Winning back women

17th February, 2012 4:10 pm

In spite of the disproportionate impact of the coalition’s deficit reduction plan on women, polls show their votes are beginning to swing back to the Conservatives. Labour must offer women a society in which gender justice is a guiding principle.

Would the economic crisis have happened if women had had a greater share of boardroom power? There is a growing consensus that we would make better economic and political decisions as a nation if women and men made a more equal contribution. There is a longstanding power imbalance between genders in the access to and accountability for resources, the consequence of which affects all of us. So, in the debate about how we bring about a fairer capitalism, the question of gender justice needs to be paramount.

Women’s position in the economy is becoming a renewed cause for concern. Unemployment amongst women has soared to 1.09 million under this government – the highest level since 1988. Men and women make up similar proportions of businesses as a whole, but women fall behind when it comes to positions in management. The proportion of women in managerial and senior positions rose by 4.5% between 2001 and 2010 to reach 35.5%. This steady but unspectacular rise masks differences between industries. For example, women remain poorly represented in production industries (12.3%), whereas female corporate managers fare better (31.4%).

This debate is also now taking a greater political dimension, but there is a paradox we must address: although women are suffering hardest under this government, there are signs that the women’s vote, having moved over to Labour after the 2010 election, is beginning to slide back to the Conservatives.

This seems counter-intuitive given the clear negative impact of the first 18 months of this government on women and families. A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report stated that “not only do families face a challenging 2012, but looking further ahead we see evidence of more financial strain to come. This research confirms that families with children are shouldering a disproportionate burden.” The report shows that the government’s decisions, on average, weaken the incentive for those with children to undertake paid work. A report by Gingerbread in October 2011 found that parents on low incomes are now paying 50% more towards childcare. The government’s cut in tax credit support – from 80% to 70% of eligible childcare costs – has made it harder to access affordable childcare. And a recent IPPR report stated that the ‘maternal penalty’ – the gap between the female employment rate and the maternal employment rate – is higher inUKthan in any other OECD country.

In which case, how do we explain the tentative move back to the Conservatives by women? It seems likely that it’s a response to the government having recently –  belatedly – started to focus on women’s votes, after Labour won the argument that women were bearing the brunt of policies to reduce the deficit. Labour voices (notably Vera Baird and the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party) are continuing their critique of the coalition, highlighting the impact on women’s safety and other areas of the coalition’s cuts strategy. The government is weakening support for women’s services at the same time as we are seeing increasing incidences of rape and violence against women in theUK– leading to waiting lists for rape counselling services and other support as local organisations seek to gain clarity on funding.

But in order to regain the substantial lead amongst women’s votes it once had, Labour now has to go further. Labour’s record on supporting women’s progress is second to none: Labour market expert David Coats recently pointed out the minimum wage closed the pay gap at the lower end of pay; flexibility of working life has made it easier to balance work and family; and maternity and paternity leave helped extend women’s job tenures.

However what Labour needs is a new offer for women, which must have its roots in a new and thorough analysis of how men and women’s lives are changing. We need to understand how this might vary within different communities and by class. On this I think there is some common ground with ‘Blue Labour’ thinkers which has emerged from a series of joint Fabian Women’s Network and Blue Labour seminars looking at changing gender roles, including how men’s lives have changed to generate a fresh perspective on improving the lives of women.

A new offer for women also needs a new view of how we deliver services that help enhance women’s political, social and economic lives and access to power in the workplace, community and boardroom. A new analysis of how we support childcare needs to be part of that offer. This is not only about social justice but economic progress. We will not get greater economic growth without the contribution of women’s labour.

Ivana Bartoletti wrote recently for LabourList that the Labour party ought to shape a new deal with women by setting out how gender justice can be achieved in tough economic times. Gender justice is not an appendix to the broad agenda of fairness, but the needs to be a guiding principlefor change – including reforming the welfare state and making choices in public spending.

Seema Malhotra is the Labour MP for Feltham and Heston

This is an essay from the latest Fabian Society pamphlet “The Economic Alternative”, posted here as part of our “Economic Alternative Day”. You can download the pamphlet in full here.

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  • I almost gave up in despair just reading this sentence at the beginning: “Labour must offer women a society in which gender justice is a guiding principle”. It is typical of the silly centralist instrumental thinking that dominates too much discourse in the Labour Party and wider liberal-left.

    Alas I struggled on, but I am afraid the rest of this article offers very little beyond a sort of ‘It would be a good idea if we knew and understood everything and knew what to do and then we must, really must do whatever will apparently be obvious then’. So basically, we need to understand the world and everything first, then we will know what to do. Not exactly inspiring.

