It was when Theresa May became a cabinet minister that I really realised that David Cameron didn’t share my values.
It was the night that the coalition was formed, and, as I often do when things haven’t gone my way, I turned to the bottle. Some friends and I headed to a bar on the edge of town, and settled into a familiar pattern. Someone would announce a new minister to the table, someone else – usually me – would swear, and then we would all take a drink.
This had been going on some time when Theresa May was announced, but it was enough to jolt me into uneasy and angry sobriety.
Home secretary & equalities minister? Never before has a simple ampersand summed up so exactly why the country shouldn’t – now or ever – suffer a Tory government. It wasn’t just that the equalities brief had gone to someone who had voted against repealing section 28 and adoption equality. It had also been given to one of the busiest ministers in the government. Home secretary and equalities? Why not have home secretary and DFID while you’re at it? Or chancellor of the exchequer and culture? I felt like I had been transported into a foreign country, and I didn’t like it one bit. ‘So, this is opposition,’ I thought, and had another drink.
That ampersand was a sign of things to come. It wasn’t just the brief that was kicked into the long grass; the entire equalities agenda is now an afterthought. More women are unemployed than at any point in the last two decades. Still more make up the ranks of the hidden unemployed, women working for below minimum wage cash in hand, women who have given up work because of the cost of childcare.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats’ own report into the Rennard affair – the scandal that everyone forgot about – revealed that not only had they known about the whole thing, but no one had taken even the smallest of baby steps to do anything about it. No one really apologised, and one of the people accused of failing to act was Jo Swinson, the current junior equalities minister. Targets and pledges have been quietly abandoned or frozen; Cameron wanted a third of his cabinet to be women; there are now four. There are now fewer women in positions of influence in the City or industry than there have been for over 20 years.
It’s not just women who suffer when women’s voices aren’t heard. The majority of library users are female, and most adults who step through museum doors are women, with them being used as everything from a quiet working space to a source of low-cost children’s entertainment, but we’re all weakened by a culture that shuts libraries and museums. Most young people who end up as NEETs – not in education, employment and training – are men, but children are set on the road to failure when their parents – overwhelmingly mothers – have to choose between earning a decent living and providing decent childcare.
We’re all weaker when women are shut out of the debate. The issues being discussed at Winning with Women this weekend aren’t peripheral; they’re absolutely essential to Labour’s mission and whether or not those issues are addressed will be a vital part of whether or not the next Labour government is a success or a failure. For that reason, I hope you’ll join me this Saturday; especially if you’re a man.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.