Votes for women

05 March 2018

(Feature written for the ASLEF Journal March 2018)

Women had to fight hard – and were arrested, beaten, and force fed in prison – for the right to vote and – like Jo Stevens – stand for and sit in Parliament. Jo, Labour MP for Cardiff Central, and acting chair of ASLEF’s Parliamentary group, celebrates the centenary of women winning the fight for the right to vote at the ballot box in this country

This year we’re marking 100 years since some women won the right to vote in the UK. It was, of course, 10 years later that full suffrage was achieved but the centenary of 1918 is no less important to celebrate.

I say the vote was won because it wasn’t an accident, or an unchecked forward motion that led to this change. It was a victory for campaigners. Many thousands of people who knew that participation in democracy mattered. Not just that people in the existing franchise took part, but that voting rights were extended so that everyone could have the right to decide who represents them.

Along with the vote, of course, came the right for women to stand for Parliament. Women could represent and stand up for their communities and become the decision makers as well as electing them.

The first woman to be elected was Constance Markievicz, a Sinn Fein member who didn’t take her seat. Subsequently,, in 1919, Nancy Astor became the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons.

100 years on there are many more women in the House, thanks to those early pioneers and the hard work of the women who came after them. But we still have more to do. 

While the progress towards equality of representation in Parliament seems to be on the up, participation in democracy outside the walls of the Palace of Westminster is waning. There are many reasons for this, but I hope that one of the achievements of the Vote 100 celebration might be that more people, particularly women, are reminded of what was fought for, and how it was fought, to enable them to have their say today.

The campaign for the right to vote was, from the very beginning, led by working people who organised. The people on which our trade union and labour movement was built and is sustained and strengthened to this day.

I’ll always be a trade unionist first, and a Labour MP second. I’m incredibly proud to be an elected representative and stand on the shoulders of those who fought, and died, for my right to vote, to stand for election, and to represent Cardiff Central as a Member of Parliament.

Today, too, our union movement is as vital in the campaign for democratic participation as it’s ever been. We know that only a Labour government can and will represent working people.

After nearly eight years of Liberal Democrat and Tory ideological austerity, our public services need rescuing and our economy recalibrating so they work for the many not the few. The uncertainty caused by Brexit and the government’s incompetent approach to negotiations adds to our problems.Jo Stevens

It’s working people who have and will continue to bear the brunt of our broken system and it’s working people who must stand up and say no to it.

At the start of the last century working people’s living standards were unacceptable, wages were low, representation was hard to come by, and progressives knew that fighting for the vote was the way to change that.

So now, a century later, what should we be fighting for?

The Labour Party and the trade union movement are currently campaigning for votes for 16 and 17 year olds. Evidence from the Scottish independence referendum showed that when 16 and 17 year olds were given the opportunity to have their say, they took it. Young people across Scotland were proudly engaged in the debate, and turned out to vote in their thousands.

The Welsh Labour government has just announced plans to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote in future local government and Welsh Assembly elections. Labour is calling for votes at 16 for all UK elections. Today’s 16 year olds are growing up into a changing world, and when so much else is expected of them I believe it’s right that they should have their say.

We can also make it easier for people to register to vote. I have introduced an Automatic Voter Registration Bill in Parliament, which would see people automatically added to the electoral register when they are issued with a National Insurance number. My opponents tell me registering to vote is an individual responsibility, but I believe we should be removing barriers to voting, not putting them up. Automatic registration would give many thousands more people the opportunity to have their say and I’m determined to continue fighting for it.

 So, 100 years on from the first women winning the right to vote, I want to see us pulling together and encouraging all women – and men – to have their say, to participate, and to stand up for what matters. 

 

 

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