Chances are you’ve had the conversation. It’s the one that’s been echoing around the country for the past month since Theresa May called a snap election; the one where, when the subject of June 8 is raised, it’s met with eye rolls or sighs of frustration or despair – or, worse still, plain old boredom.
Many of us are heading towards this election feeling less engaged with its issues and outcome than we’ve ever done before. The voter turnout is widely expected to be dismal, possibly even lower than 2001, when a paltry 59 per cent of the electorate cast their vote. Even those who believe exercising their democratic right is a sacred duty seem to be contemplating the prospect with reluctance.
Voter apathy is rife and it’s not surprising. This is the third major ballot the country is facing in as many years. We’re weary after the pace of all the changes, from the coalition to Cameron’s government, then Brexit and now May. Last year’s EU referendum was so bitterly divisive that we can hardly be blamed for not welcoming another political battle, particularly when the wounds from Brexit are far from healed. Of course we’re apathetic. It’s just, perhaps more than ever, that’s a dangerous mindset to be in – and, according to experts, it could be especially so for women.
But, then, who are we supposed to be voting for? The Conservatives are on course for a sweeping victory, which makes the outcome appear to be a foregone conclusion. As if that wasn't discouraging enough for people who don’t vote Tory, Labour’s current incarnation under Jeremy Corbyn is viewed by many as a weak and ineffectual opposition, while the Liberal Democrats would have to experience a near-miraculous recovery to become a genuine power player.
Policies that have benefitted women – from equal pay to help with childcare costs – only came about when politicians had to pay attention to our vote
“This is the fifth election I’ve covered and voters’ enthusiasm is the lowest I’ve ever seen,” says Jane Merrick, a political commentator and co-founder of daily news email The Spoon. “It looks like the most predictable election for years, with very few outside loyal Jeremy Corbyn supporters believing Labour are going to win.
“Labour’s leaked manifesto was full of policies that will be popular with the public, but he is still so behind in the polls, because people don’t see him as a credible prime minister. Is it any wonder people are so apathetic, with a lack of real choice on offer?”
Without that sense of choice, a large proportion of voters feel disenfranchised. Many are likely to abstain from voting and, though their resignation is understandable, it’s also precarious – because, as Jane says, “the country is at a critical moment in its history”.
The Brexit negotiations have just begun and nobody can foresee what form our departure from the EU will take. If May wins a large majority, she will have the power to close down opposition to her plans. Whatever your political affiliations or view of Brexit, a healthy, robust debate about all the issues involved is surely preferable – and to ensure that, there needs to be voices in parliament prepared to demand it.
A host of EU rules and regulations currently in effect in Britain will be re-examined and could be changed, following Brexit. May’s government intends to do this without parliamentary votes or scrutiny, using powers dating back to the monarch of Henry VIII. Labour and the Lib Dems oppose the plan, with Corbyn calling for “total accountability” for the government at every stage of the process. That accountability can’t be guaranteed without meaningful opposition.
Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, is in a marginal seat and promises to campaign against a hard Brexit if re-elected. She points out that now, more than ever, it’s vital women fight to protect our rights, many of which are enshrined in EU law. “Employment rights such as maternity leave are now at risk because of Brexit,” she says. “It’s understandable that enthusiasm for another election is waning, but the stakes are too high to abstain.”
Of course, there are so many other issues to consider, as well as Brexit – education, the NHS, public services, housing, to name just a few. Every one of them defines the country we live in. Whether the outcome of the election is likely to reflect our wishes or not, if we give up demanding to be heard, we give up our stake in shaping the future.
“When women use our vote, it changes politics,” says Stretford and Urmston MP Kate Green. “Policies that have benefitted women – from equal pay to help with childcare costs – only came about when politicians had to pay attention to our vote. It’s so important we all use our vote to remind politicians that they can’t ignore our interests.”