CWO Forum Report: Young Women and the Vote

Did the Suffragettes Waste their Time?

The CWO Forum: Young Women and the Vote: ‘Did the Suffragettes waste their time?’ took place on Tuesday September 9th 2014 in Committee Room 17 in the House of Commons.

On the panel were:

Niki Molnar (Chair) – National Chairman of the Conservative Women’s Organisation
Rt. Hon. Nicky Morgan MP, Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities
Sarah Newton MP – Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party
Katie Ghose – Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society
Zoe Stern – Project Manager of the Stand Up and Be Counted campaign at Sky News
Celia Surtees – National Membership Director for Conservative Future Women

Niki Molnar welcomed everyone and outlined the work of the Conservative Women’s Organisation and the role of the forums within the organisation. She then introduced the topic and the five speakers on the panel.

Zoe Stern was the first to speak and explained that the exciting Stand Up and Be Counted campaign at Sky News was launched just over a week ago. It is a digital platform where young people aged 16 -25 are able to upload information which demonstrate the issues in which they are particularly interested. Sky News commissioned the campaign to seek to address the issues that matter most to young people. These will shape their coverage of democratic engagement in the run up to the General Election. There is great concern that those who do not vote are not engaged in the political process.

Zoe said that, as with all campaigns, she had had less than four months to get the campaign off the ground. She spent the summer going around the country meeting SUBC’s potential audience and that one of the most striking lessons she had learned was that young people found talk of the Suffragettes, in relation to the political process, alienating. The questions young people asked were:

• Why should I vote?
• Why should I care?
• Who is listening to me?

Zoe took away from her interactions with young people that it was important not to start with ‘the vote’ but to start with ‘engagement’ and to give young people a platform for issues that are important to them. What needs to be addressed is essentially, whether or not people are actually listening to the concerns of young people and are they listening to their solutions. Fundamentally, she explained, that is what the SUBC campaign seeks to address.

Niki Molnar asked Zoe whether young women are less engaged than young men. Zoe replied that yes, she felt that they were. It was her opinion that young women were less likely to vote but they were not less concerned by the issues at stake.

Katie Ghose spoke next, explaining that as CEO of the Electoral Reform Society, these were questions with which she was grappling all the time. At the ERS, issues of building a democracy and making it relevant to the everyday are real concerns, as well as finding the best way to move forward as a democracy.

The 18 – 24 year group are least likely to vote at all. If the trend continues this will have alarming implications for democracy. She reports that there are now hardened non-voters who are evident when out canvassing and say, with pride, that they do not vote.
In her view, political participation takes many forms, from voting, to signing petitions, to joining political parties. In the 2010 General Election, there was an alarming gap between young men and young women exercising their right to vote (50% young men to 39% young women). In the 2001 and 2005 General Elections there was a gap but in 2010 that gap was more significant, and in the younger age group that gap was heightened.

Interestingly, Katie noted that in the list of most popular Member of Parliament’s names, the first female names to make it on the list were at number 67, with the names Ann and Margaret tying. She said that female participation in politics is woeful and that it’s reflected in research, which suggests that young women, in particular, are turning away from politics because they are not seeing enough ‘people like me’ in positions of authority.

Katie stated that her vision is for every young person, on leaving school, to be able to see themselves as an elected representative, whether that be on a council or in Parliament or in Europe. She also felt that trust and respect for politicians, both globally and at home, has declined, although people still have faith in democracy.

She told the forum that there is a lack of research into the reasons why young women are not participating and this is something that needs addressing. She suggested that perhaps the perception of the ‘Yah Boo!’ Parliamentary culture is off-putting to young people and that the issues 18 and 19 year olds care about are not being tapped into. Katie also suggested that older women rather than younger women have more of a sense of civic duty. Another question that this issue raised is why younger men are more likely to say they will stand for office rather than women.

The Electoral Reform Society advocates reform. It believes it is necessary for young people to readily engage in the political process and this is most likely to be achieved through technology. The political system needs a wholesale modernisation and there needs to be funding available to restore young people’s faith in the system, as well as an understanding of the barriers to politics for young women.

Katie concluded by saying that to overcome these challenges schools should start teaching Citizenship to young children: Young people are a captive audience, especially from the ages of 14 – 16. It has been shown that if people start voting at an early age then they are more likely to continue to vote. Politicians need to start afresh and modernise the parties. There are a number of campaign groups, of particular note ‘Bite the Ballot’, which have begun interesting initiatives in this area, but most important of all is to spend time with young people and to convince 18 year olds that engaging in politics is worthwhile and that that there is something on offer which is relevant to them. It would be worth looking at the medium of social networks such as Facebook or other peer to peer groups, but it goes without saying that the issues at stake vary from person to person. Women particularly lack confidence and it is fundamental to encourage young women to engage in the political process themselves.

Celia Surtees began by saying that she had been introduced to the political process as a small girl when her father used to ‘drag her out to vote’. Celia then made reference to a number of articles; the first of which was the Mail Online headline that more people would vote for Joey Essex than for Nick Clegg. 3% of those polled admired Joey Essex and only 1% admired Nick Clegg. David Cameron fared only slightly better, polling 4% of the vote, whilst Ed Miliband tied with Joey Essex.

In the original Cosmopolitan Magazine article from which that poll was taken, women described MPs as deceitful and power-hungry and felt that as a career choice being a Member of Parliament was only marginally more appealing than being a stripper. Celia concluded that young people believe the political system is broken. She felt that whilst this article may not be an accurate reflection of the views of young people nationally, those journalists probably had a good handle on the situation.

