The pink bus: a politics for her?

11 Feb

The internet is abuzz with reaction to Labour’s pink campaign bus for women voters. It will be used to ferry a group of female Labour MPs around the country, in a bid to address women’s issues in an approachable way.

In fact, the colour of the bus – which is controversial enough, and which has been the chief target of social media ire – bothers me less than the talk accompanying it. The idea apparently is for the Labour notables to go on a ‘kitchen table’ tour – a phrase which does rather suggest that the kitchen is where we women are supposed to be. Granted I love a good political argument around mine, but I don’t think that’s quite the image being conjured up here. Lucy Powell, a senior figure in Labour’s election campaign, is quoted in the Guardian as saying that the bus will mean that the female MPs “have a conversation about the kitchen table, and around the kitchen table” rather than having an “economy that just reaches the boardroom table” ‘.

An economy that ‘just reaches the boardroom table’? – that is just an impossible concept – the economy is created by all the activity of workers everywhere, and boards generally meet to make decisions and decide strategy for the future of whole companies. I’d prefer the kitchen table to be viewed as an integral part of the economy and society, and of course who sits at it most, is part of the backdrop to who makes it to the boardroom. I hope this is part of the conversation Labour will be having.

A Populus poll covered in the FT last week showed that while Labour enjoys a small lead over the Conservatives amongst women voters (3%), mothers of children under 18 are much more likely to vote Labour than Conservative (48% compared to 28%). These figures suggest that Labour has appeal for women, with mothers a key source of support. As over 70% of mothers are now employed, the kitchen table may not be the best place to look for them. Harriet Harman has argued that the bus is part of message showing that women in politics can stand up for women in society, which is a worthwhile aim. But judging by the online conversation, there’s a lot of people who feel that the pink bus is a turn-off, no matter how well-intentioned the focus on women may be.

The issues that have been highlighted as key to the bus tour for women are: childcare, social care, domestic violence, equal pay and female representation. These are all important issues, and yes, concern the position of women. But they also concern men – as fathers, as sons and partners, as perpetrators, as co-workers and as the main holders of positions of power. In packaging them as ‘women’s issues’, there’s a risk that they become more distant from the political mainstream. And if we look at the issues that are high up in the current general election debate – the NHS, the state of the economy, cost of living, immigration, education, EU membership, international policy in defence and foreign relations – all of these impact on women as well as men. In fact, as we still tend to do more of the care work, and are more likely to be employed in the public sector, some of these issues may even affect us more than men. And women are just as capable as men of forming an opinion on issues, which may not, literally, be part of daily life.

Perhaps the pink bus should be credited with getting us all talking about gender and politics, but it might do no harm to remember that ‘bus’ is short for ‘omnibus’ which means ‘for all’. That’s how I, and I suspect many others, like their politics.


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