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. As Seema Malhotra MP noted on LabourList a few weeks ago, 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.