Rising Voices: How feminism can open up politics

Lisa Nandy MP

It’s often said that David Cameron has a women problem but it might be fairer to say that women have a David Cameron problem. In the four short years since Cameron became prime minister his government’s austerity programme has had disproportionate and devastating effects on many women, with ethnic minority, disabled and young women bearing the heaviest burden. In the 2010 Budget alone, The Fawcett Society found an astonishing £5.8bn of the £8bn ‘savings’ would come from women.

The coalition have allowed women in Britain to become the shock absorbers for their disastrous policies. And when you look at the numbers it’s not hard to see how. Women are more likely to work in the public sector and rely on public services. They tend to earn lower wages, work part time and shoulder greater responsibility for childcare. For women in my Wigan constituency and across the north west the impact has been catastrophic. Women make up 75 per cent of local government workers and 80 per cent of adult social carers, so cuts to jobs, wages and pensions and the rise of zero hours contracts have been devastating.

90 per cent of lone parents are women, so cuts to child benefit and the introduction of charges to use the child support agency hurt children and their mothers. Women are less likely to have savings, so the introduction of a two week delay to paying jobseekers’ allowance has harmed women the most. Above all, it is not a good time to be a young woman. Since the recession the number of young women out of work has nearly doubled in the north west.

This situation is not inevitable. A series of choices – cuts to domestic violence refuges, the Child Support Agency, carer’s allowance, early years provision and pensions – is a result of deliberate gender-blindness, once a familiar feature of policy making, which the last government tried hard to stamp out.

Gender blindness

It’s not hard to see where this leads. In 2012 the coalition introduced the Child Maintenance Scheme and introduced charges for parents wishing to use it. Since then, the number of new cases taken up by the agency has dropped from 30,000 to just 10,000. Does anyone seriously believe this is because suddenly the negotiations between separated partners have dramatically improved, virtually overnight? Or is the reality is that thousands of lone parents, 90 per cent of them women, cannot now afford to ask for help? A single parent who is unable to afford the charges for the Child Maintenance Service faces the prospect not just of poverty, but of injustice.

Another devastating example is in the field of domestic violence, which appears to have increased during recession. In light of this, government cuts to the police force and domestic violence refuges have pushed a precarious situation into a dangerous one. With a range of polices, from marriage tax breaks aimed at ‘incentivising’ marriage to changes to the welfare system, it isn’t just women’s incomes that are threatened but their very independence. The safety net has been hacked away, the plethora of small charities that act as a lifeline for women have watched their budgets shrink while demand for their services grows. Councils whose budgets have been slashed increasingly fund universal, non-specialist services, often inappropriate for women fleeing domestic violence, if they fund services at all.

It’s easy to forget just how recently many of the battles for equality were won. It was only in 1991, when I was 11 years old, that married women started to receive their own tax returns. In all sorts of ways this government has turned the clock back, slowing and at times undermining years of progress.

Women-centred policymaking

It doesn’t have to be like this. Take the Labour government of 1975, committed to gender equality, bravely using legislation to change social attitudes, rather than follow them. It’s why legislation like the Sex Discrimination Act was a game changer, fundamentally shifting power dynamics which had previously worked against women. But four decades after landmark legislation like this and the 1970 Equal Pay Act, women still earn just three-quarters of men’s salaries for doing the same job. It’s a shocking and striking demonstration of how good legislation can be undermined by subsequent lack of commitment and focus on its delivery.

Partly this is because there are too few women as policymakers and shapers. It’s no accident that the only party that has made significant strides in getting more women into parliament is the Labour party, with more women MPs than all the other parties combined. Despite their controversy, it is clear that all women shortlists were critical in achieving this. In towns like mine, no woman had ever been elected to parliament until an all women shortlist was imposed in 2010.

Margaret Thatcher is a good demonstration that simply having women in positions of power is no guarantee that the situation for all women will be improved. But without diversity, it becomes virtually inevitable that some issues simply aren’t considered. With men still outnumbering women by four to one in parliament and to date only 37 women in the history of parliamentary democracy having ever served in the Cabinet, is it any wonder that issues affecting women are not on the agenda?

What’s more, over two-thirds of parliamentarians come from professional backgrounds which means working class women, like the formidable Bessie Braddock, a former shop girl who became the first woman for Liverpool Exchange, are still rare in British politics. Braddock brought her experiences of life in slums of Liverpool right into the heart of Westminster. Now more than ever we need the voices of working women to be heard in parliament.

All political parties need to think how they open up opportunities beyond a narrow range of people, both as elected representatives and behind the scenes as advisers and officials. The same is true of parliament. As I walked into the Palace of Westminster in 2010 I was greeted by pictures of men, statues of men, and more men. Granted, some progress has been made. In 2010 the House voted that “at least one man and at least one woman shall be elected across the four posts of speaker and deputy speakers”. It’s a welcome move. But women are still woefully underrepresented in positions of influence. Of the 25 committees whose chairs are elected by the whole House only seven are women.

The history of Westminster politics is the history of slow, piecemeal reform. But in 2014, with women and girls still subjected to violence and discrimination online, in society and in the workplace, is slow, piecemeal reform enough? Just as Westminster needs to change, so too does society, to ensure women’s voices are heard much more loudly in the public debate. A 2012 report by Women in Journalism found that 75 per cent of ‘experts’ quoted in news stories were men, while 80 per cent of ‘victims’ quoted were women.

Opening up Westminster and the media is just the start. Men still dominate major charity and corporate boardrooms and change is slow. So we need to think too about women’s role in holding decision makers to account. That means a commitment to the widest possible participation at local, regional and national level. With Labour promising to push power outwards from Whitehall to communities after the next election, it is essential that women’s voices are heard. Stamping out exploitative zero hours contracts, raising the minimum wage and extending free childcare are all essential measures to ensure women can participate.

The actor Emma Watson pointed out recently that by playing up to gender stereotypes we are selling both women and men short, refusing to recognise the important role men play as carers, parents and in traditionally women dominated professions. It would mean issues like childcare becoming as important for men as for women, and both men and women taking responsibility in the fight for equality.

This cultural shift only comes with national leadership. One lesson from the New Labour years was that the state on its own is not enough; it’s only as strong as the number, range and diversity of people who can participate. But if the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that government cannot simply ‘get out of the way’, or the ‘David Cameron problem’ becomes a problem for us all.

Lisa Nandy is the Labour member of parliament for Wigan. In 2013 she was appointed Shadow Minister for Civil Society.

This article originally appeared in the Fabian and Compass collection ‘Riding the New Wave: Feminism and the Labour Party’ edited by Anya Pearson and Rosie Rogers. It is available to read online here

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© Mike Atherton

‘Riding the New Wave: Feminism and the Labour Party’ edited by Anya Pearson and Rosie Rogers is available to read online here