Women are disproportionately affected by squeezed state provision. Photo: Getty
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Austerity is a feminist issue – women will be hit twice as hard as men by cuts

The latest Budget measures give a painful insight into the relationship between the UK’s austerity experiment and women.

Buried amid coverage of last week’s Budget was a telling statistic: women will be hit twice as hard as men by Osborne’s chosen measures. According to House of Commons research commissioned by Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper, direct taxes and social security cuts will take £9.6bn net a year from families – £7bn of which is from women.

The media largely had more important things to focus on. The Sun, for one, was busy superimposing George Osborne’s head onto a six-pack.

From the coalition to their first majority Budget, the Conservatives have orchestrated policies that have wildly, disproportionately hit women: from cuts to tax credits to caps on and cuts to benefits, and pay cuts in real terms. Scan most coverage – either given to feminist campaigns or economic analysis of the cuts – and we would hardly know it.  

But to discuss austerity with "gender blindness" is to ignore what is actually happening. Mothers skipping meals to feed their kids. Women queuing at food banks for sanitary towels. Carers – 72 per cent of whom (receiving Carer’s Allowance) are women – struggling to look after disabled family in poverty.

We are witnessing an economic and cultural assault on women.

As the Fawcett Society put it to me – before we even include the latest round of measures – 85 per cent of all the cuts have been at the expense of women, according to calculations by the House of Commons Library.

“Whilst women are more dependent on public spending than men and would therefore be more sensitive to cuts regardless, the strategy chosen by the government has also hit services women are particularly reliant on,” they added.

Social care has already been cut by 23.4 per cent over the past five years, according to the Women’s Budget Group. Social housing by 33.8 per cent. Early years education and childcare has been cut by 19 per cent. There is a reason this slicing of local government services have been dubbed a "death by a thousand cuts".

Women, similarly to disabled people – many of whom, as obvious as it is to state, will also be women – tend to be reliant on multiple public services. They are also primary caregivers and often the lowest earners.

It would not take advanced thinking to grasp that taking a hatchet to state support would disproportionately hurt women. Indeed, as recently as May, a group of 11 women’s rights charities, including Women’s Aid, the Fawcett Society, and Rape Crisis, were warning that very thing.

If you impose an ideological project to simultaneously cut public services and benefits, then it is women – particularly marginalised women, such as single mothers or those in poverty (again, not typically binary groups) – who will find their living conditions worsening.

Listen to the recent rhetoric around benefits and you would be forgiven for thinking this was intentional. The recession provided not only a long-term economic excuse to dismantle state support but, increasingly, a moral one. Look close enough and this is often framed in a gendered way. Women are not only now part of "dependency culture" but, as mothers of future "welfare dependents", are reproducers of it. Less beautiful family, more irresponsible leaches. As Dawn Foster put it in a discussion on working class feminism: the middle class “have children”, whereas the working class “breed”.

The new Budget brought in two cuts that further this agenda: the benefit cap, which cut the amount in benefits families can receive further to £20,000 (£23,000 in Greater London); and the limiting of child tax credits to two children (for those born after April 2017). Both share a message for women who have the audacity to have multiple children while being working class.

It's telling that, in an anti-benefit climate so hysterical the Labour party is currently considering abstaining over the Welfare Bill rather than voting against it, Osborne is barely trying to hide this. As he announced the latest cuts, the Chancellor knew he could be explicit: the social security system “should not support lifestyles and rents that are not available to the taxpayers who pay for that system”.

The punishment for the "lifestyle choice" of structural inequality – a gendered and class-based pay gap, high-cost childcare, on top of high rents – is watching your children be pushed into poverty.

It gives some insight into where we currently are that the Department for Work and Pensions will develop "protections" for women applying for tax credits who "have a third child as a result of rape". It is unclear what evidence a rape victim will have to provide the government to receive her benefits.

Osborne is actually set to claim this week that women are key winners from his choices. Specifically, that they will make up two-thirds of those who will benefit from the new so-called national living wage, according to Treasury analysis. That shows quite some nerve considering these calculations don’t take into account the money he’ll remove from the same women through cutting tax credits.

In fact, a low-earning single parent – usually women – working 20 hours a week at £9.35 an hour to support one child will be £1,000 a year worse off by the end of this Parliament, the Resolution Foundation calculated last week.

These latest austerity measures highlight the class dimension of a long-standing wider feminist concern: "benefit claimant mothers" can be vilified while the same government makes it harder for women to stay in or find work.

As Giselle Cory, senior research and policy analyst at IPPR, pointed out on the Staggers, the latest Budget does a good job of exacerbating the gender inequality set out in the DWP’s flagship benefit system, Universal Credit: poor incentives for the lowest earner in a couple – namely, low-income women – to go out to work.

It’s being made no easier for single parents (again, usually women). Under Universal Credit, parents – including lone ones – will be required to return to work when their child turns three and "prepare for work" by training or having interviews when their youngest turns two.

It says something of the "no win" position in which the Conservatives are putting low-income mothers that, as they are being pushed into work, the government is excluding them from the latest extension of free childcare (only three and four year olds in "working families" – not jobseekers – will be eligible).

It would be easy to feel a sense of defeatism at this point. But women – from Focus E15, the young mothers who occupied an empty block of council houses in Newham, east London for the right to social housing, to carers protesting disability cuts – are at the centre of the fight back.

Just as economic analysis has routinely shut out female experiences, a cultural version of "woman problems" – from body image to representation – is often pushed to the forefront as our economic inequality is sidelined. But the latest Budget confirms what the past five years has been quietly screaming. Austerity is a feminist issue.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.