Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A no deal Brexit will hit women hardest

The possibility of a no-deal exit from the European Union is shaping up to be one of the great feminist issues of our time, argues Isabel Bull

With parliament in flux, the Conservative government close to collapse and even seasoned political commentators confused as to what is going on right now, Brexit is tearing our politics to shreds.

Despite parliament repeatedly voting against a no-deal Brexit, until an alternative is found, it remains the default. We are in dangerous waters.

A no-deal Brexit will be catastrophic for not only our economy, but also our communities. There are many reasons to ensure the Brexit process does not result in an accidental no-deal scenario: not least, because of the terrible consequences it would have on women up and down the country.

It may not seem it at first glance, but no-deal Brexit is very much shaping up to be one of the great feminist issues of our times.

Analysts have consistently warned that a no-deal Brexit will lead to economic uncertainty and recession. The IFS has said that no-deal Brexit risks years more of austerity. Our own Conservative chancellor even warned that a no-deal Brexit would destroy the government’s (pitiful, though it may be) pledge to end austerity, during his spring statement. And as history shows us, periods of poor and negative economic growth adversely affect women.

The House of Commons library has found that 86 per cent of austerity measures seen over the last decade or so have fallen upon women. Women are more likely to be in receipt of public services which have been decimated, time and time again, over the last eight years. Funding has been slashed for working tax credits, women’s refuges and child benefit, to name a few. With a Conservative government in power, no-deal driven austerity could hit us even harder.

What’s more, women are more likely to be employed in cyclical industries, such as the retail and hospitality and public sectors, which are more likely to see job losses during economic downturns. In the first half of 2018 alone, a staggering 50,000 retail jobs in the United Kingdom were lost, mainly affecting women who make up 60 per cent of the UK retail workforce. Some have already pointed to this being due to the economic uncertainty caused by a potential no-deal Brexit. If the economic forecasts for no-deal Brexit are even half-true, women should have much reason to be worried.

It is not just the economics that should have women concerned, though. One particularly troubling issue surrounding the Brexit process so far – which has been much ignored – is the nearly non-representation of women and their views in the Brexit debate. With women making up 50 per cent of our population, this oversight is a democratic travesty.

In November 2018, the BBC published a profile on the top Brexit negotiators on both sides. Of the eight people highlighted only two were women: Sabine Weyand and Sarah Healey. Yes, we have a female prime minister, but as Margaret Thatcher tenure demonstrated, this means nothing if women in power do not use their position and influence to elevate other women.

Of course, we cannot know for sure if things would be different if more women were involved at this top level. But, looking to other areas of international negotiation, during peace processes, peace treaties are 35 per cent more likely to last 15 years or longer if women are involved.

This worrying trend is not just confined to the upper echelons of the Brexit process, across the whole debate women’s views have been totally ignored. YouGov figures released in September of last year found that women backed remain on 23 June 2016 by a margin of 12 points, voting to stay in the European Union 56 per cent to 44 per cent. The poll also found that 73 per cent of women believe Brexit promises will be broken and 83 per cent believe the Brexit process so far to have been a mess. While it is simple logic that the small margin of victory for the Leave vote shows there is little national appetite for a hard Brexit – there appears to be no overall appetite amongst women for Brexit at all.

Perhaps most concerning of all though, no-deal Brexit could put women’s rights under threat. Last year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) warned that women in the UK could lose hard-won rights when the UK leaves the EU. Without regulatory alignment, future equality and human rights protections will not automatically be binding here. The EHRC 2018 review on women’s rights and gender equality in 2018 makes several recommendations for EU member state governments, including better support for survivors of sexual violence and a review of hate crime legislation. If we leave with no-deal, and therefore no alignment, women in the UK could miss out on these potentially life-saving measures.

In 2019, women have made many advancements. However, rights can be taken away. Economic downturns can destroy lives without warning. And, politics still far too often ignores the wishes of women. What will happen to Brexit is still up for grabs, but with a no-deal Brexit still possible, feminists up and down the country must heed notice and mobilise.

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Isabel Bull is a contributor for Progress. She tweets @isabel_bull

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