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Laurie Penny: Gender divide in the recession?

Mancession? Get real. Let's not waste time naming 'winners' and 'losers'

This week, the press seems unable to decide whether the recession is going to be good for men and bad for women, or good for women and bad for men. The latter scenario has even acquired its own cloying portmanteau – the "mancession" – as journalists attempt to eke column inches out of the wobbly implication of a financial gender war.

The possibility that something more systemic and pernicious is going on simply hasn’t crossed the consciences of headline writers, who understand the value of simplifying every social equation to a playground scrap between the girls and the boys.

Arguments on both sides of this weary discussion are bloating the pages of every major liberal media outlet. Should we worry about men, as suggested by Will Hutton in the Guardian and Alice Miles here in New Statesman, or should we worry about women, as per Deborah Orr in the Guardian and Samira Shackle on

The answer, of course, is that we should worry about the poor, whatever their genital arrangement.

It’s not that gender doesn’t matter in this recession. On the contrary; it matters a great deal. As a society, we have been torturously slow in coming to terms with the real, permanent effects that the cultural changes of the past fifty years have had on our economic organisation.

At the annual Marxism conference last weekend, at the Institute of Education, the feminist academic Dr Nina Power observed that the "feminisation" of the British workforce has allowed employers to hold down wages in real terms so that a single salary is no longer enough to support a family, leading to “a race to the bottom in which everyone loses”.

The change in the organisation of families as economic units, the shift in patterns of employment away from traditionally male heavy industry towards jobs in the service sector, the concentration of women in low-paid, part-time and insecure work – these are all factors which will have a bearing upon how this country weathers the economic storms ahead.

They are factors that require a far more subtle response than "who’s winning – men or women?". Meanwhile, right-wing opportunists such as Iain Duncan Smith seem to view the economic downturn as a perfect excuse to shrink the state until it’s small enough to fit into people’s bedrooms, with clunky social engineering projects such as the government’s attack on single mothers.

Gender matters in this recession. What doesn’t matter is trying to figure out which gender is "winning" and which is "losing". Let’s be witheringly clear: there’s only one group of people who will remain secure and comfortable at everyone else’s expense over the next few years, and that’s the rich.

As the coalition sets out to prise away vital support from those who need it most, as new graduates haemorrhage into the dole queue and Tory peers anticipate that housing benefit cuts will create "casualties", the richest people in the country have just seen their collective wealth rise by 30 per cent in the tax year to April 2010.

The profits raked in by Britain’s richest 1,000 people over the past 12 months total £77bn – almost as much as the £83bn of public spending that George Osborne has promised to cut, endangering the homes and jobs of millions.

While the liberal press ties itself in knots over whether women or men will do worse out of the crisis, the wealthy – including the financiers whose toxic speculations caused the crash – are largely exempt from the narrow public conversation about social justice. As the recession closes its jaws on Britain, both sexes are losing out, in different ways and for different reasons.

We all live together, and we all have a stake in protecting each other from further economic hardship, and in these circumstances playing on latent public mistrust of the opposite sex is breathtakingly unhelpful.

The "mancession" debate is entirely lacking in the sense of political totality that is desperately needed if the left is to build a coherent resistance to these cuts.

I expect, in ten years or so, after a double-dip recession has brutalised this country even further, after the lost generation has been lost for good and the welfare state has been throttled into redundancy, someone in an office somewhere will be able to sit down with a calculator and work out once and for all who had it worse: men or women.

But social justice is far more than a giant balance sheet with men on one side and women on the other, and this time the pundits have it dangerously wrong. This is not a gender war. This is class war.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.