Harriet Harman’s interim leadership was a catalyst, as was the introduction of a new gender quota system for electing shadow cabinet members. The result is that women now hold 11 positions in the shadow cabinet, in stark contrast to the coalition’s frontbench. Yet while the ‘representational’ shift at the top of the Labour party is important, it is by no means sufficient. Labour’s relative diversity lends legitimacy to its critique that the coalition’s policies are out of touch and regressive. But it is not enough to highlight the generally regressive nature of this government’s plans. Labour’s frontbench must now respond with particulars. And one of the most striking particular effects of the coalition’s agenda is its disproportionate impact on women.
Despite positive steps since 1997, it remains the case that women are more likely to be employed in low paid, part-time work, more likely to head a single parent household, more likely to earn less and own less, especially in older age. An approach to reducing the UK’s deficit that prioritises spending cuts over taxation measures will increase women’s economic inequality. This is not just because women receive the majority of tax credits and welfare payments (whether for themselves or for their children). It is also because women make up a higher number of public sector workers (approximately 65 per cent) as well as public service users.
These facts matter not just for women but for society as a whole. In terms of public service provision, cuts which target women and children are intimately linked. The coalition’s failure to protect child benefits is a prime example: one result is that women who stay at home to care for children will lose their entitlements to the carer’s credit, and thus the full value of their state pensions, if their partner currently supports the family and earns more than £44,000. Yet there is no indication that this aspect of the policy was considered before the coalition announced the cut. Overall, the budget hit women three times as hard as men, with an estimated £5.8bn (72 per cent) of the £8.1bn net personal tax increases and benefit cuts being paid by women. But to date the Treasury has failed to show that it assessed the gender impact of the proposed cuts before finalising the budget, as it was required to do by law. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the coalition is failing to acknowledge the realities of women’s lives not out of ignorance, but because it simply doesn’t care.
At Labour’s annual conference, Ed Miliband led the way in highlighting these regressive aspects of the coalition’s agenda, stating that he would make gender equality central to his future plans. In doing so, he was supported by a range of shadow ministers on issues from domestic violence protection orders to the coalition’s embarrassing U-turn on rape anonymity over the summer. Evidently, there is some will at the top of the party to engage with the gender implications of the government’s agenda; but with the comprehensive spending review looming, the shadow cabinet’s task is urgent. Over the next few weeks, Labour women must continue to press the case at the top of the party for a gender-specific critique across all government departments. Only then will Labour be able to mount a comprehensive response to the problem.
It is, of course, true that the opposition must aim to be a voice for the whole country rather than any one group or sector. It is also true that in some respects the coalition’s policies cut across gender divides. But only by identifying the specific disparate impacts of these cuts can we understand the true societal costs, whether in terms of gender, race, class or otherwise. We have every right to fear that the next generation of women will have fewer chances in life than the one before. In exposing the regressive nature of the coalition’s plans, Labour’s new shadow cabinet must be the first to remind us of that possibility and to promote an alternative vision.
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