Globally, politicians are predominantly male and viewed as being out of touch with people’s real concerns. Maybe the young are able to identify with ‘people who are like them’. She felt that women need to identify with people in order to vote for them and currently the backgrounds of our elected representatives at have changed. Years ago Members of Parliament were drawn from a wide variety of careers, now they are seen as Oxbridge educated and Westminster trained. Ordinary women, consequently, may have a sense that politics does not apply to them.

Celia then examined the Democrat and Republican campaigns in the USA election and said that it was very clear that Obama had made an effort to appeal to women and it was their vote which had propelled him to the White House.

Celia felt that there were lessons in this for British politicians who should not assume that because women are not voting that they are not listening. Politicians should not just target their policies towards those who vote.

At Conservative Future Women, the organisation Celia represents, the aim is to encourage young women to engage in the party. She explained that there were a myriad of events on offer and CF Women hold receptions and speaker meetings, but the most popular events, by far, were those which offered training, mentoring and networking business leaders; events which offered something to women.

Nicky Morgan agreed that Conservative Future and other youth organisations are vital to engage young people in the voting process and that politicians should be concerned with political engagement. She also thanked the Conservative Women’s Organisation for the work that they do in engaging with women of all ages.

Nicky then went on to say that she is not alone amongst her colleagues in thinking that one of the most rewarding activities she undertakes as a Member of Parliament is to go into schools and talk to young people. She believes it is important to inspire young women and enthuse the next generation about policies and politics.

She went on to state that this Government has achieved a great deal; most notably increasing educational standards and raising aspirations of young people. She says that she is passionate about raising the aspirations of girls and is committed to increasing opportunities for girls in the traditionally male areas of education: the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths.

She recounted a recent visit to the Bombardier factory where she met their first female welder. She noted that the company took great pride in her accomplishments.

Nicky told the forum that politics is so much more than the commonly perceived ability to stand up and make a speech; it is about building relationships and identifying problems, bringing people together to resolve those problems and find a solution. Young women need strong female role models and Nicky welcomes the rise in talented women in the Government as Ministers and PPSs and believes there is room for many more female appointments. She said that she first became involved in politics 21 years ago because she realised that you can actually change things. MPs have the ability to change the law as well as having a voice on an international platform. She felt that it is essential to make people understand what it is that Members of Parliament actually do and why what they do matters.

Nicky was asked, whether as a short-term measure, all-women shortlists would be appropriate and stated that it was her opinion that shortlists should be a meritocratic process. She recalled her own selection, which, simply owing to the choice of candidates shortlisted by the Association, happened to be an all-women shortlist, although this was a happy coincidence rather than as a result of having been manufactured. Nicky believes that new ways of selecting candidates should be considered and that in her opinion, one of the better ways for an Association to select a candidate is to give each candidate the opportunity to associate with potential constituents. She was also asked, as Secretary of State for Education, about including more female role models on the Curriculum. Nicky responded by saying that she would find it an interesting exercise to undertake to discover how many women are currently included on the current Curriculum.

Sarah Newton, as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, started by saying that there are more women standing at the 2015 General Election than in the past. She said that the selection of candidates is a completely meritocratic process and in selections for the upcoming General Election, there have been 6 spontaneous all women shortlists compared to only 2 all men shortlists.

She stated that she wants a Party which looks like the country. There is a much bigger picture to reflect than a simple split of 50% men and 50% women. She believes that people are passionate about issues and the desire to make the world a better place.

The Party has undertaken a number of ventures to draw people into the political process. She explained that one of the most innovative campaigns was the introduction of Team 2015 which was the brainchild of Grant Shapps. To be a member of Team 2015 does not require party membership but those who participate do believe in Conservative aims. Sarah believes that young people do give up their time and volunteer for issues they believe in.

When visiting schools she finds that young people are interested in issues as is evidenced with the success of school councils and mock elections. She said that she uses the model of the school council to explain the wider implications and importance of political engagement starting with the school council, to the town council, to the County Council to Westminster.

A lively discussion ensued from which various themes were drawn. It was clear that in order to engage young people in the political process they need to understand the role of a Member of Parliament. Sarah Newton explained that she directs prospective candidates to the Women2Win website which has a number of short films about the realities of being a Member of Parliament.

Additionally, issues do matter to young people, even if they choose not to vote, however, politicians and policy makers should not assume that those who do not vote are not interested.

Q&A: The importance of social media in young people’s lives was debated, as well as the question of whether lowering the voting age would have any impact on young people’s political engagement. Looking to Scotland where the voting age for the imminent Referendum has been lowered it was not clear whether it was this factor, or whether it was the energy and passion behind this particular campaign which was drawing young people into the political process.

Much discussion was had about the relevance of the Suffragettes to young people’s attitudes to political engagement. We were reminded that there is a play, ‘To Freedom’s Cause’, which caused Jane Garvey, R4 Women’s Hour, to comment that it should be seen by everyone who cannot be bothered to vote and that the new film “Suffragette” with Meryl Street as Emmeline Pankhurst is due for release on the 16th January, which may help with political engagement with women.

It was also noted that more young women pay to vote on reality TV shows each weekend than would vote in an election.

Niki Molnar ended the evening by thanking everyone for coming. She informed those present that there are a number of Conservative Women’s Organisation events scheduled during Conference and the next CWO Westminster Forum is on November 25th called ‘Body Beautiful; the Ugly Truth’. The details and registration facility are on the CWO website.

For further information about the CWO, or to arrange an interview with anyone named in this release, please contact:

CWO Chairman
Tel: (020) 7984 8139