To the Hague

The ICC became involved in Kenya in 2009 after political parties failed to reach an agreement on the establishment of a special domestic tribunal to deal with the 2007-2008 post-election violence. An independent commission set up by the Kenyan government passed on the names of individuals suspected of being responsible for its orchestration to the ICC. The move seemed popular, with the Kenyan media pushing the slogan “don’t be vague, let’s go to The Hague.”

In January 2012, after an independent investigation by the prosecutor’s office, charges against six individuals for Crimes Against Humanity were confirmed. The Court ultimately proceeded with cases against four individuals accused of responsibility for the violence, which claimed over 1000 lives. The charges against Kenyatta included responsibility for orchestrating rape, sexual violence, and murder during attacks on the supporters of his political opponents.

This did not stop Kenyatta running in the 2013 presidential election. The Kenyan government and the African Union (AU) had been lobbying for the prosecution to be delayed. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the UN Security Council has the power to defer prosecutions for up to a year, and it was argued that a deferral was necessary in order to allow the Kenyan government to co-ordinate the campaign against Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The UN Security Council refused, and the Kenyan government sided with the anti-ICC states at the AU who were denouncing the court as imperialist.

Hostility towards the court had being building in the AU since 2009 when the prosecutor issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. While some AU members still support the ICC, there is a strong sentiment in favour of total non-co-operation with the ICC.

Finally, in September 2013, the Kenyan Parliament voted to withdraw from the ICC – and while this could not stop the case against Kenyatta, it made it very difficult for the prosecutor to proceed.

Dropping the Kenyatta charges

On 3 December, the Trial Chamber at the ICC rejected a request made by the prosecutor for a further adjournment of proceedings. Over the course of 2014, the prosecutor’s office held a series of conferences with the Kenyan government aimed at gathering evidence, such as records of phone conversations held before the outbreak of violence in 2007 and information held by the Kenyan security and intelligence services.

ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. EPA/Michael Koor

The process faced endless delays, and although the judges noted the government’s lack of co-operation they said that in the interests of justice, they could not grant the extension that the prosecutor’s office was requesting. This resulted in the decision to drop the charges.

Kenyatta expressed excitement at the result; his British lawyer, Steven Kay QC, said that the prosecutor’s office owed him an apology for bringing the proceedings and for “impugning his [Kenyatta’s] integrity.”

For her part, Bensouda reiterated that the Kenyan government’s steadfast refusal to co-operate had posed “severe challenges” to the case. She also criticised the “relentless stream of false media reports” and widespread attempts at witness intimidation, which she said had led to her being forced to dismiss the charges. Crucially, the Court held that she could bring new charges at a later date should new evidence arise.

Impunity forever

The decision to cease Kenyatta’s prosecution almost certainly sends a signal that repeated failure to cooperate with the ICC can reap rewards.

The ICC still has outstanding arrest warrants for Bashir and two other individuals in Sudan who are who are charged with committing Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide in Darfur. Bashir has long resisted any attempt to prosecute him, and this recent decision will almost certainly give the Sudanese accused political ammunition against the ICC.

And while some states have co-operated with the ICC to ensure prosecutions of military leaders responsible for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, most notably Uganda, the mission of the ICC was always meant to be much more ambitious. At the court’s creation, many optimistically hoped it would end the “culture of impunity” surrounding political leaders, bringing old tyrants to justice and deterring new ones from committing crimes.

Even though ICC is prosecuting the deposed former president of Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo, the Kenyatta case sends the message that if a political leader can hang onto power, de facto immunity is still theirs.

The Conversation

Read other blogs posts by Frederick Cowell:

Share
. Reply . Category: Law . Tags: , , , , , ,

If history repeats itself, it’s time for the battle stations

TProfessor Jean-Marc Dewaelehis post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

Sebastian Haffner book cover

As an applied linguist, multilingualism, multiculturalism, immigration and acculturation are central aspects of my research. This is by nature always political. My mission as an applied linguist is to defend diversity and promote tolerance – through my teaching and in my research. There are things I can observe here in the UK through my “Belgian eyes” that might not seem as immediately obvious for fellow Brits.

Reading Sebastian Haffner’s moving autobiography on his childhood and young adulthood in Germany between 1914 and 1933, I was struck by some striking similarities with the present day. In fact, “striking” is not the right word – “chilling” is more accurate.

Adolf Hitler was perceived by most Germans as a clown in the 1920s, and dismissed with a wave of the hand.

Hitler’s favourite public places in that period were beer halls where he gave impassioned speeches against Jews and Marxists: perfect scapegoats.  He presented himself as a “good German” who wanted the best for his country, pretended to value peace, but insisted on more national assertiveness.

Hitler loved to brandish the weakness of German democracy and of his political opponents, who were being forced to accommodate each other, while his own message was clear and uncompromising.

While the National Socialists (NSDAP) did poorly in the elections in 1928 (gaining less than 3% of the vote), they grew steadily, gaining 18% of all votes in 1930.  More importantly, their political agenda strongly influenced the programme of the main democratic parties.

Leaders of democratic parties did not stand up to Hitler, did not organize mass demonstrations against the NSDAP but tried to placate Hitler by offering him prominent positions in the government, which he rejected. He came second in the presidential elections in 1932, with 35% of the vote. Hindenburg appointed him chancellor in 1933.  After the Reichstag fire, Hitler forced Hindenburg to suspend basic rights and allow detention without trial. At new elections in March 1933, the NSDAP obtained 44% of the vote. The boycott of the Jews started in April 1933. No mass protests happened in reaction to this measure.

