Contempt for politics is corrosive for democracy, says Labour's Harriet Harman

The fight to earn voters' trust is key to the general election campaign, writes Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman.

Harriet Harman is the Shadow Culture Secretary and deputy leader of the Labour party
Harriet Harman is the Shadow Culture Secretary and deputy leader of the Labour party

In marketing and advertising you think a lot about trust – trust in the product, the brand, the message. So do we politicians. If people don’t trust you or your party, they won’t vote for you – and if they don’t trust politics and politicians, they won’t vote at all.

It is our concern about making it clear to women that who’s in government does make a profound difference to their life

A healthy scepticism about politics is good for democracy. We’re not after slavish adoration of our political leaders. But contempt for politics, a belief that we are all in it for ourselves and, whoever’s in government, it won’t solve the problems people are facing – all that leads to a fall in voting, which is
corrosive for our democracy.

Just as the customer is always right, so is the voter. So the fact that millions of people don’t vote in general elections is a judgement on us – not on them.

Although there’s a general level of disaffection with politics, the problem is even worse with women. At the last general election, 9m women didn’t vote. They think that their vote will make no difference, that politicians have no idea about the daily realities of their lives and live on a different planet.

It is our concern about making it clear to women that who’s in government does make a profound difference to their life, and their vote matters a very great deal, that lies behind our ‘Woman to woman’ tour and the now famous pink bus.

The tour involves Labour women politicians going all over the country to meet up with women, at their workplaces, as they gather at school gates and in shopping centres. The colour of the bus has been controversial, but, as with many campaigns, the first thing is to get cut-through. There’s no point doing something that no one knows about; because of the colour row, women now know about the bus, and that it’s about them and their vote.

You can’t build trust among women just in an ‘air war’ of communications, particularly when it looks to them as if politics is just a load of men shouting at each other. You have to be out there listening and talking.

And women’s voices deserve to be heard. For all the progress we’ve made on equality, women still lead very different lives from men – even when it’s under the same roof. It’s an everyday story for women to turn down a promotion at work because of the extra cost of more hours of childcare. How common is that for men?

Women playing second fiddle

Because men still generally earn more than women, it’s nearly always the woman in the partnership who takes a step back, drops her hours and works part-time to care for the children, while the man strives to earn more for the family finances.

Even where the workforce is mostly women, it’s still men who dominate the leadership positions

Women are now working in every industry, in every service – public and private. But even where the workforce is mostly women, it’s still men who dominate the leadership positions.

In just a few weeks, women and men will be going to the polls across the country. As politicians, we always feel that every election is historic, but this one is unprecedented and a great deal is at stake. Our democracy is of enormous importance and the biggest enemy it faces is the disaffection and alienation that so many people feel.

In a first-past-the-post election system, winning is getting the most MPs. But the system needs more than that. It needs the confidence of the people our parliament purports to represent. Parliament needs more than just 650 MPs to be working properly: it needs the legitimacy bestowed on it by public trust.

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