David Cameron and George Osborne attend the UK-India Business meeting in New Delhi on July 29, 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron and Osborne can’t avoid the truth that their policies have hit women hardest

The Tories’ tax and benefit changes have cost women four times as much as men – little wonder when they are so absent from the top table.

They say a picture tells a thousand words. And the image last month of David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions - trying to deny his government was out of touch while surrounded by an all-male frontbench - said it all. The lack of women at the top of the government goes to the heart of a deeper problem. As we celebrate International Women's Day, it's worth assessing the impact on women of the decisions this government has taken over the last four years.

And nowhere is this starker than in the choices the Chancellor has made. The latest analysis by the House of Commons Library shows that since 2010 George Osborne's Budgets and Spending Reviews have hit women four times harder than men. Childcare support has been cut back, children's centres closed and even maternity pay has been cut in real terms. Yet at the same time this government has given a £3bn tax cut to the top one per cent of earners - 85 per cent of whom are men.

It's little wonder the government has made such unfair choices when women are so absent from the top table. There are no women sitting on the key committees making decisions on public spending, banking reform or infrastructure investment - and only one on the Economic Affairs Committee. George Osborne has not appointed a single woman to the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, which is why there have been no women members of the MPC since June 2010. This is the first time there have been no women on the committee that sets interest rates since 1997 - something which Ed Balls has said he is determined to put right if Labour wins the next election.

Take the Conservative Party's flagship tax policy - the married couple's tax allowance. David Cameron uses it as a fig-leaf to claim his government is helping families - despite the huge hit to household budgets he has delivered. But not only is it a policy which doesn't help millions who are widowed, separated or divorced, it doesn't even help two-thirds of married couples. Only one in six families with children will be helped. And startling figures from HM Revenue and Customs show that most of the gain - 84 per cent - actually goes to men rather than women.

Women are being hit hard by the cost-of-living crisis. As my colleague Gloria de Piero has shown today, women are over £26 a week worse off in real terms since 2010. After significant progress under Labour, when the gender pay gap fell by over 7 per cent, the pay gap between men and women is now increasing again. At the same time, the cost of childcare places has risen by an average 30 per cent on David Cameron's watch - five times faster than pay. The truth is that for women across the country this is no recovery at all.

So we need action in this month's Budget to tackle the cost-of-living crisis and earn our way to higher living standards for all, not just a few. Labour will help make work pay for women and their families by strengthening the minimum wage, incentivising employers to pay the living wage and tackling the abuse of zero-hours contracts. We'll help mums and dads balance work and family life by expanding free childcare for working parents of three and four year olds and guaranteeing before and after-school care for primary school children. And we'll balance the books in a fairer way by reversing this government's £3bn tax cut for the top one per cent of earners.

George Osborne's Budget is one of his final opportunities to turn the tide on this government's failure towards women. But after their woeful record of the last four years, I'm not holding my breath.

Catherine McKinnell is shadow economic secretary to the Treasury and MP for Newcastle upon Tyne

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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