    But back to that sentence, let’s unpick it a little bit. First “Labour must offer women a society…”. Now how on earth can anyone let alone Labour offer anyone a society – as if a bunch of politicians in Whitehall can create and donate a whole, fully-formed but previously unavailable culture to half of the population but not the rest. Then we have “gender justice is a guiding principle”. Now if gender justice is a principle, it is not exactly easy to define and is generally only talked about by people of one gender – and a very small and select group of them.

    Personally I find painful Labour’s desperate attempts to paint itself as the party of women; it is just so weird, blathering endlessly on about women as if they were a separate interest group with separate interests – just as some within the Labour Party clearly wish to make ordinary people outside think – vainly of course.

    No – we should not be dividing ourselves like this in such a contrived, artificial way. Women and men are together in families, relationships, friendship groups and workplaces; the sort of socialism I believe in sees their interests as aligned; what is a good society for a woman is a good society for a man and vice versa. From the opinion polls, it would seem that ordinary women themselves do not respond to this sort of narrative either.

    • Dave Postles

       The Independent, front page, 16 Feb: ‘Women swelling the ranks of the jobless … The latest jobless statistics showed that women were being
      disproportionately affected by the remorseless rise in unemployment…’  Had there been an proper equality review of the impending cuts, they would have been considered inegalitarian. 

      • Dave Postles

         ‘a proper’

    • Brumanuensis

      I think you’ve rather missed the point of the article. It is not Malhotra’s point that we should exclude men in order to favour women. Women do have common interests with men, but also distinct interests, and some public policy issues – like childcare – tend to disproportionately relate to women. It is not divisive to focus on these, any more than it is divisive to focus on the problems faced by the very poor, or pensioners, or part-time workers, or any other sector of society. It is not a zero-sum game where any focus on women ‘must’ translate into a lesser focus upon men. Frankly I’m surprised anyone reading this could draw that conclusion from the article. It ‘is’ a problem that women are still on the whole disadvantaged in relation to men and this can be harmful to both men and women. However sometimes it will require discussing issues with particular emphasis upon one group or the other. 

      On the ‘offering women a society’ point, your interpretation seems slightly strange to me. It suffers from the same false dichotomy I mentioned above and whilst it is true that Whitehall alone cannot resolve all social problems, central initiatives can have a measurable effect upon them and there is no doubt that a concerted focus upon issues particular to women within society would yield fruits. It’s not just a question of the government handing down dictates, but also providing resources and guidelines in order to facilitate better social outcomes. The preferred vehicle for delivery can vary – charities, local government, public bodies, etc. – but denying central government the potential to influence the social order seems extreme. If not them, who else has the capacity to effect the necessary changes?

      Obviously a myopic focus would be harmful, but I think you are unfairly targeting Seema Malhotra here.

  • robertcp

    I am not sure what to think about this article.  Labour MPs seem to take a long time to say not very much.  Some actual policies to achieve gender equality might help.

  • M Cannon

    “Would the economic crisis have happened if women had had a greater share of boardroom power? ”  Obviously not.  The only woman to be either Prime Minister or Chancellor to date would never have let it happen.  Unfortunately our economy was being run by a man who, being a man, had to claim that he had ended boom and bust.  Glad to see that you are a Thatcher fan!

    PS Even now more women say they will vote for the Conservatives than Labour.

  • Franwhi

    The obvious point of weakness is not that Seema is asking this question but that she is looking for answers in all the wrong places – from insiders, researchers, policy reports and other data. All too top down and abstract – why not speak to real women in the street, in the workplace, at the gym, the school, the nursery or in Tesco. Then she might find that women’s falling support for Labour is not as counter-intuitive as she thinks. Its only counter intuitive because she’s looking at it from so far away and speculating rather than investigating.

     I think that’s why some readers have taken issue with this post – we know families of men, women and children are suffering due to coalition cuts but politicians must do more than speculate on the psephology of the whole thing.

    It just seems that whatever the social policy topic – whether “gender jsutice” or whole aspects of welfare reform like tax credit cuts, housing benefit caps, sickness benefits – a lot of Labour party policy response seems to be generated in an ethical vacuum – more concerned with poll ratings than people, male or female, and the reality of their lives. For example,it’s incongrous as Seema does, to talk of women’s suffering yet  not have included the real voices of real women in her piece.    

  • Pingback: Between a rock and a hard place: life for women under the Coalition. « Mike Eakins()

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