First published by Open Democracy on 27th April 2015
As the British election approaches, political parties are trading in the discourse of ‘women’s issues’. But do any of the parties actually meaningfully address women’s rights and needs?
Women make up 52% of the electorate, and nine million women did not vote in the last election. Perhaps this is why the Coalition felt safe enough to wage all-out war on Britain’s female population with a series of austerity measures that disproportionately affected women in a negative way.
Research by the House of Commons Library has determined that nearly 75 per cent of budget savings since 2010 have targeted women’s incomes, and areport by the Women’s Budget Group found that the May 2012 budget primarily leads to women losing out. One fifth of women have an average income consisting of benefit payments, and the planned £10 billion of cuts from welfare spending by 2016-17 will hit women the hardest. Women also make up two thirds of public sector employees, and the 30,000 planned job losses between 2011 and 2017 and proposed ‘regional pay’ rates will have a devastating impact on them.
If austerity is a gendered attack, then it is essential that female voters turn to a party that will protect their interests when they enter the polling stations on May 7th.
Harriet Harman describes the Coalition’s impact on women in Britain as aturning back of the clock, citing tax and benefit changes as the reason why women ‘have paid almost four times as much to bring the deficit down by 2015 even though they still earn less and own less than men’. Labour’s awareness of the gendered nature of austerity is encouraging, as are their promises to introduce a primary childcare guarantee between 8am and 6pm and provide 25 hours of free childcare a week for working parents with three and four-year-olds, worth £1,500. The latter will be paid for with a new levy on banks, which seems only fair since they plunged us all into the mess of recession and austerity in the first place.
Research released by the Fawcett Society shows that since 2008, almost a million women have moved into insecure, low paid work, and female underemployment has nearly doubled. Labour plans to give a tax break to businesses that introduce a living wage, consequently raising the wages of thousands of low paid women, and raise the minimum wage to eight pounds an hour. The Labour ‘Women’s Manifesto’ also pledges to protect the SureStart budget (decimated under the Coalition), open an additional 50,000 childcare places and put tackling violence against women and girls ‘at the heart’ of government. These promises are encouraging, but they are far from radical.
Women have suffered disproportionately from the Coalition government’s tax and benefit strategy, with analysis by the House of Commons Library showing that a net 3.047bn (21%) had been raised from men and 11.628bn (79%) had been raised from women. The Coalition’s criminalization of revenge pornography in 2014 definitely deserves commendation, but generally, meaningful positive change for Britain’s women has not manifested from Cameron’s residency in Number 10. Some rather cursory attention has been paid to women’s rights issues, but any benefit from this has been largely cancelled out by the effects of austerity. For example, a 10 million fund for women’s refuges was earmarked by the Coalition, but they failed to ring fence funding nationally at a time when local funding cuts have seen mass closures of specialist women’s services.
The Conservative manifesto promises to extend the tax-free childcare scheme from all children under 7, to all children under 12, and increase the scheme from 1,200 to 2,000 a year, per child. It also pledges to introduce a new, more flexible system of parental leave, so parents can make the decision of how to best divide up paid maternity leave between them. A new strategy for tackling violence against women has been proposed, that involves better training for police and professionals on the front line, and more focus on preventative work in schools.
As part of the Coalition government, the Lib Dems have plenty to answer for in terms of the gendered nature of austerity and the heavy price paid by women. They have also been spectacularly unsuccessful in increasing female political representation, with just seven women among their 56 MPs. Nick Clegg did not give any women a Cabinet position during the Coalition, and chose not to reshuffle his team before the general election; a move that would have allowed him to promote a woman.
The Lib Dem manifesto pledges to extend the 15 hours of free childcare per week for two years old, and provide the same amount of free childcare to all children between nine months and two years, providing their parents are in work. Overall, the Lib Dems’ focus on equality and women’s rights seems rather lacklustre, with more attention being paid to what they have already achieved rather than what they will do if elected. The assertion that the Lib Dems have encouraged businesses to put more women on boards is flimsy at best, and totally unsupported at worst.
The Greens have a long-established commitment to women’s rights, and are the only mainstream political party dominated by women. First elected MP and former leader Caroline Lucas has been an outspoken campaigner for women’s issues in Parliament, and the Green Party promise to introduce ‘strong measures’ to tackle gender inequality in the UK, including a law requiring the boards of large companies to be made up of 40% women.
Under the Greens, rape crisis and domestic violence centres would be funded from core budgets, and women seeking asylum due to ‘forced marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, rape and other sexual assault’ would have their needs better understood and cared for. This is a truly radical policy and could pave the way for the end of female detention in facilities like Yarl’s Wood, where female asylum seekers are verbally and sexually abused by guards, stripped of their privacy, and many inmates quickly become suicidal.
Much has been made about the ‘women-friendly’ nature of UKIP’s manifesto, published on 9th April, particularly due to the pledge to scrap the unpopular tampon tax. Women’s sanitary products are currently classified as ‘nonessential luxury items’ and are subject to VAT, whereas men’s razors are not. Under current EU law, items that have previously been taxed cannot have tax completely removed from them.
Head of Policy Suzanne Evans asserts that “no other party can pledge to take this simple step” as leaving the EU makes up the foundation of UKIP’s manifesto. UKIP has managed to conflate women’s issues with their negative view of the EU, a tactic that seems particularly cynical when coming from a party that has such a terrible track record regarding women’s rights. A few examples of this include Farage’s branding female city high-flyers as ‘worth less’ to employers if they have children, and MEP Stuart Agnew’s comment that women don’t have the ambition to reach top professional positions because babies ‘get in the way’. UKIP MEPs have consistently failed to represent women’s interests in the European Parliament, voting against or failing to turn up to votes on equal pay, tackling FGM, and eradicating violence against women.
Although it can be argued that the term ‘women’s issues’ is something of a misnomer, it’s essential that we remember that there are issues that disproportionately affect women. If we lived in a more equal society, where women did not shoulder the burden of austerity, face workplace inequality, experience a pay gap, or live their lives at a greater risk of domestic violence and sexual assault, there wouldn’t need to be ‘women’s issues’. There would just be ‘issues’. Childcare, parental leave, and the low pay of care workers should be a priority for both men and women, but this is currently not the case, and as Helen Lewis writes in New Statesman, ‘robbing us of the right to call [care work, childcare etc.] a “women’s issue” is robbing us of the right to speak at all’.