“The Tories are using elements of the language of the labour movement, whilst actually pouring money into the pockets of cronies and donors and pushing our public services into melt down.”
By Ruth Hayes, Labour Women Leading & Unite Executive Committee.
On Wednesday, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, will announce the outcome of the comprehensive spending review and the Autumn budget.
Departmental budgets will be set for the next three years, and he will be setting out how the Government will “Build back better”, framed in terms of:
- Strong and innovative public services
- Levelling up
- Transition to Net Zero
- Advancing “Global Britain”
- Delivering plan for growth
Some of these are ideas which those of us on the left have been fighting for a long time, and it is interesting how the Tories are using elements of the language of the labour movement, whilst actually pouring money into the pockets of cronies and donors and pushing our public services into melt down. As the old suffragette slogan goes, we need “Deeds not Words”.
Women’s situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with many women losing their jobs, or reducing their hours; a dramatic rise in domestic violence and abuse; a rise in informal and unpaid care, often at the expense of women’s physical and mental health, and social isolation and poverty for many.
We are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis – the climate emergency demands urgent action; there are labour shortages in key areas of the economy and long term impacts of Covid in demand for health services (especially mental health), children’s development and the need to tackle the underlying determinants of public health – poverty, poor housing and lack of access to services.
The times demand a radical response, not tinkering at the edges. We could transform women’s lives, and with them the lives of whole communities, through a series of measures such as:
- Universal, free services – women’s involvement in the workforce has increased over the past few decades, without an equivalent investment in childcare, support for disabled people and public infrastructure. Women are often working 2 or 3 paid jobs on low wages, whilst having to manage support for children, partners and/or older relatives. Childcare costs can be higher than rents. Older women are often leaving paid work and taking on responsibility for grandchildren. The Women’s Budget Group has done excellent work on how an investment in high quality services to provide care and support would create good new green jobs and could make an impact quickly. Imagine what a difference to quality of life could be made with free childcare for all children; a national independent living service to provide support to disabled people, and decent financial support for those providing significant levels of care to family members. If this were allied with cheap, high quality public transport, an expansion of council housing and rent controls, and a minimum income guarantee, there would be a transformation in women’s lives.
- Action on low pay, conditions at work and education – there is real poverty throughout the country (with high levels of child poverty in many London boroughs, for example) and levelling up should address the gender pay gap as well as the geographical pay gap. At the moment, almost a quarter of all women workers are paid below a real Living Wage. £15-an-hour, with an end to zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment, would make a huge difference. An investment in life-long learning and in training, not as a commodity, but as a way to give people new skills and to enrich people’s lives, would open real opportunities. We also need a strategy to address the shortage of workers in nursing, for example. This means no fees, and grants for living expenses- so that we have a holistic and long term investment in our public services and a workforce large enough to ensure manageable workloads.
- Action on energy and insulation – to tackle carbon emissions, we need a massive shift to retrofit homes to make them energy efficient – this would create good quality jobs and reduce household running costs. Currently, homes are responsible for nearly one fifth of our carbon output in the UK and this would be a significant step in addressing the climate crisis.
- Action on international issues – the scandal of lack of access to vaccines in many parts of the world, and the lack of support for migrants and refugees should be a source of shame. No-one is safe unless we are all safe, and Britain could play a real role in demonstrating international solidarity and improving living standards of women across the globe.
- Developing a sustainable economy – During the pandemic, the number of millionaires increased by 5.2 million to 56.1 million across the world, whilst use of food banks is rising and the number of people in debt is escalating. Money which goes into raising the income of lower income households (disproportionately those headed by women) is spent in the local economy, not into offshore accounts. We need to rebalance the economy so that people have enough to cover the costs of housing, food and utilities and to end the scourges of homelessness, poverty and malnutrition. These destroy individual lives, but they have a collective cost too in terms of loss of the skills and talents that people could have contributed, and in terms of public health.
- Addressing women’s safety – the level of domestic violence and the horrific murders of women demand urgent action. This has to entail investment in refuges, support services and services which tackle offending behaviour, as well as work in schools to give young people an understanding of relationships and where to go for support.
Our society is profoundly broken and Covid has exposed the fragility of so much.
In our campaigns for a new deal, we need to ensure that a there is a real step change in tackling gender inequality, and that we start to build a genuinely equal society. The Tories will not tackle the underlying determinants of poverty and disadvantage, and it falls to the labour movement to fight for real solutions as opposed the superficial gimmicks we are likely to see from the Chancellor.