The cause of labour is the cause of women – Rachel Garnham on International Women’s Day 2021


“The focus on nurses’ pay is welcome because it spotlights just one of the ways in which the Covid pandemic has impacted disproportionately on women.”

Rachel Garnham

By Rachel Garnham, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, on why we must stand up for women.

It has been heartening in recent days to see nurses fighting back against the derisory 1% pay increase offered, which of course we all know is actually a pay cut, and just a fraction more than many of us will get as part of a public sector pay freeze. Nurses really have been bearing the brunt of the pandemic in the very frontline – long shifts, unimaginably difficult working conditions and now a kick in the teeth from the very government who have contributed to the deaths and destruction that nurses have faced on a daily basis, and that has taken such a huge toll both mentally and physically. The 1% is so pitiful that even the current Labour leadership appears to be offering some sort of opposition.

The focus on nurses’ pay is welcome because it spotlights just one of the ways in which the Covid pandemic has impacted disproportionately on women – who make up a significant majority of the nursing workforce as well as the vast majority of health care workers, not to mention the vast unpaid caring responsibilities taken on primarily by women.

On International Women’s Day it is an important opportunity to reflect on the roles women have played in the past year, the impact the pandemic has had and how we can build the necessary alliances in the future to really fight for women’s position in society, drawing on the rich history of women in the labour movement.

The Women and Equalities Select Committee last month published its report into the gendered economic impact of coronavirus, which made for stark reading, noting that government policies have repeatedly skewed towards men. The report pointed out that the government had failed to consider the labour market and caring inequalities faced by women. It reports that for many women the government’s approach made existing equality problems worse: in the support to self-employed people, to pregnant women and new mothers, to the professional childcare sector, and for women claiming benefits.

The report also warns that the Government’s priorities for recovery are heavily gendered with investment plans that are skewed towards male-dominated sectors and have the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities. Unsurprisingly the government has paid no attention to the report and the recent budget, will only deepen the problems, as deftly analysed by the Women’s Budget Group.

As well as the economic impact of COVID on women, there has also been a significant increase in domestic abuse impacting women and restrictions on accessing sexual health and family planning services.

So what can the left do? At our Eastern Labour Left meeting to mark International Women’s Day we were pleased to be joined by Rachel Hopkins MP who pointed out that a significant majority of the 2019 new intake of Labour MPs are women who identify with the left of the Labour Party, many of whom are in the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs. It can be expected that these women MPs will follow in the footsteps of late, great Socialist Campaign Group MPs, such as Audrey Wise and Maria Fyfe, in championing the cause of women, and others such as Elaine Smith MSP whose retirement from the Scottish Parliament was marked last week by a moving recap of the women’s causes she has supported over many years.  

Our parliamentarians can be supported by a reinvigorated, democratic grassroots Labour women’s organisation – due to elect its first National Women’s Committee at Labour’s Annual Women’s Conference at the end of June. To address the serious issues raised above, as left activists we have three priorities:

  • To elect left delegates to women’s conference by 26 May, in order to elect a left women’s committee and pass policy to defend the interests of women;
  • To agree submissions to women’s conference by 26 May that will provide the policy and organisational framework that women need;
  • To nominate the Grassroots Labour Women – Ekua Bayunu, Mandy Clare, Tricia Duncan, Pamela Fitzpatrick, Chloe Hopkins ­– and Momentum’s Solma Ahmed by 26 June and support their campaign for election to fight for a democratic women’s organisation.

As the Grassroots Labour Women’s political platform points out – the cause of Labour is the cause of women.

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