Senay Boztas

What the UK can learn from the Dutch ‘vote for a woman’ initiative

What the UK can learn from the Dutch 'vote for a woman' initiative
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Call me an obnoxious bigot, but here’s a suggestion. Instead of a queue of mostly male Tory leadership candidates getting their knickers in a twist about who is or isn’t a feminist, how about... electing more women who could take part in the race?

After years of watching politicians dodge balls like female quotas or all-female candidate lists, a grassroots campaign in the Netherlands has come up with a simple idea. Understand your political system and use your vote better.

The Stem op een Vrouw (Vote for a woman) group has been working since 2017 to encourage the country’s 17 million people not just to vote for any old woman. Instead, it suggests ‘hacking’ its preferential voting system, a form of proportional representation where voters choose a candidate from a national list, and those with enough ‘preference’ votes leapfrog their own party’s selection to be first in line for a seat.

The Netherlands is surprisingly unrepresentative for a famously liberal country where women won the same voting rights as men in 1919 (nine years before the UK’s equal franchise act). Currently, only 31 per cent of its 150 MPs are female, as are a quarter of its mayors and council department heads – known, like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel, as 'aldermen'.

So, since 2017, pro-diversity campaigner Devika Partiman has been organising a social media movement inspired by ‘vote for a woman’ leaflets she saw on holiday in Suriname. 'Voting for women was something a lot of people were already doing, but they were voting for the woman highest on the list… all for the same person,' she told me. 'We started thinking about different tactics, tested a couple, then created the idea to vote for a woman lower on the list, who is not easily elected. That turned out to be quite a successful strategy.'

Her group’s campaign, which she claims 2.5 million people have seen, liked or spread, has been credited with making a small but significant difference: three extra female MPs were elected via preferential vote in the 2017 Dutch general election, 42 extra were elected to the provincial council and water boards (regional bodies which manage Dutch waterways), and three more women became MEPs in the EU elections.

The tactic would work in the majority of EU countries which use preferential voting and I – a fearless British feminist living in the Netherlands – wanted to try it out. So, last month, I entered a polling booth in a Dutch church, unfolded an EU voting sheet the size of a modest bath towel, and not only chose a party. I counted down the list, and selected the woman who was not predicted to win a seat. To my surprise, a few weeks later, Samira Rafaela – who was third on the D66 liberal democrat’s list – knocked off the man ahead of her, to become the Netherland’s first MEP of part-Caribbean origin.

Dominic Raab might get hot under the collar about extreme feminism, but surely it’s hard to object to something so... sensible? 'It’s not really controversial,' says Partiman, in her smiley way. 'We’re just asking people to use their democratic right to vote: it’s legal, it’s easy. You can whine about it, but most people aren’t really opposed to it because they understand... in a democracy, people can vote however they want.' And if it’s sexist, she adds, it's less sexist than the fact that 70 per cent of all politicians are male.

The tactic only works in this kind of voting system, of course, but academics like Liza Mügge, director of the University of Amsterdam’s Amsterdam Research Center for Gender & Sexuality, say that Partiman’s whole movement has revitalised the debate on equal political participation. 'They are an energetic and eloquent circle of young women, they have a can-do mentality, smart tactics of on- and offline mobilising and also organise training and election debates,' she says. Half of the battle is signalling to young women, girls, and all kinds of people is that politics is for them, Mügge adds.

Stem op een Vrouw-ers also believe that it’s not about choosing one iron lady or strongman to batter out the future: politicians should be a collective of different people representing different interests, other than their personal ones, and finding compromise. (Surely a good lesson for British politics, where Labour and the Conservatives can’t find a compromise amongst themselves, let alone with each other, while the Netherlands runs a coalition government of four parties).

Maybe we should embrace the idea of obnoxious, bigoted quotas for a moment – because, after all, men had them for all those years when women were excluded from power entirely. Nowhere has more female parliamentarians (61 per cent) than in Rwanda, after it reserved 30 per cent of its seats for women in 2003. And European Parliamentary research suggests that in some EU countries, introducing quotas led to 'immediate major leaps' of 10 per cent or more in female representation – although it says they must fit the electoral system and be combined with other measures.

Joni Lovenduski, professor emerita of politics at Birkbeck University, has one lesson from a lifetime of research in this minefield: quotas work for the parties that employ them, and shame or scare the others into action. 'We know that most other methods of promoting women in politics work only when a party competes with another that has quotas,' she says. 'So, for example, conservative parties make progress when another party in a system has quotas that are bringing more women in to politics. In such circumstances they push hard to nominate and elect women… probably to avoid pressure to have quotas.'

Maybe Europe is listening: record numbers of women have just been elected to serve as MEPs, even though the European Parliament is still 61 per cent male. Now Partiman’s mission is to open up politics to recruit all kinds of people. 'The European Parliament still looks like the fantasy of right-wing Europe,' she says. 'It’s a lot of old men, the conservatives are pretty big, everyone’s white. It’s like an audience for the Concertgebouw, but without the women.'