Improving motherhood means reducing inequality, not just poverty

The UK is a worse country in which to be a mother than many poorer nations, according to Save the Children.

Yesterday’s papers painted a gloomy picture for mums in the UK. According to research by Save the Children, the UK is only the 23rd best country to be a mother, behind Portugal, Greece and a number of other countries suffering economic torpor. If we are to have any chance of improving the lives of mothers in the UK it is crucial to look at the measurements used to determine a mother’s wellbeing, and the drivers behind these?  

The report, which looks at 176 countries, assesses mothers' wellbeing against five indicators: lifetime risk of maternal death, under-five mortality rate, expected number of years of formal schooling, gross national income per capita and the participation of women in national government. 

For those at the bottom of the index it delivers a harrowing account of motherhood in developing countries.  One of the report’s main findings is that “Babies born to mothers living in the greatest poverty face the greatest challenges to survival.” With the bottom 10 countries on the index all residing in sub-Saharan Africa, an area of the world blighted by poverty and poor investment in education and health services, this seems an astute observation. Poverty clearly impacts significantly on the wellbeing of mothers and babies across the globe.

But is poverty the only indicator of wellbeing for mothers? If this is the case, presumably the richest nations are also the best countries to be a mother. Not exactly. The US, the world’s wealthiest nation, is only 30th on the list – below Lithuania and Belarus. By most measures Luxembourg and Qatar are in the top three countries for GDP per capita, but they are just 29th and 58th respectively on the index.

The top spot is instead reserved for Finland, the world’s 41st richest nation. If wealth alone cannot explain positive outcomes for mothers, we must look at other reasons. We know that more unequal countries in the developed world have higher rates of infant mortality, lower scores for child wellbeing and poorer educational performances for children than more equal countries. The top three countries (Finland, Sweden and Norway) on the Mother’s Index are also all in the top 7 OECD countries for income distribution equality.

Reducing poverty is an important measure in lifting the living standards of women and children in the poorest countries. But for those in the richest countries, we must look to reduce income inequality, in addition to raising the incomes of the poorest, to provide better outcomes for all mothers. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.