The real problem with Labour’s bus - and it’s not the colour

Harriet Harman

Moving past the ‘pink’ debate Labours campaign only serves to deepen the gender divide it seeks to redress

The use of a campaign by Labour focused predominantly on increasing the number of women voters at the next general election is certainly a controversial one. Whatever good intentions this campaign began with they were mightily overshadowed this week by the campaign van’s controversial colour: the dreaded shade of ‘patronising pink’.

However, aside from the - let’s face it - petty debate over the choice of van colour (some crying patronising whilst others defending it as ‘eye catching’), what it really stirs up are crucially important issues facing the role of women within our democracy.

The pink van began its campaign trail journey this week planning to tour 70 constituencies in the run up to the general election. Apparently helping Labour to connect to female voters the campaign entitled ‘Woman to Woman’ is meant to show that politics isn’t just for the men. However, actively segregating women as potential voters only serves to further deepen our entrenched ideals of gender roles within politics.

Whilst it is true women are underrepresented within Parliament, the turn-out numbers must not be taken out of context. Whilst only 64% of women voted at the last general election indeed only 66% of men did, thus there certainly is an impetus to raise turn out levels amongst both men and women. Segregating a campaign for women seems to unnecessarily separate and segregate the voting population. Making a division as if male and female votes are in some way different or valued differently is certainly unhelpful to our perceptions of gender equality. Whilst granted if there was a huge disparity between the male and female vote it may be more justified it could be hard to imagine a similar campaign based on any other division being tolerated. For example a campaign so patently focused on recruiting people based on their class or race simply would simply not be given the time of day. 

It has time and time again been proven the slogan ‘there’s no such thing as bad press’ rarely applies to politicians and this is no exception. The storm surrounding Labour’s campaign could severely affect them at the next general election. It shows a disappointing grasp of women’s role within our allegedly ‘modern’ democracy.

The patronising comments that have accompanied this campaign have certainly not helped this perception. Labour’s general-election co-ordinator Lucy Powell stated the campaign was about having a talk ‘about the kitchen table around the kitchen table’ rather than ‘economy that just reaches the boardroom table.’ So there we have it ladies, in 2015 one of the leading political parties believes your place is still in the kitchen leaving the important business to the men. This hasn’t gone amiss by the public either; the controversial pink campaign van meant to encourage women voters instead rallied up a storm of protestors on twitter and elsewhere against a so-called ‘patronising’ campaign. At the bus debut Harman was confronted by a man who claimed the bus was anti-equality, dividing men and women into ‘us and them.’ Choosing to make the discussions female-only fails to unify the electorate serving only to alienate and divide them.

It seems the motive behind the campaign was not just raising levels of female voters cross-party but targeting those still undecided. With a poll for Women’s Hour finding that 10% more women than men are still undecided the fight for those votes is certainly palpable within this campaign. Labour’s misjudged and frankly sexist campaign has served them a mighty backlash. It shows a real disillusion and reinforcement of gender inequality within politics. A turbulent time for Labour, it seems pulling stunts such as these in a feeble attempt to whip up support harms both the case for gender equality and female participation as well as to Labour’s own, declining reputation.