Between a rock and a hard place: women under the Coalition

The 27th April 2011 was a missed opportunity for the Labour party. On that day the debate surrounding gender inequality did, briefly, rear its head at the forefront of the British political agenda once again. David Cameron’s quip advising Angela Eagle to “Calm down, dear” brought two distinct reactions with many in the Labour party outraged at the prime minister’s remark. Those with profiles to enhance such as MP Heidi Alexander asserted that “people will rightly be asking how someone with such disgraceful views came to be selected as a Conservative candidate in the first place… David Cameron should apologise and make clear that there is no room for sexism in Britain today”. At the same time some commentators berated those on the left for overreacting to what they insisted was nothing more than a humorous remark.

Amidst all the posturing and prevaricating Yvette Cooper was the sole frontbench Labour voice to look deeper into the prime minister’s comments and question whether they were symbolic of a wider ‘blind spot’ that this government has in relation to women. In an interview with the New Statesman, the shadow home secretary described what she called a “toxic combination” between the traditional conservative view that the woman’s place is in the home, and the liberal objective to withdraw the state from family life.

The lack of analysis of what lay behind Cameron’s attitude towards women is an indication of how the world in which the equality debate now operates is one of tax policies centred on pasties, government ministers taking blame for individual stupidity, funding scandals, fuel panic and George Galloway MP. It is of polls and campaigns, headlines and hash tags and Ed Balls’ opinion on Britain’s Got Talent. In this new political paradigm is there still a place for serious debate about institutionalised injustices which curtail opportunities, problems which cannot be solved by keyboard warriors or pasty giveaways? The challenge for Labour is making equality sexy, and it’s a challenge to which we have not yet risen.

Almost a year on from the prime minister’s remark to Angela Eagle it seems reasonable to reflect on this government’s approach to women and gender equality. That the number of women out of work is at a 25 year high and still rising is not the most objectionable matter here. That accolade goes to the fact that whilst there has been a 19.1% increase in the number of unemployed women in Britain since 2009, the same period has seen a rise of merely 0.32% among men. Those figures are not a coincidence; they are the result of a prolonged campaign of irresponsible and unfair austerity that has targeted working women more than others. From cuts to child benefit and child tax credits meaning many women can no longer afford childcare to the scaling-down of measures to protect vulnerable women against domestic abuse, this government has overseen a protracted campaign against gender equality.

According to figures published in the Guardian, George Osborne’s financial policies will raise an extra £14.9bn in tax in 2014/15. Excellent – those quietly in favour of the austerity agenda may be concluding – until they realize that £11.1bn of that will come as a result of measures taken to affect women.

As the government continues “turning back time on women’s equality”, Labour must stand up and be counted. In days gone by we could be relied upon to fight against injustice, discrimination and inequality. I said at the start of this post that 27 April 2011 was a missed opportunity. We as party, as shadow ministers, as MPs and as members have a duty to ensure that 27 April 2012 does not conclude a year in which we did little to advance women’s equality, with few proposals to move forward in the future.

Seema Malhotra MP noted on LabourList a few weeks ago that women are once again deserting us. They are aware that right now we do not represent the political arm of the equality movement. It is vital that we re-engage with that position. From stronger opposition to the latest working tax credit changes meaning work won’t pay for mothers to creating a viable plan for a national childcare scheme, there are countless ways in which Ed Miliband and the front bench can take the lead in this debate once again.

Lumping this fight in with pasties and dinner scandals simply won’t do. Women in Britain need a strong and principled Labour party. We owe it to them to deliver.

By Mike Eakins

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Childcare – an opportunity for Labour’s welfare policies and the economy

There’s been a lot of talk recently about welfare reform, but sadly it seems to have been cover for rolling back rather that arguing a case for a progressive welfare system. A long time ago, long before we were born something happened called ‘Second Wave Feminism’, and in Oxford in 1970 a bunch of these ‘second wave feminists’ got together and pulled together a mini-manifesto of four key demands of UK feminists:

  1. equal pay for equal work
  2. equal opportunities and education
  3. free contraception and abortion on demand
  4. 24 hour childcare meaning that childcare should be available at any time for women who worked unsociable hours

Soon after they got their first win, The Equal Pay Act 1970 followed up in 1975 with the Sex Discrimination Act. Although that’s a legislative win it doesn’t mean the demand was met, today women are still paid around 20% less than men and face losing their jobs when they become pregnant. Education is a happier tale; by 1992, more women were graduating from universities than men – however this was predominately from within the arts and humanities, while men continued to dominate the ‘serious’ subjects of engineering and the sciences which coincidentally led to higher paid jobs. With significant cut backs to the arts and humanities at universities, it appears women’s educational gains are once again under threat. Back to the four feminist demands and another win with the contraception; many women now chose to control when and how many children to have using the contraceptive pill provided free on the NHS. Abortion on demand hasn’t been met but most women find they can access abortion services once they’ve jumped through the hoops of getting two doctor’s permission; unless they live in Northern Ireland where it is still illegal.

