Vera Baird QC presents the state of politics for women today.
Vera Baird QC was the Solicitor General from 2007-2010, and the Labour MP for Redcar from 2001-2010; she is the co-director of Astraea: Gender Justice (Research and Education). She spoke at the 2012 Fabian Conference on women, politics and the crisis
Whenever we discuss the financial crisis, we should make the point that economic policies are gendered and point out, cut by cut, how coalition measures affect women, differently from men.
For instance, Professor Sylvia Walby (Gender & the Financial Crisis, 2009) has shown how tax is a gendered issue, disproportionately collected from men, who have more money and disproportionately spent on women, who have less, whether in old age (after life-long low and intermittent earnings), or as lone-mothers unable to earn enough without state support.
Public projects are disproportionately supported by women, such as education, childcare and health.
A cut in the 50p rate of income tax would redistribute money from women to men. Reducing tax evasion benefits women, who lose when taxes are not collected, because of their interest in state spending.
A cut in corporation tax benefits men since mostly men are involved in companies as managers, shareholders and private pension holders.
Lord Davies reports that only 7.3 per cent of Directors in the FTSE 250 are female, an under-representation of women in financial decision-making. With 20 females out of 119 Coalition Ministers, women have little say in raising taxes either, even though they are major recipients.
The better known mirror image is that public service cuts hurt women more, especially since many women work there. Continuing a public sector wages cap is wise, now that Osborne, as Ed Balls predicted last year, has pushed the economy to the threshold of recession. However, we should acknowledge that a cap will hurt women disproportionately.
Yvette Cooper did excellent work demonstrating that 70 per cent of Tory emergency budget measures disadvantaged women over men and the Fawcett court case gave the protest focus.
We must keep talking about these issues and good people to do so are women MPs. Last week saw the second anniversary of the Speaker’s Conference on diversifying the Commons but little has changed. 22 per cent of MPs are women; 32 per cent of Labour MPs, 16 per cent of Tories and 12 per cent of Lib Dems.
At the current rate it will take 70 years to achieve equality.
Nonetheless, there is a risk to all women shortlists, as the Boundary Commission proposals cut the number of constituencies and sitting MPs contest with each other and probably get priority for other seats.
Favouring the predominantly male PLP will impede progess to diversity in itself, but in 2005, AWS was abandoned in Scotland when 13 seats were cut. The number of women selected fell.
It is well-known that the problem is not that the public won’t elect women – or BME or disabled candidates – but that not enough are selected by the parties. In fact more women tend to vote if there is a woman candidate and that helps us with the perpetual problem of getting our vote out.
Labour social policy has changed radically, since women MPs started to raise issues like violence against women, parental leave and childcare, now seen politically as cross gender but important particularly for women electors.
So if we went back on AWS in 2015, we would shoot ourselves in the foot. But we need to be vigilant. It is still seen as a fair weather measure, to be scrapped in hard times in support of one favourite son or another.
Women MPs are hearing that the coalition’s cuts, commissioning policy and legislative moves are going beyond hurting the purse over the wallet now and may be putting women at risk:
• Fewer police on the beat and cutting street lighting affect everyone but worry women most.
• Refuges are cutting bed-spaces for women fleeing violence.
• Seventeen thousand suspected rapists have been removed from the national DNA database despite strengthening understanding that rape is often a repeat offence.
• Legal aid cuts will mean many domestic violence victims going to court alone and being questioned face to face by their abuser.
Yvette Cooper’s women’s safety commission is investigating the cumulative impact on women’s safety. The evidence we have gathered so far is worrying. We will use its findings to feed the Party’s policymaking process and populate a future women’s safety bill, but we will also take them to the government and campaign for change.
We must ensure that we audit the gender impact of coalition economic policy, so unfairness is highlighted; select more female candidates to represent women and campaign to reverse any threats to women’s safety found by the Commission – albeit all in the context of the economic crisis and stress on public funds.
By these steps we should cement our current edge in the battle for women’s support – by demonstrating that we are the party that raises their issues and serves their interests best.
• Women turned away from refuge shelters told to sleep in Occupy camps – Vera Baird QC, January 10th 2012
• Boris is turning back the clock for women in London – Shelly Asquith, November 14th 2011
• Two weeks after ‘fixing’ it, Cameron creates a new “women problem” – Alex Hern, October 17th 2011
• Tory MP: People opposed to legal aid cuts are “irresponsible and unhelpful” – Jonny Mulligan, October 5th 2011
• Huhne attacks “Tea Party Tories” – who on Earth does he mean?! – Alex Hern, September 20th 2011