The party’s over: how political brands fail the 21st century woman

A birthday memorial being held for the late MP Jo Cox

Hate them, adore them, or totally ignore them, our major political parties are some of the biggest brands in the country.

You can enjoy their content, buy their products, and use them to define yourself online. Our political institutions and their branding are completely central to the complex, absurd era we’re living through. And a lot of this madness can be traced to our political parties’ failure of the women they represent.

Engine’s 21st Century Woman project focuses on how brands should talk to women, and our research, conducted through a thousand face to face interviews with the women of Britain, painted a bleak picture.

90% of women believe that companies and brands need to take more responsibility for how women are portrayed in advertising – and our political parties are a huge part of the problem.

It’s something we need to talk about now, as party political conferences dominate the headlines. While there will be a lot to applaud at these conferences – the brand values that these parties think deserve the right to shape the country in their image – these showpiece events and the coverage they attract will also show these brands at their very worst.

Modern politics thrives on conflict. In recent years, it’s got personal. From global leaders to the grassroots, there’s an undercurrent of violence, particularly against women. The BBC’s first female political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, needed round the clock protection at both Labour and Tory conferences, after threats from supporters who ran a vitriolic online campaign against her. Meanwhile, Gina Miller, a prominent Remain supporter, received death threats for her role in the Brexit referendum.

Both these women play huge roles in the national conversation about who we are and what we believe in. This is, undeniably, a good thing. However, both have been publicly attacked, from across the political spectrum, for doing what they do. Intimidation isn’t a good value for anyone, let alone a political brand, to be associated with, and it’s hard not to draw parallels between the daily barrages of misogynistic abuse they receive and Kuenssberg and Miller’s prominence as political women.

Political brands need to take responsibility for the toxic culture they’ve helped create. Debate, and the discussion of opposing ideas, are healthy and vital parts of democracy. The fact that multiple female MPs have been threatened with being 'Jo Coxed' is not.

However, the prejudice political women face isn’t just overtly violent. Instead, our most prominent commentators use everything from cynicism to outright racism to discredit the role of women in politics. It’s not a good look.

Diane Abbott is potentially our next home secretary, following a 30-year career in frontline politics. She also faces a daily torrent of online abuse for everything from her skin colour to her sexual history, including, surreally, thinly veiled criticism in a national newspaper for publicly complaining about the abuse she’s received. She can’t win, at least in the eyes of a conservatively inclined media.

Like or loathe her policies, Theresa May is also consistently put in unwinnable positions through comparisons to other people. David Cameron complacently governed from his sofa, but she’s too robotic and unfriendly. Maggie was convinced and unshakeable, but Theresa’s too autocratic. Her childless, distinctly non-familial femininity is constantly used against her, no matter what she does.

So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that 45% of women don’t find it easy being a woman in the 21st Century.

But there is hope.

For every Jacob Rees-Mogg, there’s a Stella Creasey, campaigning for the abolition of the tampon tax despite slurs and online threats. Good things are happening, but while they’re still met with hate, it’s hard to argue with the 75% of women who think we’re still living in a man’s world.

Our media and our politicians aren’t particularly nice to one another, and consequently, the public is even more unpleasant to them. The fact we don’t really trust politicians is a failure of our political parties as brands, and it stems, in part, from an inability to engage with women on the simplest, most structural level.

There’s an ingrained, toxic issue with how political brands talk about and to half their target market, and for all the promises and policies we’ve seen over the conference fortnight, the inevitable endgame is diminished loyalty, plummeting engagement, and, eventually, one question: why bother?

It’s a question our political institutions may need to answer sooner rather than later.

Owen Keating is a content editor on Partners Andrews Aldridge’s 21st Century Women initiative

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