Politicians must learn to recognise what women want

Young Irishwomen will decide the outcome of one of the most important general elections in the history of the Irish state. As the most politically powerful demographic in Ireland, the prospects for Irish economic independence will depend on the choice that this constituency of key swing voters will make. Sunday Business Post January 2 2011

The joke goes that the difference between Republicans and Democrats is encapsulated in an exchange between Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Nixon says: ‘‘Screw the women!” Clinton replies: ‘‘You think we have the time?” The underlying implication is that, when it comes to politics, women should be seen but not heard.

They were often regarded as inconsequential in the greater scheme of realpolitik.

If you happen to be an Italian prime minister, however, it is advantageous for a woman’s political style to contain characteristics that emphasise an attractive and alluring personality.

The country’s current tourism minister, for example, is noted for her exquisite taste in high heels and short skirts and was, incidentally, a former Miss Italy finalist. Indeed, without any trace of incongruity, the person appointed as Italy’s equal opportunities minister posed semi-naked (in a past life) for certain magazines frequently purchased by men with a keen interest in photography.

Although the background of Irish female politicians is a little more salubrious, this endangered species has sought to invite public comment of late.

The decisions of Olwyn Enright, Liz McManus and Mary Upton to retire from public life in recent months provoked an obsessive flurry of debate on the merits and shortcomings of quotas in politics, though the similar decision made by Beverley Flynn last week did not excite such comment.

Are quotas intrinsically undemocratic because they limit the full expression of democratic choice? Or are they vitally necessary to achieve the very basic principle of democracy, that of equality?

Should women just put on a brave face and get elected on their own merits, or is such a premise utterly dependent on the presumption that our existing TDs are classic examples of the consequences of meritocracy?

(Meritocracy, in this instance, is defined as possessing extreme ability and achievement.) The current situation suggests that women in Ireland have become so politically insignificant that even sub Saharan Africa now prides itself on having greater female representation than that of the Dáil.

Claptrap and gibberish.

This is the conventional approach taken on the issue of women in politics. This narrow view of the world – encouraged by a fatalistic political mindset that is currently in great supply in newspaper columns and radio talk shows allergic to any notion of intellectual rigour – is banished from the remainder of this column. The evidence: the 2008Millward Brown IMS poll revealed that the first Lisbon Treaty referendum was lost because the key demographic group that opposed the Treaty was 25-34year-olds (59 per cent) and women (56 per cent).

The second Lisbon referendum was won, according to the 2009 eurobarometer poll, because many of the undecided voters ultimately swung in favour of the treaty.

Women comprised the majority of the undecideds (29 per cent as opposed to 17 per cent of men) and young people (18-24: 27 per cent, 25-39: 32 per cent).

So, young Irish women were responsible for altering the political direction of an entire continent.

More evidence: the Conservative Party won the tightest British election since World War II because young women made the decision to transfer their vote from Gordon Brown’s Labour to David Cameron’s Tories.

The Ipsos MORI ‘‘How Britain Voted in 2010’’ poll, published last May, showed that the biggest swing away from Labour by women (18-24: 15per cent, 25-34: 5 per cent,35-54: 9 per cent). In other words, 20 per cent of young female voters under 35 who voted for Labour at the 2005 election shifted their vote to the Conservatives (8 per cent) and the Liberals (10per cent).

The demographic of young women decided the outcome of the British election. As in the case of the Lisbon Treaty, they remained undecided until the last moment, and their influence was especially keenly felt in the marginal constituencies.

Cameron, the youngest prime minister in almost 200 years, recognised the clout of this often-neglected component of the electorate early on.

The Conservative manifesto directly targeted female voters with its specific emphasis on increasing the number of female Conservative MPs, closing the gender pay gap and addressing childcare issues.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper carried regular reports of the intention of the Tory manifesto to create a more inclusive society and a more open style of government, designed to appeal to those women voters more inclined to reject confrontational political messages.

Key policies included helping parents and community groups to establish their own schools and other public services that would receive state funding.

And it worked. An unprecedented number of female MPs was elected, an increase of almost three percentage points to 21.9 per cent.

The Conservative Party almost trebled its number of elected female politicians, from 17to 48. In the US, the demographic buzzword being used to describe this under-appreciated voting phenomenon is ‘‘WalMart moms’’ (71 per cent aged 18-44).

A May 2010 poll found that ‘‘soccer moms’’ had ‘‘personalized the nation’s economic struggles’’, and they would ultimately prove to be the most critical constituency heading into the 2010midtermelections and 2012presidential race.

This momentum analysis poll established that 39 per cent voted for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, as against 46 per cent for Barack Obama.

But we don’t have to look to the US, or across the Irish Sea, to recognise the influence of women in deciding election outcomes.

The course of Irish history in the 19th century was distinguished by two distinct phases of reform and extension to the franchise.

The Catholic Emancipation Act 1829 and the Reform Ac t 1832 not only extended the franchise to Catholics and instituted wide ranging changes to the Irish electoral system, but also formally introduced Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, to Irish political life.

Dublin’s O’Connell Street is neatly complemented at its other end by the statue of the ‘‘uncrowned King of Ireland’’, Charles Stewart Parnell. His legacy to Irish public life was facilitated by the Secret Ballot Act of 1872, which introduced the privacy of the ballot and created the context for Parnell’s revolutionary decade of the 1880s.

The final and most profoundly powerful extension of the franchise occurred in 1918, when women were granted the right to vote.

For the first time, Irish men and women voted together, and almost half a million of them did so for Sinn Fe¤ in.

The first Dáil of January 21, 1919, had the audacity to proclaim itself an independent Irish parliament.

Mná -óg nah Eireann do not, as yet, wholly understand the power that they grasp with the casual tick of their blunt pencils.

‘‘To sum up in a few words what I want the Young Ireland women to remember from me,” Countess Markievicz declared to the National Literary Society of Dublin a century ago, is to ‘‘believe in yourselves as Irish . . . Arm your souls with noble and free ideas.

Arm your minds with the histories and memories of your country’’. In other words, if women wish to be influential in Irish public life, they must first realise that they already are.

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