Will Women’s Equality Party put gender at the heart of politics?

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WOMEN BEAR CUTS BRUNT: the non-partisan nature of the Women's Equality Party does little to acknowledge the lot of women in the UK today and how we are disproportionately suffering under the worst excess of ideological austerity doled out by a dangerously right wing Tory government

by Jenni Gunn The Women’s Equality Party (WEP), launched late this October, aims to further the goals of gender equality in the UK and intends to stand in next year’s Holyrood elections. Founded by broadcaster Sandi Toksvig and writer Catherine Meyer, the WEP has stated that “Equality for women isn’t a women’s issue. When women fulfil their full potential, everyone benefits. Equality means better politics, a more vibrant economy, a workforce that draws on the talents on the whole population and a society at ease with itself.”

No argument from me. As a feminist, the thought of a party putting gender at the heart of their programme not only caught my attention, but inspired some cautious optimism. Here was a party putting the goals of gender equality at the centre of their modus operandi.

One of my own laments about party politics in Scotland has been the designating of feminism and ‘women’s issues’ as niche. Particularly as a woman on the left, I all too often hear from comrades that the struggles of women are supplementary, even secondary, to the “bigger” and “more important” struggle of the working classes.

The left has struggled to see feminism as an integral part of the struggle against capitalism, often favouring class consciousness over perceived “identity politics.” The tide is turning in this regard, particularly within the left in Scotland.

However, we still have a way to go before our movement centres feminism right at its core. I looked forward to hearing WEP’s vision for tackling patriarchy in our society. I was disappointed.

The WEP has floated the idea of standing joint candidates in next year’s Holyrood elections to maximise the number of candidates elected supporting the WEP’s objectives. This would, for example, mean standing a candidate on an SNP/WEP, or even, a Conservative/WEP ticket.

The WEP has declared that “the party is non-partisan and seeks to push matters effecting women’s equality into the agenda of mainstream politics.”

Whilst I think the aim of putting women’s equality at the heart of our political discourse is not only admirable, but essential, the non-partisan nature of WEP does little to acknowledge the lot of women in the UK today and how we are disproportionately suffering under the worst excess of ideological austerity doled out by a dangerously right wing Tory government.

Why? The struggles of class and of gender inequality are intrinsically linked. Austerity has become a feminist issue—and little wonder. Reports have shown that the current cuts coming from the Conservative government are hitting women twice as hard as men.

For those of us on the left, austerity is little more than social violence—but austerity represents an economic and cultural backlash against women in particular.

Primary care givers—72 per cent of whom are women—are struggling to look after families with additional needs children whilst making ends meet, with 23.4 per cent of cuts affecting social care budgets.

According to the Women’s Budget Group, one in five women have average incomes consisting of benefit payments—by freezing child benefit for three years and cutting child tax credit, women are facing the brunt of brutal austerity measures.

Between 2011 and 2017, we will see 30,000 job losses from the public sector across the UK. Women account for two-thirds of employment within the sector, once again illustrating how Tory austerity is targeting women, their incomes, independence and standards of living.

This backlash is also cultural. Women are facing discrimination through the benefits system with the proposed Tory cap of child benefit to two children. Not only is this a further economic assault upon vital benefits for women, but it sends a clear message to women from low-income households: having multiple children in a working class household is no longer an option.

The whole discourse surrounding Britain’s “dependency culture” is intrinsically linked to the role of women as producers of would-be welfare dependents: also known as children.

Women are consistently and subtly being portrayed as drains on the public purse. All this despite the fact that the vast majority of unpaid carer roles are filled by women, saving the NHS billions every year.

So whilst the aims and objectives of the WEP are commendable, the lack of ideological perspective misses the point.

There is a link between unbridled capitalism, austerity and gender inequality. The left has the solutions to these problems: but first, we need to recognise that the struggle against patriarchy cannot be separated from the class struggle.

Those struggles are one in the same. As James Connolly once said “the worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.” Once we realise that our struggles are the same, we are that much closer to real equality for all genders, and one step closer to the real meaning of social justice.

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