But what about the childcare demand?

Many a working parent will tell you that either they or their partner work ‘just to pay the childcare’, the Daycare Trust findings for childcare costs in 2011 were that childcare costs have typically increased by more than the average wage, the average yearly expenditure for 25 hours nursery care per week for a child under two is £5,028 in England, £5,178 in Scotland and £4,723 in Wales. Worryingly, some 60% of Family Information Services across Britain said that parents had reported a lack of childcare in their area during the past twelve months, with only 12% reporting there was sufficient childcare to meet the needs of parents working atypical hours across their local authority.

Is the demand for 24-hour access to safe childcare a demand whose time has come? We have a National Health Service, why not a National Childcare Service? While we had something like this during World War Two when women were needed to make the bombs and work the land, after the war, the 1950s saw an end to that. If we can make a National Childcare Service during the difficult times of war, why can’t we invest in one to help improve our lives? A National Childcare Service would end the postcode lottery and enable all parents who wanted to work that opportunity to do so. At a time when we need to grow our economy the government should be enabling parents and carers to work outside of the home. Not only would a National Childcare Service provide greater flexibility and economic security for parents, it would also provide thousands of jobs for those who are graduating from colleges with specialities in childcare. Many comprehensives now teach childcare courses beginning at a GCSE or BTEC level, and colleges offer qualifications in childcare and nursery nursing. These vocational qualifications are designed to provide people with a non-university focussed route to a good career, yet the state of the private nursery market is one filled with high competition for jobs and wide discrepancies in the level of training given to their staff and the level of value staff are awarded. By creating a National Childcare Service, we could reward those in the childcare profession with the same level of distinction as nurses and teachers, providing careers for thousands who would otherwise face difficult competition in a saturated market, while offering a vital boost to the service economy. That would be a progressive policy for welfare reform and a policy Labour could have for growing the economy again.

 

By Calum Sherwood and Cat Smith

Twitter: @CalumSPlath and @CateySmith

The Dorries Amendment: What happened? What next?

It’s been all over the news this week, but what exactly is happening to abortion services?

Nadine Dorries amendment on changing the abortion counselling was rejected last Wednesday by an amazing majority of 250. But what was it she was trying to do and why was it damaging?

The amendment if passed would have prevented providers of abortion, such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) from offering counselling to those facing an unplanned pregnancy. Ms Dorries claimed that these organisations were not impartial and thus the counselling they were giving was not appropriate.

Nevertheless, as Diane Abbott clearly stated in her rebuttal speech the amendment was a ‘shoddy, ill-conceived attempt to promote non-facts to make a non-case – namely that tens of thousands of women every year are either not getting counseling that they request or are getting counseling that is so poor that only new legislation can remedy the situation’.

Despite Dorries best attempts to make us believe that they do, organisations such as BPAS have no vested interest in persuading people to have abortions, they are not for profit and exist purely to help women who face unplanned pregnancies. The current law already ensures that these organisations give impartial counseling to any women who requires or would like it. Any suggestion that this isn’t happening makes the assumption that these counselors are breaking the law and not doing there job correctly. Yet all the staff at BPAS undergo scrutiny by the Care Quality Commission and receive regular feedback from their clients. If the staff were not doing their job – we would know.

If this amendment had of passed then it would have paved the way for anti choice groups, such as LIFE, to offer this ‘independent’ counseling. Also it would have been a further step, a further delay and a further obstacle for women seeking an abortion. A recent observation of a BPAS clinic showed that the process is already too long. Clients commented “Make it quicker,” and “Less waiting, adds to anxiety.” The observation concluded that “no one felt rushed’.

Thankfully the amendment was defeated, however this may not be the end of it. Anne Milton, the Government Health Minister stated that ‘she agreed in principle’ to the aims of the amendment and agreed to look into counseling provision. If they decide to change it, it could result in women being sent to somewhere else, after getting the two doctors permission and meeting with an abortion provider. This is at best an inconvenience but at worst, for those in rural areas, or who have come from Northern Ireland where abortions are still largely illegal, or who cannot take another day of work or who cannot afford the travel costs or cannot find someone to look after their kids ect ect, having an abortion could become an impossibility.

Dorries claimed in her speech that many pro-choice campaigners refuse to discuss changing the abortion provision and that is why they are opposing this amendment, but there is much that we would like to discuss and change. If there was an amendment in favour of getting rid of the two doctor requirement, or allowing Northern Ireland to have abortions on the NHS, or changing the procedure of an Early Medical Abortion so that the second pill can be taken at home (as is done in the instances of miscarriage) then many of us would be supporting it. Pro-choice campaigners want to have these discussions but the debate needs to be turned on its head. In recent years pro-choice campaigners have continually been on the back foot as anti abortionists attempt to chip away at abortion rights.

For our abortion rights to be protected and extended we need to reclaim this debate.