Mother and child: Catherine Atkinson, Labour PPC for the Erewash speaks at the Labour Party Conference, 24 September. Photo: Getty
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How do we get questions of care up the political agenda, when carers are too knackered to complain?

The toll exerted by caring – and how little a capitalist society values such a vital activity – should be one of the key issues for feminism. 

Sometimes a sentence has to leave your mouth before you realise how true it is. The scene: a cramped seminar room in Manchester, where I was talking at a Labour Women’s Network event on participation in public life. We’d heard from at least a dozen female councillors about some of the challenges they faced, from flagrant sexism to subtle assumptions about their priorities and abilities. But one contribution stood out: a single mum who had become a councillor not long before. “Without my mum – and planning everything months in advance – I’d never cope,” she told me.

I sympathised, and found myself saying: “Of course, if I had kids, I wouldn’t be here.” It hit me with the force that only something truly obvious, something crushingly banal, can do. I can swan off to Television Centre on Sundays to give the hungover nation the dubious benefit of my wisdom because I don’t have a second job as a carer. I can say yes to that panel discussion or freelance piece because I arrive home from work and don’t immediately plunge into a maelstrom of story, bath and bedtime.

You might think it’s pretty embarrassing that this hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind before. I certainly do – it’s only now, past 30, staring into the nappy-filled abyss, that I have truly accepted into my heart that the oppression of women is based on the fact that they have the babies. Eliminate all the gropers, banish the pink plastic tat that passes for girls’ toys to the back of the cupboard, fill our screens with heroines . . . and none of this will solve the problem that bums need to be wiped, and it’s mostly women who do the wiping.

The toll exerted by caring – and how little a capitalist society values such a vital activity – should be one of the key issues for feminism. We know that caring responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, and not only when it comes to looking after children: three-quarters of those claiming a carer’s allowance (meaning they care 35-plus hours a week) are female. But the effect on men is not negligible: although they are less likely to have to give up work to do so, one in six men aged 50 to 64 is now a carer. (Among female baby boomers, it’s one in four.)

The vast amount of unpaid labour involved in raising children was a critical issue during the Second Wave of feminism – the wave whose activists many of today’s young radicals now deride as hopelessly bourgeois and dilettante. They wanted wages for housework, too, because women’s entry into the job market was restricted by all the unpaid work they were already doing at home. The Fourth (or is it Fifth?) Wave just isn’t that bolshie: we’ve swallowed the line that it’s your choice to have children, and therefore every negative consequence is your own fault, love.

Then again, maybe making this a “women’s issue” isn’t the right way to get it taken seriously. In a recent debate about the future of feminism in the New Republic – a kind of American sister magazine to the NS – its senior editor Judith Shulevitz argued that the whole movement needed a rebrand as “caregiverism”. We will not achieve the social and economic equality of the sexes “just by telling girls they, too, can be ambitious”, she said. “Limiting work hours used to be one of the great causes of the labour movement.” I have particular sympathy with my American sisters in this: their country has no requirement for all employers to offer paid maternity leave; a quarter of all workers don’t get any paid holiday time, either.

How do we drive the issue of care to the top of the political agenda? Here’s the rub: the people most likely to speak eloquently about it are just too bloody busy to take part in public life. On 30 September, I spoke to Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Carlisle, a 42-year-old single mother called Lee Sherriff. Fighting a Conservative candidate with a majority of 853, she is likely to end up in parliament next year – even though, as a former shopworker, she always thought that “people like me don’t do this”.

Sherriff joined the Labour Party in May 2010, after a visit to the gym where she got into an argument with two men who supported the Conservatives. “I was like, ‘Are you mad?’ I argued with them for an hour, on the cross-trainer, going faster and faster. I thought: This is it, I have to do something . . . I couldn’t shout at the TV any more.” Like the councillor in Manchester, Sherriff manages with the help of her mum – and by emailing at 2am and sleeping only five hours a night. (In a rare display of tact, I don’t say: “Ooh, like Maggie!”)

The issue that brought Sherriff into politics was tax credits, introduced by Labour between 1999 and 2003. “When my marriage ended, it was a destructive thing for my kids, their dad going. But I could continue working. It just meant I knew that me and my kids wouldn’t live in poverty, that we could survive.” Because she could afford childcare, she could stay in work, and because she had an income, she managed to buy out her ex-husband’s share of the family home: “My kids didn’t have to leave the only house they’ve ever known.” And because the benefit was universal, Sherriff did not feel marked out and treated like a child (one of the unintended consequences of free school meals, and now Iain Duncan Smith’s wheeze of giving benefit claimants pre-paid cards). “It gave me dignity,” she says. “There’s stigma coming back about single mums – but you were getting the same as your neighbours who were a couple.”

For me, this is politics. Don’t you find it more engaging than macho willy-waving over deficit reduction targets or who landed the most sizzling zingers at Prime Minister’s Questions? We need to hear more from carers, and we need policies that give them a chance to speak and be heard. As Lee Sherriff put it to me: “Politics shouldn’t be about you, it should be with you.”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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