The party has important things to say to female voters, there's no need to wrap them up in girlie coloursby / February 11, 2015 / Leave a comment
Do you like pink? I certainly don’t—not a single item of my wardrobe is pink. It’s not that I’m making a feminist fashion statement every time I get dressed, it’s just that pink has certain girlish connotations which I would rather avoid.
So, it’s with amusement that I spied the Twitter backlash triggered by Harriet Harman’s bright pink battle van—dubbed the “Barbie Bus” by some—which will tour the country in the run-up to the election trying to win the women’s vote for Labour. Harman who is being mercilessly mocked online for choosing such an obviously gendered colour, defiantly declared in an interview with the Huffington Post that it wouldn’t be perceived as patronising because “It doesn’t have big eyelashes on the front.”
Debate is also raging about the van’s true colour. Harman says it’s technically magenta. The Shadow Women’s Minister Gloria de Piero, who will accompany her her on this election road trip, claims it’s “cherise.” Another reportedly contentious issue is whether or not a man should be permitted to drive the bus (the driver is provided by Labour’s biggest union funder, Unite.) For someone who has dedicated much of her career to fighting for gender equality, Harman appears strangely out of touch with female taste. “It’s a very nice-looking bus,” she blustered.
Yet, underlying this social media hilarity is a serious point about how best to connect with women voters. In the last general election over 9m women failed to vote, and young women in particular appear to be disengaged from the electoral process. A recent poll for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour found that a disproportionate number remain undecided about how to vote—35 per cent compared with 25 per cent of men. “We want women to feel that this is their democracy and politics is for them as well as for men,” Harman said. “Politics is too important to be left to be a men-only activity. We are saying this is a woman-to-woman activity.”
While there is much to like about the Woman-to-Woman campaign, with its focus on key issues such as childcare, equal pay and tackling domestic violence, its message is undermined by the assumption that women will only pay attention to politics if its wrapped up in pink and presented in a girlie manner. It’s a wonder they haven’t fitted the bus with an on-board karaoke system and a supply of Lambrini.
The embarrassment is heightened by the fact that last year Labour MP Chi Onwurah was among those who accused firms of “aggressive gender segregation” by dictating pink for girls and blue for boys. Why is it so difficult for the main parties to work out a strategy to attract disillusioned female voters which doesn’t comes across as condescending? Who can forget Better Together’s “The woman who made up her mind” video which was labelled sexist for its portrayal of a dippy housewife who found talking about politics tedious, and referred to then leader of the SNP Alex Salmond as “that guy off the telly.” Yes, women are under-represented in parliament.
Yes, politicians need to get out there and hear what they have to say. But, please ditch the frills and the faux girliness, remove any references to kitchen tables from speeches, and give the bus a gender-neutral paint job. Women today don’t conform to these gender stereotypes, a fact which I am confident Harriet Harman is well aware of. It would be shame if the “Barbie Bus” disaster derailed what is in essence a worthwhile, and important, campaign.