Scrutinising these questions and up for public scrutiny themselves were five candidates vying for the position of MP for Bristol West. Darren Hall, representing the Green Party, offered a hopeful vision of the future, one where structural inequalities are challenged and women’s, often hidden, contributions are recognised.
On women and the economy, both the Conservative candidate, and the incumbent Liberal Democrat MP, looked backwards, lauding the so-called achievements of their government, including the claim that falling unemployment means women are better off.
The complacency of this attitude was firmly rebuffed by Green candidate Darren Hall as he commented on the huge distance to go locally, nationally, and globally in terms of gender equality. He called for recognition of the unpaid work that women do and a reversal of the austerity agenda, highlighting The Fawcett Society’s report ‘Cutting Women Out in Bristol’, which demonstrates how cuts have affected women disproportionately. Whilst unemployment figures have fallen, recent data shows 2.3% of those ‘employed’ are on zero-hours contracts, with no guaranteed hours, sick or maternity pay. People on these contracts are more likely to be women. Such data lends the lie to the coalition claim that women are better off under their government.
Darren Hall outlined the Green Party’s agenda for action on women’s economic inequality, including flagship Green Party policy on the living wage, greater investment in public services, mandatory equal pay auditing, and a motion passed at conference for free childcare from 12 months.
A question on violence against women led Labour candidate, Thangam Debbonaire, to critique the coalition government for cutting funding for women’s services. Yet Darren pointed out the hypocrisy of this: under Labour too, Britain faces more cuts, which will adversely affect women, such as Labour’s pledge to cap child benefit. Darren not only rejected austerity economics, but also put forward the Green Party policy of investing in statutory personal and social education in schools, as a way to reduce violence against women. On the subject of asylum seekers’ rights Darren was clear that the Green Party would end their traumatic, inhumane, and totally unnecessary detention. He called for increased funding for vital services, such as the Bristol Refugee Rights Centre.
As for the effect of cuts to legal aid on women, Darren Hall outlined Green Party policy for a total reversal of these cuts. Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire dodged the question, suggesting those in need should seek legal advice from their trade union. Liberal Democrat, Stephen Williams, was at least honest in explaining that all three establishment parties agreed on cuts to legal aid, in his own words: ‘I hated having to go along with it’. However, Lib Dem apologies and Labour’s sticking plaster solutions did not wash with the audience last night, and will be cold comfort indeed for the thousands of vulnerable women who are now finding justice is beyond their financial means. Legal aid cuts means many women are left with little choice but to stand as litigant in person in what Darren highlighted as an often acrimonious and macho legal process.
The Green Party’s strong agenda on justice, this time environmental, was spotlighted again with a discussion on the threat fracking poses to human health. Whilst the Lib-Lab-Con candidates fought over who could wheedle and excuse the most, Darren Hall outlined the Green Party’s no ifs no buts anti-fracking stance. Fracking is risky and polluting, and the evidence is clear: fossil fuels need to stay in the ground if two degree global warming is to be avoided. A flurry of applause signalled the audience’s approval.
As the debate concluded with summary statements, Darren offered a parting thought: a vote for one of the three main parties ensures that, no matter who wins, very little will change. Moving forwards means stepping away from the centre and joining the Green surge to create a progressive and just society, where people, regardless of gender, race or class, are treated as valuable equals.
[With thanks to Rowan Quarry for providing photos for this event]