If the women candidates are unlikely to be successful in the Labour leadership election race it's down to politics not patriarchy argues Lindsey German
I have hesitated to write on the question of feminism and the Labour leadership so far, but the women only carriage controversy has made me think again. The argument over this is being used by some – notably Anne Perkins in the Guardian – as yet another excuse by that newspaper not to back Jeremy Corbyn.
Let me make it clear: I’m not convinced about women only carriages on trains. I think there may be better ways to deal with the issue of safe spaces, violence against women and other related questions – such as restoring many of the jobs which helped to make people feel safer, such as train guards and stations staff.
But as far as I can see this is only a suggestion, for discussion. Seems ok to me, so why is Jeremy being pilloried and branded yet again as an unreconstructed 70s socialist who is at the same time denying women the chance to lead the Labour Party?
If the women candidates are unlikely to be successful in this race, however, one has to put that down not to patriarchy but to politics. Because the two women in the contest have very little to say that marks them out from an agenda pursued by Labour for three decades and which has seen them lose millions of votes since 1997 and the last two elections.
Certainly, despite Andy Burnham’s latest gaffe, Labour should be ready for a woman leader, after all the Tories first elected one 40 years ago. But would a woman leader of the Labour Party make a difference for women? Certainly the women candidates would like us to think so. Yet they don’t have the political programmes that could inspire women or, as importantly, improve the lives of most women.
Yvette Cooper’s five points to tackle gender equality, issued recently, are so unexceptional that few apart from the most antediluvian anti-feminists could take issue with them. A new Equality Act, universal childcare from ages 2 to 5, a proper living wage, compulsory sex education in schools and protest free buffer zones round abortion clinics.
Which makes you wonder why the Labour government of which Cooper was a part didn’t implement some or all of these demands in the first place.
They also make you wonder about what is missed out from the list, what isn’t said about the position of women today that might conflict with Cooper’s own policies. Take equal pay. We need, says Cooper, equal pay laws for the 21st century. The gender pay gap in Britain is still considerable, at around 17% for those in full time work, much higher for part time. She neglects to deal with some of the reasons for that: not just the inadequacy of legislation, but the much deeper structural inequalities that blight women’s work.
These include the job segregation which puts most female dominated occupations in the lowest wage brackets; the ‘race to the bottom’ which has seen many of these occupations subject to wage cuts, intensification of work and zero hours contracts; and the informal (and illegal) discrimination which leads to mothers losing work or being forced into worse paid work as a result of maternity leave.
Liz Kendall is no doubt even less concerned about these issues, given her relentless championing of small businesses and people who ‘want to get on.’ Will this be at the expense of women’s rights at work over maternity, zero hours and all the rest of it?
The low wage, flexible economy so beloved of both Labour and Tory governments over the past decades has hit women particularly hard. So have the repeated restrictions on trade union rights, which weaken many women’s protection at work, more of which are threatened by the Tory government. Childcare is so expensive that it takes a major part of many women’s wages, yet women are forced to work in order to survive. The welfare cap – which these two support – will only make this situation worse.
In addition, these policies can even worsen domestic violence, as women find themselves trapped in abusive relationships as a result of lack of access to housing, jobs and an independent income.
So, compared with Jeremy’s anti-austerity policies, really not very good for working class women.
We have, in addition, the experience of women leaders who do not have the interests of most women at heart. Thatcher is only the most famous example. Elected as the first woman prime minister, she trampled on the lives of millions – men and women. Hillary Clinton, currently running for the Democratic Party nomination for US president, has been a hawkish secretary of state, pushing US imperial interests wherever she could, supporting the war on terror to the hilt. If she wins the presidency she will be much more aggressive and right wing on foreign policy than Barack Obama.
Cherie Blair was instrumental in selling the Iraq war to Labour MPs in 2003, in the name of women’s rights, as was Laura Bush. Condoleezza Rice, a black woman secretary of state under Bush, was likewise totally committed to war and militarism. Both women have justified their policies in terms of women’s rights. Yet women are some of the most affected by war and the displacement it causes. Those who flee their country as many Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans are at present, are stigmatised and faced with restrictions when they try to enter the countries who supposedly waged war to help them.
The misery of austerity is being forced on the Greek people by IMF head Christine Lagarde and German chancellor Angela Merkel, who backs Nato to the hilt.
So being a woman guarantees nothing. Being a socialist and someone who stands up for equality – even if you are a man – means that your policies will do far more to improve the lives of women. Which is no doubt why so many women support Jeremy Corbyn.
Unfortunately parliament and the media contain too many women prepared to pay lip service to feminism but who have forgotten – or never learnt – that its early manifestation was about social justice, equality for all, not about more women in high places.