Equality for women is at the heart of everything Labour stands for. We championed it when we were in government and we should be proud of the success we achieved in areas from increased maternity leave to boosting women’s pensions.
But women in Britain now face the greatest threat to their independence and opportunities for many decades, as the new government’s policies threaten to turn back the clock to the eighties or even the fifties.
And that means that men as well as women need to wake up to the reactionary threat this government poses.
Women across the Labour Party have worked hard for years to deliver greater equality for women. I am proud that Labour led the way in the greater representation of women in Parliament, but there is still much more to do to change our party and our political culture – as I set out in my response to the Lead for Women campaign.
But men and women – including Labour’s new leader – need to stand together to fend off the Tory-Liberal onslaught and to go further in pursuit of equal pay and greater equality for women too.
Many women’s lives improved as a direct result of action we took over those thirteen years. We enhanced maternity leave and raised maternity pay, expanded higher education, established the Minimum Wage, made available more high quality, affordable childcare places and legislated to ensure more flexible jobs were created.
Now it is clear that equality for women faces the greatest onslaught in decades as a result of unfair policies of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition.
Yvette has done some really important work on the Budget, showing that women will pay on average three times as much as men in the Budget benefit cuts and direct tax changes. Child tax credits, child benefit and maternity support are predominantly paid to women who in total will lose billions as a result of the cuts.
But this doesn’t just hit mothers’ pockets it restricts the choices they can make and the freedom they have over their lives. Mums who decided to work part time or stay off work with their new born baby for a few extra months may find they are no longer able to afford it. And those Mums who find that childcare is now too expensive may be forced to give up work altogether.
And it’s not just about families with children. Women will be hit harder because of the cuts to carer’s allowance and the second state pension. Women are also likely to shoulder most of the impact of the cuts to public services, because more women than men work in public services and more women than men use those services too.
In criminal justice too, the signs are disturbing. The Tory-Liberal government’s proposals for rape defendants to be granted anonymity during court cases turns the clock back to the 1970s – implying that women are unreliable witnesses and more likely to make false accusations too. Not only is this approach unjust and unjustified, it will make the task of catching and convicting rapists more difficult, at a time when conviction rates for rape are already too low.
Underpinning these deeply unfair changes is a reactionary and traditional approach to women and the family. With too few women in the new government they simply don’t get the reality of family life today.
We must fight hard for women’s interests so that we can sustain the advances made for women when we were in office.
But defending what is already in place should not be the limit of our ambitions.
We need to go further. Although real progress was made towards women’s equality while we were in government due to the leadership of Harriet Harman, the fact is we didn’t go far enough, and I know Harriet would be the first to agree.
This is most obvious on the issue of equal pay. Ensuring that men and women are paid the same amount for jobs of equal worth should be an example of equality in action. Forty years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act the average gender pay gap in this country still stands at a shameful 16.4 per cent. And for some women the gap is even bigger; women in their forties, in skilled trades, in part time work and in the private sector are especially likely to be unfairly paid.
It is true that the pay gap has narrowed since 1970 – as it did throughout our time in government – but progress has simply been too slow. Now there is a real risk that under the Tory-Liberal Democrats that progress could grind to a halt or even go into reverse.
The Labour Party got the Equality Bill onto the statute book before the Election, but actually implementing it now needs positive action from the new Government who instead are trying to back track or water it down.
Campaigning for the full implementation of the 2010 Equality Act must be a top Labour priority. And we need to view this as just the first step towards more far-reaching reform. There is a strong argument for us to work towards extending the duty to promote equality to private companies with more than 150 staff, not only those with 250 staff, as the Act requires. The pay gaps of very large companies should be published; recognised equality representatives should have rights to information and facilities at work; and we need more collective pay agreements. We also need to increase the Minimum Wage above £7.
And I think we need an open discussion about setting achievable milestones for reducing the gender pay gap, on the way to an explicit Labour goal of eventually closing it altogether.
The struggle for equal pay has been long drawn out in this country: today, it’s hard to believe that women teachers only won the right in 1961 and women civil servants a year later. Yet the first demand for equal pay was made by women working for Robert Owen in 1832.
We need to keep up the campaign in other areas too, going much further on flexible working, for higher paid, higher quality part time work, tackling discrimination and prejudice. It means continuing to extend child care and support for families – issues I championed in government.
But it also means getting men to do more in the family too. As we know one of the major factors responsible for the pay gap is that women still do the bulk of the unpaid caring work in most families.
I won’t pretend to have everything sorted in my own family, for all my cooking and cleaning skills, as Yvette will often remind me. But let’s be clear, women already share the responsibility of contributing to the family income, and men need to do more in the family too. That’s why I championed things like greater paternity leave for men.
Too often throughout our history the cause of women’s equality has been championed by women without the fully committed support of men. Our generation in the Labour Party – and Labour’s next leader – has to change that for good.