By Glenis Willmott
From my perspective as Labour’s third woman Leader in the European Parliament, following in the footsteps of the legendary Barbara Castle, International Women’s Day should be about looking back on what Britain’s membership of the European Union has achieved for women, and looking forward to the real choices facing women voters in June’s European elections.
Equal pay for women workers was enshrined in the founding Treaty of the European Community, way back in 1957. The British Conservative government at the time wasn’t willing to sign up to the Treaty and certainly wasn’t willing to introduce a statutory requirement for equal pay. It took over 13 years and a Labour government for that to happen in Britain.
Since then the European Union, propelled by successive Labour governments and MEPs, has been at the cutting edge of progressive policies which have greatly benefitted women workers in all walks of life. Our proud record includes achievements such as equal rights for part time workers (over half of women workers are part time), an entitlement to maternity rights from day one (instead of the two years it used to be) and the right to return to work with no loss of pay or status after pregnancy.
More recently the highly successful EU ‘Daphne’ programmes have funded action to combat all types of violence against women in Europe including violence in the family, violence in schools and other establishments, violence at work, commercial sexual exploitation, genital mutilation, trafficking and so on. The current programme, championed by Labour MEPs, runs until 2013 and has a budget of €116 million.
But that is the past. What about now?
Well, we are less than 3 months away from what will be important European elections on June 4. The choice for women’s rights and women-friendly policies is a clear one. Many people say it doesn’t matter who you vote for in the European Parliament. I say this is wrong. The dividing lines are clear and the choice is one between progressive women-friendly policies and the old male-dominated misogynistic Tories.
David Cameron’s Conservatives may be working overtime to present a caring and compassionate façade nationally, but scratch beneath the surface and what you find are the same old male-orientated attitudes. This applies nowhere more so than in the European Parliament. Out of the 27 Tory MEPs just one is a woman, and even she is stepping down at the June election, fed up with her 26 male colleagues. She protests that for too long the Tory European right has been allowed to fester in the European Parliament.
This did not surprise me one iota. Looking at the Tory voting record in the European Parliament, they have consistently followed their Neanderthal instincts. They refused to give their support to a report on combating violence against women. The report called for a zero-tolerance policy as regards all forms of violence against women, including within marriage. They failed to vote to make rape within marriage a criminal offence or to end so-called ‘crimes of honour’ or female genital mutilation. Tory MEPs also voted against a key report that would combat any form of discrimination in the provision of goods and services, including on the grounds of gender. They are not just an embarrassment to Caroline Jackson, they are embarrassment to David Cameron and an embarrassment to Britain.
I am proud of the fact that I lead a Labour Party in the European Parliament made up of over 40% women, all of whom work tirelessly and are a credit to Labour values and our country as a whole. We will continue to push for women-friendly policies in Europe, from the protection of women in the workplace, the continued fight for equality in all walks of life, to the defence in the developing world of what we in Europe now take for granted as the most fundamental of rights.
This is what separates us from the rest. It is why, just like we need progressive Labour representation in our local councils and in national government, we need to ensure we return Labour MEPs to fight for what we believe in and uphold our values in Europe.
Whatever your views on the European Union, it is an important forum where key decisions affecting our everyday life are made and we cannot afford to have those decisions dominated by the unreformed Tory right or the extremist rabble of UKIP, the BNP and their ilk.