Germany withdrew from the League of Nations in October 1933. When Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler became head of state and head of government and the ‘Hitler myth’ grew.

Now, what was it that David Cameron called UKIP supporters again: “A bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”? It does not seem to have done the UKIP any harm. What is Nigel Farage’s favourite posture? Holding a pint of beer in an English pub with a disarming smile, and claiming to represent true Britishness. His message?  Simplistic but unambiguous: no more compromising, more assertiveness, exit the European Union, and stop immigration into the UK. What is the reaction of the Conservatives and Labour? Hardening their stances on immigration and drifting towards more and more Europhobia. Add to that Conservative plans to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights (on the spurious argument that prisoners can’t be allowed to vote) and claiming that a vote for UKIP would benefit the other major party.

Now, just imagine a scenario where UKIP evolves as the NSDAP did in Germany in the 1930s. As they became more powerful, they could become more radical in their agenda – or simply disclose what might still be under wraps. Being outside the EU and outside the reach of the European court in Strasbourg, they could start forcing the other parties in government to implement a more radical anti-immigration policy, and declare a state of emergency (see Sampson’s Dominion for an idea of what this would look like in the streets of London). Having stopped the foreign influx, and gained the political upper hand, they would have to turn on the immigrants inside the UK, using the full force of the law, starting “gently” and turning on the screw: limit and cut their benefits, their salaries, their role in British society. At what point, I wonder, would the British realize that their cherished democracy was being transformed into a fascist state? Because this is the main point of Haffner: why did nobody stand up to the NSDAP? How could they force a whole nation to become complicit in a world war and a genocide?

You might think at this point, “this can’t happen to us, we’re a civilized people”, and this is the 21st century after all. Haffner points out that this was exactly what the Germans had been thinking of themselves in the 1920s, watching the rise of fascism with “calm, superior indifference”. And what happened to the majority who had not voted for the NSDAP in the 1933 elections? Once the Nazis had grabbed the power, it became nigh impossible to voice dissent without risking one’s life.

We cannot let history repeat itself. Urgent mobilization is needed against the gangrene that UKIP ideology represents. As Haffner says: “Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals”. We need to urge politicians from mainstream parties not be infected by UKIP’s isolationist and anti-immigration agenda. They need to stand up for our human rights, our European union, our democracy. It’s time for the battle stations – or at least the ballot box – to keep UKIP out of power. Nationalism leads to war, and we want peace!

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:

Other blogs about linguistics:

Share
. Read all 15 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , , ,

European poll shows democracy still needs a bit of work

Professor Daniele Archibugi, of Birkbeck's Department of ManagementThis article was contributed by Professor Daniele Archibugi, of Birkbeck’s Department of Management. It was originally published on The Conversation

Every year, the UN celebrates its International Day of Democracy, even if it often feels like there is little to smile about on this front. Research to be presented at the Italian parliament to mark the occasion shows that while Europeans across the continent share a powerful faith in democracy, they think their countries are lacking some of its most fundamental components.

The research, carried out by the European Social Survey is an attempt to quantify the difference between Democratic ideals and reality.

The results confirm that the overwhelming majority of Europeans share the democratic faith. In most countries, citizens strongly believe that they should be governed by elected representatives. In countries like Cyprus, Sweden, Germany and Israel, respondents rated the importance of living in a democratic country as a nine or above on a scale of zero to ten. And in almost every other country in a survey of 29 – including 21 EU member states – it was rated at least seven or above.

But Europe is vast and brings together a huge array of nations and cultures. It seems we can’t be sure that the word democracy means the same thing to them all.

Digging inside the ballot box, the survey reveals that in northern Europe, there is a greater focus on the rule of law, while in southern countries there is a stronger desire to obtain social justice. Scandinavians fall somewhere in the middle.

Eastern Europeans appear to be something of a special case. Citizens in many former soviet states only got the right to vote in proper elections around a quarter of a century ago and continue to expect the social protection that was once guaranteed by the old communist regimes while also demanding that the rule of law is enforced. Russian respondents attached the least importance to being run by a democratic government.

The basic definition of democracy is what is known as liberal democracy. This is a government chosen in free and competitive elections, with checks and balances in place and a free media and opposition in operation. Liberal democracy was considered to be operating in only around half of the 29 countries surveyed.

People in eastern European nations do not believe their countries hold free and fair elections and they do not consider their media free. And in southern Europe, citizens feel they lack equality before the law.

Asked about the social components of democracy – such as income equality and protection from poverty – citizens gave a harsh assessment. In 26 of the 29 countries, this side of democracy was considered insufficient.

In Scandinavia the gap between what people expect from democracy and what they think is actually delivered is smaller than in any other country. But even in these countries, there is the clear perception that the social dimension of democracy lags behind the liberal.

The political class should take this survey very seriously. It shows that the public has an increasingly broad idea of what it is to be a democracy but also that they are well informed. When expectations are not met, substantial resentment can build and that is reflected at the ballot box. Voters either back new entrants to the political sphere – like UKIP – or they stay at home on polling day.

An increasingly qualified and demanding public can’t simply be administered from above. New forms of participation need to be invented. If people are asked to participate in the delivery of public goods – through direct democracy and social involvement – they will have the opportunity to improve what is provided by elected representatives only. Or, at least, they will realise that everyone should implement their own dreams, democratic dreams included.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , ,