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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage