It’s a no-brainer surely: a female Prime Minister knows about women’s lives and will make woman-friendly policies. Or maybe not, wonders Jenifer Flintoft of the Portsmouth & South Downs Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSDPSC).
What happened last time we had a female Prime Minister? Naively, some women voted for Thatcher thinking she would make women’s lives easier. Indeed, the idea that getting more women into positions of power automatically benefits women as a whole seems logical, but it overlooks he competing interests of race and class (or someone’s socio-economic position in society). Whilst parliaments and cabinets continue to be predominantly male, pale and stale, those women who do elbow their way in tend to be those who fit quite neatly into the existing culture.
Thatcher found some of the men around her rather ‘wet’ and was determined to be more ruthless than them. The public soon realised she was more interested in privatising everything in sight and attempting to destroy the trade unions than she was in women’s issues. Benefits were cut. Direct taxes were lowered and indirect taxes increased, benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor. For most women, Thatcher’s policies had a clear detrimental effect on their lives. The gender pay gap was – and still is – just one example.
But Theresa May cares about women, surely? That’s obvious from her cosy domestic life and her famed concern for ‘just about managing families’? Well, we all saw the domestic bliss on the TV, but May and her government have been distinctly cagey about proclaiming any policies that will actually help women. Amongst the hardest hit in our society are families headed by single mothers. Ken Loach’s recent film I, Daniel Blake, graphically portrays the daily struggles of such individuals. But May has stated that she won’t give further help to people – men and women – who have seen their living standards fall.
Another group frequently suffering is older women, who are less likely than men to have generous occupational pensions. But May has indicated that a future Tory government will probably abandon the present triple-lock mechanism on pensions. Her likely level of concern for vulnerable groups can be inferred from her failure to allow into Britain the refugee children agreed under the Dubs amendment and from her lack of concern for the suffering of the women incarcerated in Yarls’ Wood, where conditions have deteriorated rapidly.
So would women be better off under a Corbyn government? Yes, I think they would. I believe Corbyn genuinely cares about people. He was supporting women’s equality and rights long before it was in vogue, discussing this issue when it was still an ‘other’ to the politicians of the time. He has published a blueprint for his women’s manifesto, saying he wants to challenge everyday sexism, and outlining his plans for rape victims, childcare and the gender pay gap. His ‘Working with Women’ document argues for better sex and relationship education in schools, as well as plans to help victims of sexual assault. He says he will ‘proactively ensure that laws on sexual assault and protection from harassment are implemented, to ensure that women do not feel ashamed or belittled by reporting behaviour they find intimidating to the police.’
‘Women face abuse, mistreatment and persistent discrimination, and they face it in work, at home and on our streets,’ the document says. ‘Yet they disproportionately shoulder our unpaid care work, the daily grind of surviving on low pay, and the pain of cuts that have closed domestic violence shelters and left them with no safe haven. The time for timid measures is over. Today’s proposals would go a long way towards building a society where women and men exist as equals and flourish. Women deserve fair pay, fair chances and unflinching support in the face of violence and abuse.’
Corbyn has also called for an end to cuts to public services, which tend to have a worse impact on women than on men, because they target women’s refuges and domestic violence services.
Before his first election as Labour leader, Corbyn said he would commit to having 50 per cent women in the shadow cabinet, and work towards 50 per cent of Labour MPs being women.
He will also move towards a system of universal free childcare and closing the gender pay gap. Corbyn added that employment tribunal fees should be eliminated so that everyone can access justice and fight unfair discrimination in the workplace.
80% of the austerity-driven cuts have affected women. Women’s refuges are closing and sanctions are being applied to the very poorest. There has been a rise in homelessness and housing insecurity. And what’s happened to the legal aid for women fleeing domestic violence or subjected to sexual discrimination in the workplace?
Few MPs have been as outspoken against austerity as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, and he has a long track record of fighting welfare cuts. In the House of Commons during the debate about the 2015 Welfare bill – which Harriet Harman controversially told Labour MPs to abstain from voting on – McDonnell broke the whip and voted against the next tranche of cuts, saying he would ‘crawl through sewers’ in order to oppose it.
Traditionally, the ‘important’ posts in government such as the Treasury and Defence go to men, while the ‘pink frilly’ ones like Health and Education are seen to be more suited to women. The notion that these posts are seen as less important than the ‘heavy’ ones is both dubious and insulting to the women appointed to such positions. This traditional way of thinking is one that Corbyn works to combat. Based on everything he has said before, he would try to allot posts in a gender-blind way and would, in any case, seek to value all cabinet posts, thus cultivating a way of thinking that is positive towards women.
Graphic by Jack Caramac.